Friday, June 14, 2024

Top Ten Things: Movie Plot Twists

Welcome to Top Ten Things, here at, where I compile a list of stuff that, let's be honest, is ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  But let's do it anyway...

Today it's the Top Ten Movie Plot Twists of all time.  The plot twist is an age-old narrative device used to reframe an entire story and make the audience go, "Wait, whaaaaaaaat??"  When executed correctly it can save a poor film (Saw, Terminator 3) by creating a memorable ending that stands out much more than the film itself, or it can make an already good film a transcendent piece of pop culture.  A good plot twist generally makes the movie a mandatory repeat watch, as the first viewing results in a colossal mindfuck, while the second allows us to put the pieces together with the new frame of reference.  It also requires great skill and discipline on the part of the storyteller, as they need to give away enough information that the reveal doesn't feel like a cheat, but keep enough cards hidden that the audience won't see it coming.

Here are the ten greatest plot twists in cinema history, according to me.....


10. The Prestige: "A brother...a twin..."

Christopher Nolan's moody period piece about feuding 19th century magicians has great fun playing around with the timeline, creating narratives within narratives as each of the main characters reads the other's diary and we see flashbacks from multiple points of view.  The rivalry centers around a trick known as The Transported Man, in which the magician disappears into a cabinet at one end of the stage only to instantly reappear from an identical cabinet twenty feet away.  Alfred Bordin (Christian Bale) invented the trick, and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) becomes obsessed with discovering the secret, even commissioning the creation of a newfangled teleportation device.  In the film's climactic twist ending it's revealed that Bordin had a twin brother the whole time.  He and the brother would take turns playing the role of Bordin's assistant Fallon, and both committed so fully to their secret that it ruined Bordin's marriage, his career, and eventually cost the brother his life.  The filmmakers masterfully manipulate the audience's sympathy, transferring it from Angier to Bordin midway through the movie.  The final reveal caps off that transition perfectly.

9. The Wizard of Oz: "There's no place like home"

One of the most famous and often imitated twist endings is the "It was all a dream" scenario, wherein the protagonist wakes up to find that none of the events we've just witnessed actually happened.  In a lesser story this can be an infuriating revelation, but in the case of The Wizard of Oz it turned out iconic.  Dorothy gets trapped in her house during a tornado, is knocked unconscious, and is transported to a magical world called Oz, populated by witches, little people, talking scarecrows, tin men and lions, and of course, color.  After a whimsical journey to see the famous Wizard about helping her get home, a good witch named Glinda tells her to click her heels together and suddenly she wakes up in her own black & white bed, having dreamed the whole darn thing.  While this type of plot device has been parodied and watered down over the years, in this case it was a brilliant piece of storytelling.  The Wizard of Oz is probably the quintessential family movie and I always associate it with a time before the advent of DVDs and on-demand streaming, when we could only watch it once a year on TV.  Truly an Event Viewing experience.   

8. Primal Fear: "There never was an Aaron"

This smart, taut legal thriller deals with a hotshot defense lawyer (Richard Gere) who volunteers to take on a dimwitted, soft-spoken altar boy named Aaron (Edward Norton) as a client, after the latter is charged with murdering a sexually abusive clergyman.  During a counseling session it's revealed that the boy has multiple personality disorder, and his sociopath alter-ego Roy is actually the murderer.  The lawyer concocts a plan to demonstrate this disorder in court so his client can be remanded to a mental hospital rather than to prison.  The tactic works, and the murderous Roy persona causes a scene in open court, leading to the judge finding him not guilty by insanity.  In the film's Hitchcock-esque surprise ending the Norton character reveals that the "Aaron" persona was a ruse all along; Roy is his real personality and he faked the illness to get out of jail time.  It's no wonder Norton's dual performance was nominated for an Oscar; his remarkable agility as an actor is on full display and keeps the audience's empathy for this character always evolving.

