There is a certain segment of the filmgoing population, and even a camp within the film critics themselves, who are seemingly happy to accept any and all possible outcomes from a movie. It presents itself as a soul-deadening form of apathy—an apparent lack of value placed on whether an ending makes sense on a fundamental level. In short: There are all too many viewers in any given audience who seemingly can’t discern the difference between a film “twist” and a film lie.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain what I mean by both of those terms.
A true “twist,” typically of the third-act variety, presents itself as the payoff to a filmmaking mystery, or as a revelation that changes our basic understanding of everything that has come before. In ancient Greek, this concept was defined as anagnorisis, “the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation.” These are storytelling devices literally thousands of years old that you’re so often seeing trampled in modern cinema, because the key element of the twist, of the anagnorisis moment, is that it needs to be fair to the audience by reflecting the truth of what they’ve already seen and perceived on the screen. In short: If there’s no way to suspect or at least conceive of a twist ending in advance, then it’s more or less impossible for it to be satisfying.
This is widely misunderstood by the general filmgoing audience, who all too often associate the quality of a twist ending with whether or not it was “unexpected.” That quality is missing the point entirely, as providing an unexpected ending that makes no sense is incredibly easy to do. If simply being unexpected was the mark of a great twist ending, then the best film would be a two-hour romantic dramedy where the female lead suddenly pulls off a rubber mask in the last five minutes to reveal that she’s been a bug-eyed alien the entire time. Would that be a surprising bit of shock value? You’re damn right it would be, but it would also be a betrayal of all the time and effort the viewer has invested in believing what turned out to simply be a lie.
A twist becomes a lie, then, when the film doesn’t bother to provide its audience with the necessary tools to form a sensible theory in advance, or when the reveal completely collapses under the assembled weight of its own coincidences, improbabilities or outright contradictions of reality. They’re frustrating to us because they represent collapses in a movie’s internal logic, or plot holes that screenwriters or directors simply shrugged at and assumed no one would notice. If the ideal outcome of any twist is for the audience to say “Of course! How could I have missed that?”, the outcome of the twists in the films below should be viewers shaking their heads and asking “Can you believe this bullshit?”
Here, then, are five films that make the jump from twist to lie, in chronological order.
1. Boxing Helena, 1993
This strange little Sundance “mystery thriller with horror elements” arrived at the height of the post-Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct craze for erotic thrillers, during a time when Hollywood thought that just about any film could be successful as a soapy-looking drama with plenty of sex and nudity. It’s a truly weird concept: A surgeon obsesses over a beautiful woman named Helena, who then just so happens to be involved in a life-threatening hit-and-run accident in front of his home. Naturally, being deeply in love, he does what any of us would do: Abducts the injured woman and performs surgeries on her in his home rather than calling the hospital. As he nurses her back to health, Misery-style, he eventually has to amputate her legs and then her arms to get her to stop resisting his advances. So you’re literally left with a living torso of a woman that this insane surgeon is attempting to wine and dine.
Boxing Helena revels in what is probably the most cliche twist structure in history—the infamous “it was all a dream!”—and manages to do it more dishonestly and pointlessly than any other film I’ve ever seen. After spending nearly two hours with these characters, and after watching countless attempts by the surgeon to woo Helena and inflict more abuse on her, a deus ex machina savior arrives for her in the form of a friend and colleague played by Bill Paxton with outrageous hair. He fights the surgeon, and in the struggle, the protagonist/antagonist is poetically killed by a falling statue.
...smash cut to the surgeon waking up at the hospital! Turns out that instead of taking Helena into his home and operating on her, the surgeon simply took her to the hospital—you know, like a normal person. And that’s it. That’s the whole twist. Helena is fine, the surgeon is creeped out by his weird dream, and the audience is devastated by the knowledge that absolutely nothing they saw for the last 100-plus minutes meant a goddamn thing. You’re left with like 5 nondescript minutes of reality that actually occurred, and one can’t help but ask “why?” What’s the point of retconning everything at the last minute and obliterating the integrity of the story for no gain? All it succeeds in doing is pointing a metaphorical finger at the audience and saying “gotcha.”
