It’s 2019, and insane twist endings are back in fashion! The first month of the year is hardly in the books, and already we have two contenders for the year’s most absurd twists. One comes from an expected source in the form of M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker whose entire oeuvre was built via attempts to replicate his first (and by far most successful) twist ending in The Sixth Sense. The other, in the form of Serenity, came completely out of left field and quickly left the film world reeling, our collective mouths agape at its sheer audacity and outright silliness.
But which of these two twists was more unearned? Which was stranger? Which could have been salvaged? Jim Vorel and Ken Lowe, who are more than familiar with some of the most common ways movies go wrong, sat down to discuss Glass vs. Serenity, and the art of the twist.
Note: As any discussion of twist endings must, this piece contains significant ending spoilers for two movies that are still in theaters. Proceed at your own peril.
Ken: Jim, 2019 has barely dawned on us and yet I think we already have a new and dubious trend: The completely-unasked-for twist ending. I recalled with amusement your own examination from a few years ago of when this trend truly goes beyond the pale. I’ve called us here to ask: Can there EVER be a good twist ending? What makes a BAD twist ending? And as always, what does this say about our cultural moment?
Jim: Well of course there can be a “good” twist ending, Ken. A twist is just a storytelling convention, albeit one that audiences don’t always understand. As I tried to write about in the piece you linked above, the problem with so many twists in modern Hollywood film is that they aren’t really twists at all—too often, they’re outright lies. To be a proper “twist,” you need to have legitimate foreshadowing. The moment a twist is revealed, the audience’s reaction should be “Oh, so THAT’S why ___ and ____; how did I not see this coming?” If there’s no reasonable way for a perceptive, intelligent viewer to intuit at least the general outline of a potential twist, then the convention becomes a lying cliché.
Or in other words, you can end any romantic comedy with Katherine Heigl pulling off a rubber mask to reveal that she’s been a lizard person the entire time, but that doesn’t mean the audience should accept this as a brilliant twist ending if she hasn’t been discreetly displaying lizard person traits throughout.
Ken: In that regard, I think at least one of our two subjects today can be said to be a technically VALID twist ending, in that a sharp-eyed viewer could possibly have picked up on it. I refer, of course, to Serenity, the “noir thriller” starring no less than Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Diane Lane (and not, sadly, the 2006 sequel movie to the beloved space Western TV show). It joins Glass in the ridiculous twist ending club of films released in January. And since I saw the former and you saw the latter, we find ourselves in the unique situation of being able to put our heads together and wonder what the hell Hollywood is thinking right now.
Jim: Having read about Serenity and its insane ending, I think I can agree that it sounds like a semi-”valid” twist, but still a completely and utterly ludicrous one. The Glass twist, on the other hand, is classic “AHA I GOTCHA!” M. Night Shyamalan goodness. Although with Serenity, it’s not a crazy ending so much as it is the entire second half of the film, right?
Ken: I would charitably call it the third reel of the film. It certainly gives the audience at least a good 30-45 minutes to think about the ending, which is a terrible idea. But I think we need to save that one for last, since it is both less popular than the movie you saw and because it’s so dumb it needs its own space for discussion. So maybe you’d like to give us some background on Glass, Jim. How were you approaching this much-anticipated film in light of the Shyamalanaissance, and how did it go over for you?
“My new film has a twist in it; can we go back to 1999 again, when people kept comparing me to Alfred Hitchcock?”
Jim: Good questions, Ken. Given that I am sort of Paste’s resident Shyamalan guy, for better or worse, having ranked all of his movies, I was pretty excited for Glass when it was first announced. Beginning with The Visit, which I enjoyed as a darkly comic film that the studio was trying to sell as a legitimate horror movie, and continuing into Split, I was on board with the idea that perhaps Shyamalan had found his mojo again by working with smaller budgets and lower stakes.
In particular, Split is simply a very entertaining little thriller, carried by James McAvoy’s incredible performance. That film ends with an Easter Egg—people call it a “twist” as well, but it’s not really one either—showing that it exists in the same universe as Shyamalan’s previous Unbreakable, which made a lot of people keen to see a follow-up that brought together David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kevin Crumb (McAvoy). I myself was among them. I mean, it sounds like a fun idea, right?
But then I saw the first trailers for Glass, and I started having some misgivings. It looked big, and loud, and kind of cluttered. I started to wonder if this higher level of exposure (and praise for his last two films) might bring out the bad side of Shyamalan again—the overambitious, lack-of-common-sense side. And yep, that’s pretty much what happens. Our own review nails its failings pretty accurately.
Ken: Just having heard the buzz, I was intrigued by it, too, yes. And really, I’m always keen to see a director like Shyamalan find his footing. I don’t like a lot of his movies, but I do like a lot of MOMENTS in his movies, if that makes sense.
Jim: Oh, that makes perfect sense. Shyamalan’s filmography is filled with questionable films that contain great, singular moments. It’s why movies like The Village and Signs still have so many defenders; they have extremely effective moments that are undone by poor storytelling decisions in their final acts.