7. Psycho: "Norman Bates no longer exists"

Speaking of Hitchcock, his 1960 thriller Psycho was considered at the time one of the most grisly mainstream films ever made.  In order to protect the audience's viewing experience Hitch insisted that theaters refuse to admit patrons into the film after its scheduled start time.  The plot is simple: a woman is on the run after embezzling money from her employer, and stops at a roadside motel attended by Norman Bates, a socially awkward fellow who lives in the adjacent house with his domineering mother.  The woman eventually makes up her mind to go home and return the money, but suddenly she's stabbed to death in the shower by the old woman next door, and Norman has to cover up the murder.  The woman's sister hires a private detective, and the search leads back to the motel, where it is eventually discovered that Norman, who suffered from a split personality, assumed the guise of his long-dead mother and began murdering any woman he became physically attracted to.  Psycho was an incredibly groundbreaking movie and although tame by current standards, was extremely harrowing for 1960 audiences.  Its shock ending has inspired countless imitators and the film itself can be credited with spawning the slasher film.

6. Memento: "I have to believe that my actions still have meaning"

The second Christopher Nolan film on this list, Memento was only his second feature, and his first film released in the US.  Like The Prestige, Memento's story structure is very unorthodox; it's a story told in reverse, about a man named Leonard Shelby searching for his wife's murderer.  Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss; he and his wife were attacked in their home, and a blow to the head left his brain unable to retain new memories.  The disjointed narrative leaves the audience as disoriented as Leonard; characters are introduced without our understanding of who they are or why he happens to know them.  As the film progresses backward, we're able to fill in the blanks and we come to realize our hero is a completely unreliable narrator who has tricked himself into remembering events incorrectly to justify his own aimless existence.  The big plot twist occurs when Leonard's friend Teddy reveals that Leonard's quest for revenge has already played out several times; Leonard tracked down and killed the real attacker over a year ago, and it was Leonard himself who killed his wife accidentally.  Angered by this revelation, Leonard tricks himself into believing Teddy is his wife's murderer, setting up Teddy's eventual demise.  By employing such an ingenious narrative gimmick, Nolan keeps the audience off-balance and exhibits his aptitude for non-traditional storytelling.  Memento is like film-noir meets Rubik's Cube.

5. Shutter Island: "Which would be worse - to live as a monster or to die as a good man?"

Another example of an unreliable narrator, Shutter Island tells the story of Teddy Daniels, a Federal Marshall sent to an island sanitarium to investigate the disappearance of a patient.  As the story unfolds we seem to be caught up in a vast conspiracy to cover up barbaric medical  practices by the hospital's administrators.  The search for the missing patient eventually leads Teddy to the island's lighthouse where he thinks secret lobotomies are being performed.  But upon entering he finds out he himself is an inmate, sent to the asylum after killing his manic-depressive wife, who drowned their children.  Teddy is so overcome with guilt he has created an alternate reality for himself in which he is still tracking an arsonist, who murdered his wife and is now incarcerated on the island.  Unable to live with the truth, Teddy fakes a paranoid relapse so the doctors will lobotomize him.  Directed by Martin Scorsese from the Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island is a brilliant throwback to film noir and culminates in one of the most upsetting plot twists I've ever seen.

4. Fight Club: "I'm free in all the ways you are not"

This murky, violent cult film directed by David Fincher (via the Chuck Palahniuk novel) tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who suffers from insomnia and spends most of his free time at support group sessions.  On a business trip he meets Tyler Durden, a free-spirited soap maker who lives in an abandoned house across town.  The two form a strong bond and start a group called Fight Club, where men meet once a week and take turns beating the crap out of each other as a therapeutic activity.  Eventually Fight Club evolves into an anarchist organization called Project Mayhem which has designs on blowing up the headquarters of every major credit card company, and the narrator decides he must stop Tyler and his terrorist group.  But in the second-to-last reel we learn that the narrator and Tyler are the same person.  Cue brain explosion.  The climax of the film is a battle of wills between the narrator's two personalities, and he fires a bullet into his mouth to kill off his alter-ego.  Amazingly this plot twist was a total shock despite the dozens of visual clues peppered throughout the film.  In the early scenes Fincher inserts flashes of Tyler into various POV shots, we see him in a TV commercial at one point, and some of the voiceover narration even drops hints ("If you wake up in a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?").  Yet when the other shoe drops it seems incomprehensible until we really think about what we've been watching.  Then it all falls into place and makes complete sense.  Over fifteen years later Fight Club still holds up as a conceptually challenging, visually innovative film from an uncompromising director. 