2. The Game, 1997
The Game is like if you gathered up every rejected twist in every single thriller from 1985-2000 and then stitched them together into a Frankensteinian golem of overwrought, unbelievable filmmaking. Such a creature would no doubt be as confused as the audience watching this film, and I can’t help but think that it would also beg for death, but I digress.
Unlike most of these films, The Game was actually well received by audiences and even by most critics, who seemed willing to simply check their brains at the door for a pulpy story that never really purports to make sense. But a film still needs some kind of internal logic, and The Game’s story requires such massive leaps of faith as to become completely farcical. It tells the story of an investment banker played by Michael Douglas who signs up for a psychological game for his 48th birthday, which quickly spirals completely out of control. The twists fly fast and furious—everything you learn is immediately upended and rendered moot by the next big revelation, 10 minutes later. Every single character Douglas meets, from family members to random people passing by on the street, can safely be assumed to be involved in the massive conspiracy revolving entirely around teaching him to enjoy his life. That’s why this massive undertaking goes down, by the way—to stop Michael Douglas from being a grumpy sad sack.
The twists: It’s impossible to mention just one, but the final reveal is that yes, the game has essentially been a harmless birthday prank all along. It lies to the audience because given the information we’re presented with, it’s absurd to conclude that this organization could possibly pull off such an intricate scheme that is so deeply ingrained in the life of this man. There are literally thousands of ways for everything to be unraveled, and so many opportunities for people—including innocent bystanders—to be hurt or even killed by Michael Douglas’ character while in the course of believing that he’s being pursued by an international organization bent on his destruction. We shouldn’t expect the ending to be as it is, because the organization that is ultimately revealed is such an insane combination of omnipotent (they know everything going on in the world and can seemingly control everyone’s actions) and stupid (their actions should by all rights have deadly consequences) that it’s only natural to believe such a ridiculous script would never be greenlit.
3. Matchstick Men, 2003
The twist of Matchstick Men is sort of like the twist of The Game, except for the fact that it’s an answer to a question that the audience never even knew to ask—which is to say, it’s actually much worse. It’s one of the best examples you can find of a twist that comes COMPLETELY out of left field, lying to the audience because they have absolutely no reason to think that the movie has been duplicitous to them thusfar.
The film stars Nicholas Cage as a smalltime conman named Roy who also suffers from steadily mounting obsessive compulsive disorder. At the advice of his partner, he begins to see a psychiatrist, who also puts him in touch with the teenage daughter he’s never met. Developing a connection and enriching his life, he begins to teach his young daughter the art of the con.
The twist: Sounds lovely, right? Sort of like The Sting meets Father of the Bride, without all that wedding malarky. Except, oh wait, we find out in the last 10 minutes that the daughter isn’t his daughter after all; she’s actually a miniature teenage conwoman. And so is Roy’s partner. And his therapist. And the guy they’ve been planning to con the entire film. And the medical personnel who treat him. And the police. Yes, absolutely everyone he speaks with is actually part of an elaborate, months-long con to steal the modest contents of his bank account, and there is zero foreshadowing of this event.
It’s a twist that is equal parts frustrating and incredibly implausible. Thanks to the lack of foreshadowing, the audience has about as much reason to suspect it as the bug-eyed alien scenario mentioned earlier—it honestly feels like maybe some hints toward the reveal might have been in the script at some point, but ended up on the cutting room floor, making the moment one that wipes everything that has happened before of any significance. Meanwhile, as in The Game, there’s an amazing number of events depicted on screen where the entire scheme could very well have fallen apart, and absolutely nothing to stop it from doing so. Where in The Game one could at least argue that the organization was somehow controlling Michael Douglas from going completely insane, no one even tries to stop Nicholas Cage from taking actions that would have instantly unraveled the twist ending of Matchstick Men. The guy’s ex-wife, who supposedly gave birth to this daughter, lives in the SAME TOWN! He physically drops her off at the door on at least one occasion, and thinks about chatting up his ex. A single phone call to this woman on the topic of “so how ‘bout that daughter we have” would destroy a con years in the making.
4. High Tension, 2003
I don’t want to imply here anywhere that there’s something wrong with attempting to pull off a twist ending. Any twist is viable, as long as you find a way for that twist to make sense. That’s simply the filmmaker’s challenge and responsibility—oh, you want this sequence of events to happen in your movie? That’s great! Just let me know how you’re going to have it make sense, and I’ll sign off on that, no problem.