Ken: It’s a tragedy. Tell us a little about Glass, leading up to this twist. Did this overblown ambition foreshadow it for you at all?
Jim: Okay, so the meat and potatoes of the film revolves around the three primary entities (David Dunn, Kevin Crumb/”The Beast” and Mr. Glass) all being incarcerated in the same mental hospital. They’ve been captured by police for various reasons—Mr. Glass because of his actions back in Unbreakable, The Beast because he’s been running amok killing people, and Dunn because he’s spent like TWO DECADES beating up street thugs as a vigilante. They’ve all been gathered into one place by a doctor played by Sarah Paulson, who specializes in exactly this case—people who think they’re superhuman. Her goal is to reach them psychologically and make them doubt/accept the possibility that they’re harboring delusions of grandeur. How someone like David Dunn, who has been performing feats of super strength for 19 years, is supposed to ever believe this, I have no idea.
Ken: Maybe she tries to convince him it’s all the result of his schizoid murder-trucker personality?
Just one of Ken’s many “High Tension” references, nothing to see here.
Ken: That does seem silly, but also the sort of thing where making a tense psychological thriller out of it might be something Shyamalan is very, very good at. I take it, though, that this was not the case.
Jim: It would have worked better if we hadn’t already gotten to know the character in Unbreakable, and if we didn’t already KNOW he possessed superhuman abilities. Then at least we could have felt doubt alongside him. As is, we already know that he’ll be vindicated and just have to wait the majority of the film for it to happen. Mr. Glass, meanwhile, doesn’t have any lines in the film’s first half, but when he then enters it he quickly becomes the mastermind, plotting to set up an ultimate confrontation in a public place between David and The Beast, so the world can see their battle and know that superhumans exist. He engineers the breakout of all three from the mental hospital, and there are some sub-twists along the way, but nothing that really draws a red flag. Until the conclusion of the final battle, when the real “WTF is happening?” stuff starts going down.
Ken: This, by the way, is where we repeat our spoiler warning. So, Jim, the major players have all come to have a big knockdown fight that is meant to release the tension building the whole movie. Tell us where this veers off the track.
Jim: Okay, deep breath.
Ken: Here it comes, folks.
Jim: Well, Sarah Paulson’s doctor character has called the police, and they arrive to find David and The Beast fighting in front of the hospital, and Mr. Glass dying of wounds inflicted by The Beast after his puppet turns on him. The police allow Anya Taylor-Joy’s character Casey from Split to reason with The Beast and calm him down … only to shoot him dead on the spot immediately after. They then turn their attention to David Dunn, and submerge his head in a pothole full of water while life ebbs from him. Sarah Paulson approaches and touches his hand, which allows him to use his “detect evil” D&D power to see that she’s actually a member of a secret society dedicated to hiding all evidence of superhuman beings from the public eye. The police (who are all also members of this secret society) then drown Bruce Willis in the puddle. All three of the main characters are dead, killed by a totally un-foreshadowed antagonist organization that is only revealed in the last 10 minutes of the movie. And by the way—the society is made out to have been around for ages and ages, and yet they didn’t do anything about superpowered David walking the streets for the last two decades. Only now do they randomly show up to murder him.
Jim: We learn that their goal here was apparently to test whether they could apply a non-lethal solution to this kind of problem, by convincing the superpowered people that they were actually mundane. Why that would be the preferred strategy of a group that also doesn’t mind murdering people, I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m asking too much from this movie, because the society also has its meetings in public restaurants, where they just blend in and wait until all the legitimate customers walk out the door, before they start talking about their secret plans. I guess all the waiters and kitchen staff are also in the secret society? Who the hell knows?
Ken: So let me just clarify something here I might be fuzzy on, since it’s been ages since I saw Unbreakable. Bruce Willis is able to just pick up vibes off anybody he touches, right, something he’s done for 20 years and the results of which have been repeatedly confirmed to him as being accurate, right? Also, doesn’t he have a kid? A kid who knew about his super-strength and special powers, who would be just a tad younger than you or I now? A functioning adult who would remind him this is true?
Jim: Yes, he has a kid, and yes, his premonitions are always accurate. His kid, who is played by returning actor Spencer Treat Clark, is also in this movie. He functions as the “man in the chair” for his father’s missions, à la Oracle in the Batman comics. But he’s also roped into the “convince them that nothing supernatural actually occurred” subplot by Sarah Paulson, who says something like “there are bodybuilders in any gym who can lift as much as your dad,” and that completely shatters his confidence in David somehow. Never mind the fact that his father has PSYCHIC TOUCH POWERS. Those are all forgotten.
Ken: Get right the hell outta here! So the movie goes out of its way not just to NOT elide a major factor that would disprove itself, but it trumpets it??
Maybe if we chain Bruce Willis to the floor, it will convince him that he DOESN’T have super strength?
Ken: I wasn’t leading you with this line of questioning, Jim. I legitimately did not know the son character returns in a badass, fan-fiction-y way.
Jim: Shyamalan is not known for his logic, Ken. But wait, there’s a bit more to this story.
Ken: Stan Lee have mercy.