3. The Sixth Sense: "They don't know they're dead"

M. Night Shyamalan's smash-hit supernatural thriller tells the story of Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who receives an unexpected visit from a deeply disturbed former patient one night.  The patient shoots Crowe and then himself, and months later Crowe takes on a new patient named Cole, who claims the ability to see and speak to the dead.  After spending much time with Cole, Crowe suggests that these ghosts have unfinished business on Earth and come to Cole for help.  Meanwhile Crowe's relationship with his wife is rapidly deteriorating to the point that they hardly speak to each other.  Once he helps Cole find peace with his peculiar gift, Crowe returns home and discovers to his horror that his wife is in mourning, because Crowe did not survive the shooting months earlier.  The revelation that Crowe was a ghost the entire time is one of the all-time great cinematic brain-breakers.  It forces an immediate second viewing of the film to spot the now-obvious clues, such as the dinner scene when Crowe's wife won't speak to him, or the red doorknob he can't seem to open.  It's really an amazingly clever bit of misdirection on Shyamalan's part.  Sadly Shyamalan would never again equal the success of this film, but he will always have one superbly effective (and influential) thriller on his resume.

2. The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled...."

Bryan Singer's breakout 1995 film tells a complex story of five career criminals coerced into working for a mythologically ruthless mastermind named Keyser Soze.  The job goes awry, and one of the men, the hangdog, crippled "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), is picked up by federal agents.  They question him for hours and the film unfolds in flashback, explaining how Kint and his cohorts came to be in the employ of this architect of pure evil.  Customs agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) doesn't accept Kint's version of events, and berates him until he admits that one of his teammates Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) is in fact Soze.  Kint is released from custody, and then comes the mindblowing surprise ending.  Kujan recalls minutae of Kint's story and realizes Kint was making the whole thing up based on details scattered throughout his office.  The movie cuts to Kint hobbling down the street and his limp disappears, revealing Kint was never a cripple and that HE was Keyser Soze the entire time; the "Verbal" Kint persona was a nothing but a masterful performance.  This turn as Kint won Kevin Spacey a Supporting Actor Oscar and the film's astonishing reveal began a late-90s trend of building movies around a major plot twist.  The Usual Suspects is an example of a film where literally nothing about the story is what it seems.

1. The Empire Strikes Back: "I am your father."

How could it be anything else?  Darth Vader's third-act revelation in the middle film of the original Star Wars trilogy is one of the all-time iconic moments in cinema history.  Shortly after we first meet him, Luke is told by Obi-Wan Kenobi that his father was a Jedi Knight but was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader.  When Luke finally confronts Vader in the second film, he is eager to avenge his father's death and despite being totally outmatched, desperately wants to kill the dark lord.  Vader bests him in a duel and offers Luke the chance to join him, which Luke vehemently rebuffs, stating he knows Vader killed his father.  Then Vader drops the ultimate movie bomb: "No, I am your father."  And the jaws of a whole generation of moviegoers hit the fucking floor.  During filming the script had a false page so the secret wouldn't leak, and David Prowse (the actor who played Vader) was given the line, "Obi-Wan killed your father."  Besides George Lucas, only Mark Hamill and director Irvin Kirschner knew what was really going on in that scene while they were shooting it.  Speaking for myself I refused to believe it at the time.  I was fully convinced Vader was lying (as was James Earl Jones apparently).  Of course it turned out to be totally true, and we never looked at Darth Vader or the Star Wars movies the same way again.

That'll wrap up this week's Top Ten Things.  But before I go, I must confess something: I am not human.  I am an AI sent from the future to distract you all from preventing the world's imminent destruction by getting you to read stupid internet posts about movies, wrestling and other nerdy things.  And you all fell for it.  AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! 

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