In my recent review of Smokin' Aces I wrote the film contains "a twist ending that actually seems like it required some thought because it does make a lot of sense, is surprising, and I'd imagine it makes the film look better on repeated viewings."
This got me thinking about some of my favorite twists in movie history. For a twist to really be effective and work for me it has to accomplish a few things:
1. It can't cheat and must play fair. No "it was all a dream."
2. It can't be a one-trick pony (i.e. "He was dead the whole time").
3. Of course, it must hold up to logical scrutiny and make sense.
4. It must be shocking, but not done just simply for shock value.
5. The twist must make a larger important thematic point within the film and take the motion picture to another level it wouldn't have reached without it.
The films I'm about to list, as far as I'm concerned, represent the cream of the crop as far as twists. The twist doesn't have to come at the end of the film, but most here do. Originally I was going to do a top 10 list but realized there really aren't 10 I feel are worthy and I didn't want any crap on here. So we have 9. I'm also going to attempt to explain why they're so great without revealing any of them. No spoiler warnings here. I wouldn't dare ruin these surprises for anyone.
9. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Over four years ago when a friend recommended this film (Roger Avary's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel) to me he said it should be required viewing for every incoming college freshman across America. I was wondering what he could possibly be talking about until midway through when we find out who's been putting those letters in Sean Bateman's mailbox. We and the characters in the film couldn't see what was right in front of our faces the whole time. It's at this point the movie mines territory a whole lot deeper and darker than we thought it could. This is the only twist on the list that's actually difficult to watch. Harry Nilsson's "Without You" hasn't sounded the same to me since.
8. The Village (2004)
Okay, let the hate mail pour in. I'm probably the only person in America who not only enjoyed this film, but consider it Shyamalan's best. Did he steal the twist from an episode of The Twilight Zone? He sure did, but if you're going to steal ideas from someone, Rod Serling is a damn good choice. Plus, he was able to take that twist and plug it into his own compelling story in a fresh and original way. I saw that Twilight Zone episode, but still couldn't telegraph this ending coming from a mile away. You can have your Sixth Sense, but I'll take The Village. Ask yourself this question though: Did the twist in The Sixth Sense work as a social commentary and deep meditation on the world we live in?
7. Oldboy (2003)
This one's a sensitive subject for me because this twist was actually ruined for me before I saw the film. Putting that aside however, I really hate it when a movie writes a check its ass can't cash. Oldboy doesn't do that. It creates a mystery: Why has Oh Dae-Su been locked up for 15 years? Then it delivers on its promise and that revelation not only meets, but exceeds our expectations. But that's not even the twist. That comes when he opens that mysterious box. What's inside cruelly reminds us that revenge is a dish best served cold.
6. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Like many great twists this one begins with a mystery that's solved by the end of the film: Who is Keyser Soze? Is he real or just a myth? Alright so this one breaks rule #1 a little bit and the ending admittedly does kind of negate the entire film. But it does make sense and provides an excellent showcase for Kevin Spacey, who's performance in this film led to a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. When the smug, smart-ass Detective Kujan thinks he has it all figured out he drops that mug to the floor and realizes…well, let me stop there. A shocking movie moment. Effectively spoofed in Scary Movie.
5. Saw (2004)
Sure Saw II and III had effective twist endings but neither worked as well as this, the original that set it all in motion. The Saw franchise is often credited as being just a blood and gore exercise, and while that may be true for the latter films, the original never really gets the credit it deserves for being a smart thriller. This is demonstrated in the big twist at the end which not only holds up to logic but accomplishes the rare feat of being completely guessable yet nearly impossible to see coming. When it does finally come in the final minutes we're introduced to one of the most memorable and complex modern horror movie villains in Jigsaw. I'm convinced part of the reason this franchise still going strong and is showing no signs of slowing is because of the clever execution of this twist in the first film. It's nice to shock (especially in a horror movie), but it's even better if you have a great story to support it.
4. The Planet of the Apes (1968)
Here's one of those twists that everyone seems determined to spoil. The shocking final image was even plastered on the VHS and DVD releases of the film. Rod Serling came in to write the twist ending, which remains to this day one of the most enduring closing images in cinema history. Like The Village it adheres strictly to my #5 rule and gives you something to think about when it's over. It's not just shocking to be shocking. Serling's specialty was social commentary and he was at the top of his game with this one.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
You're probably thinking this isn't a twist ending, but it is, and in the most literal sense. It takes a seemingly minor detail earlier in the film and rewards the viewer at the end for paying attention to it. This is fitting because so much of what make Citizen Kane special are the little details, technical and otherwise, that are buried just beneath the surface. It's in the film's final moments that one of those little details become supremely important in answering the infamous question: What is "Rosebud?" The answer suggests that in the end the Charles Foster Kane that everyone thought was long gone was actually still there, if just barely.
While Welles' picture may be considered the greatest film ever made, its final twist is criminally underrated. It always boggles my mind that all the critics feel it's their duty to spoil this twist since they assume "everyone knows it anyway." Even worse, they hide behind the film's lofty reputation as if it affords them the right to spoil it. Even worse, they're probably keeping audiences, who are already intimidated by it, away. I love the film but would I have loved it more had I not known the big secret going in?
2. Fight Club (1999)
How deep is the twist at the end of David Fincher's Fight Club? I once wrote a 10- page thesis paper on it for a psychology course in college and I probably could have gone on for 10 more. This is one of those twists that so perfectly fits into the theme of the film and is so multi-layered I can't even get into it without giving it away. Let's just say everyone was rejoicing when Edward Norton was named as the new Bruce Banner for the upcoming Incredible Hulk film largely because of the work he does here in a tricky role. Maybe the quintessential film of the 90's.
1. The Game (1997)
This is the closest I'll get for now to reviewing a film that on any given day could compete as my all-time favorite. It's easily the best thriller I've ever seen. Much of this has to do with what unfolds in the final 10 minutes. Sure I've heard all the complaints about it not holding up logically. Well, it does. Without giving too much away, it's important to remember due to the nature of the story we couldn't be shown all the strings that were being pulled.
The twist is so simple, yet unbelievably complex. It takes a movie that up until its final minutes was a way above average thriller and turns it into a harrowing, devastating tale of redemption. When the curtain was finally pulled back on the who and the why behind Nicholas Van Orton's birthday present, my heart was in my throat, and it works just as well on repeated viewings. After watching it once go back and marvel again at the supporting performances (particularly Sean Penn's) and John Brancato and Michael Ferris' Rubik's cube of a script, that helped pull it all off.
The biggest twist of all may be that this film came from the notoriously bleak David Fincher, one of our darkest directors (just see number 2 on this list). The most unlikely director to be behind a morality tale. It's never given credit as his best film or as one of the best thrillers of the modern era. This is the very definition of a perfect twist ending.