High Tension is a movie that simply wants to dump that responsibility in a roadside ditch, but not before working it over with a burlap sack full of doorknobs in a back room until it’s been beaten to an unconscious pulp. It takes what is otherwise an effective, tense (yeah, I know), often quite scary slasher film of sorts and completely lets the air out of it in the last few minutes with a twist ending that was calculated to be a “mind-bender” but instead sends the viewer on a treasure hunt back through the story for all of the various instances that no longer make any sense.
The story concerns a young pair of female friends, Marie and Alex, who go to visit Alex’s family in the country before a serial killer arrives to begin picking them all off. Pretty standard home invasion/slasher stuff, but with a nice visual flair. The film might have actually been a minor horror classic until…
The twist: … the last few minutes reveal that Marie is actually the psychotic killer. This, despite the fact that she’s been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the male killer through a dozen or more scenes by this point, fighting him and protecting her friend (who apparently, she’s actually trying to kill). These sequences, when you go back to them with the knowledge that Marie is the killer, become incredibly confusing to plot out in your mind, with multiple instances that are breaking the laws of time and space. Seriously, the “one person with two personalities” trope here is executed with more glaring plot holes and spatial impossibilities than in Fight Club, and that’s really saying something.
Once again, it’s not as if this ending is impossible to do. But if you’re going to do it, you can’t have a character existing in two different places at the same time—having a conversation while someone is being killed in another room, driving two cars at the same time and more. You can’t do that. It’s not allowed, unless your motto as a screenwriter is “I am a filthy liar.”
5. The Village, 2004
Well, I suppose at this point there’s no real surprise in M. Night Shyamalan making an appearance in this piece, is there? The man whose superbly executed twist in The Sixth Sense spawned so many poor imitators followed up that work with his own series of promising films marred by “surprise” endings that were either totally nonsensical (Signs) or forced (this movie). His breakout film was such a mixed blessing and ultimate burden for Shyamalan—it immediately got the director hailed as the next Hitchcock while simultaneously creating this bizarre audience expectation that every thriller from Shyamalan should also feature the same kind of momentous, end-of-film revelation. No one apparently took this concept to heart more strongly than Shyamalan himself, who seemingly felt that EVERY film needed a twist … which of course hurt every one of those films, given that expectation.
The Village comes during the post-Sixth Sense period where audiences and critics were in apologist mode for Shyamalan. He followed that film with the excellent Unbreakable, before beginning a descent with the batshit ending of Signs. His films in this period are fake-outs, but not in the way the director intended. In both Signs and The Village, he sets an appropriately creepy, stylish mood before succumbing to the expectation that he was supposed to BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS.
The Village concerns a titular village of 19th century Pennsylvanians who live in the woods, governing themselves with puritanical conservatism and fearing the nameless monsters who live in the woods surrounding them. However, when one of the young women of the village is forced to seek the outside world to bring back desperately needed medicine, she discovers …
The twist: … that the year is actually 2004, and that the village is a commune of sorts of people who chose to escape to a “simpler time” and live outside modern society. Granted, this twist is slightly more foreshadowed than the totally inscrutable Matchstick Men ending, but it falls squarely into the “why bother, outside of being a surprise for the sake of a surprise?” camp. Shyamalan, in true fashion, even manages to cast himself as the only guy who is the keeper of the secret knowledge, because hey, that’s what M. Night does.
Once again, though: What’s the point? It’s the kind of ending that makes the viewer angry for believing anything he’s told, or determined to never take anything at face value again. Roger Ebert once described the twist here by saying that once a person had seen it, they’d want to rewind the film to a point before they’d seen it to spare themselves the knowledge, and he was right—the film would be infinitely better if it was simply played straight, and anything good you can say about it is in support of those brief moments when you can forget that the twist exists. But once you know what’s coming, you stop caring and instead focus on being impressed that the members of the village took their timeline deception seriously enough to decide that they should all begin speaking old-timey English and teaching it to their children.
Someday, I hope I can escape to a linguistically archaic timeline where everything is simpler as well.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.