Jim: So, what ultimately happens after the twist is that it’s revealed Mr. Glass essentially intended for these results to play out. The night before the escape, he hacked all of the hundreds of security cameras in the hospital—all of which Sarah Paulson had installed in an earlier scene—in order to capture video footage of the superpowered showdown he knew would be happening the next day. He also programmed those cameras to then download the footage and send it to the three secondary characters—David’s son, Anya-Taylor Joy’s character, and Elijah’s mother, who is played by Charlayne Woodard. Those three characters then decide to release the footage on the web, in order to show the world that superhumans exist. The film closes with lots of people all over the world watching the footage on their smartphones and tablets and whatnot.
Ken: WE ARE AWAKE!!!
Jim: This is presented in a way that is supposed to come off as really hopeful and inspiring, some kind of “triumph of the human will” or whatever, but it’s a very confused tone. You’ve got the three minor characters who are suddenly promoted to primary character status, and they’re overcoming an obstacle we’ve only known existed for about five minutes. It’s not like the secret society’s goal is world domination or something, after all—it’s just to hide the existence of superhumans so humans can govern their own affairs and not worship these super-people as deities. You could easily paint the secret society as being in the moral right, if you wanted.
The ending also turns Mr. Glass into something of a hero, despite the fact that he’s personally responsible for hundreds of deaths. AND it comes about because of all the cameras installed by Sarah Paulson, which makes no sense because she’s the leader of a society that wants to make sure NO EVIDENCE about superhumans gets out into the world. Why would you install hundreds of cameras to capture footage of something you don’t want anyone to know about?
Ken: I certainly don’t know, Jim. I mean, you may as well try some other dastardly plot, like invading a planet composed of 75 percent the thing that eats your body away on contact.
Jim: Oh Ken. Those were the days. A non-disgraced Mel Gibson, fighting hydrophobic aliens. Makes you wish you could go back.
Ken: It sounds, anyway, like Shyamalan didn’t do the necessary groundwork to make that last act resonate, like maybe he didn’t build up those secondary characters enough. Is there any scenario in which you could envision this coming off better than it did?
Jim: Well at the very least, they needed to lay some groundwork for the secret society, like we could have seen some of its other members earlier. Introducing a new antagonist organization in the last few minutes was never going to work. But in general, there’s a lot of other ways you could have ended that movie, and I think audience members would have preferred most of them to Bruce Willis dying in a puddle.
Ken: I was asking you about this before because this is really the most interesting part of an out-of-nowhere ending for me: Does it significantly lower the movie’s quality in your estimation? Because this sounds, for the most part, like a pretty interesting movie with good actors most of the time.
Jim: The twist and the ending take a campy superhero meta-movie that was already in danger of overreaching and being spread too thin, and just push it beyond, into the territory of lunacy. Whenever you see conclusions like this, you get the sense that Shyamalan can’t help himself. The success of The Sixth Sense was the best and worst thing that ever happened to him; it instilled this pathological compulsion to attempt to pull the rug out from under the viewer. He’s so committed to the necessity of surprising the audience that he writes surprises without having any clue of how to justify them. It’s not the presence of the secret society that is a problem; it’s the fact that he has no idea how to make it work within the confines of the story and just plowed ahead anyway. It’s like he’s trying to live up to his own Robot Chicken caricature.
Jim: Okay, I feel cleansed, and ready to talk about Matthew McConaughey battling a giant fish.
Ken: Shyamalan truly is a visionary. This, by the way, would NOT describe Steven Knight, the writer and director of Serenity, and therefore the one who must bear almost all of the blame for it.
To start with, this is a dumb, ineptly written and directed movie, and an inexplicably star-studded one to boot. In addition to the three luminaries I named above, Djimon Hounsou and Jason Clarke (recognizable from a few things, which includes the latest Terminator) are also here to collect a paycheck. Also, if you’re not familiar with Matt Damon’s timeless appearance on Letterman in which he did his impression of McConaughey, I must report that this movie is indeed a perfect opportunity for him to take his shirt off.
Ken: McConaughey is a fisherman who is after a white whale of a giant tuna that always evades him. The plot chugs along for way too long on that fixation before Anne Hathaway, his ex wife, shows up to offer him $10 million to murder her shitty, abusive husband (Clarke). I should say, Jim, that it feels like about 20 minutes of fishing have transpired before this is sprung on us.
Jim: You weren’t down for Matthew McConaughey in an adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea?
Ken: I wasn’t even down for reading The Old Man and the Sea! But you see, Hathaway mentions that McConaughey’s son is also suffering under the heavy hand of her shitty husband. All she wants him to do is take this guy out to the ocean, get him too drunk to fight back, lure in a bunch of sharks with some chum, and then throw him over the side. In a few disjointed scenes leading up to this, it seems like McConaughey is hearing the thoughts of his son, driving him toward this murder.
Jim: Sort of a hard-boiled noir, with a twist of ESP. Regardless, I know that you were obviously aware of the existence of a twist in the movie before seeing it. Did you know what the twist already was, or did it actually take you by surprise?
Ken: I was a bad boy and specifically sought out the spoilers so I could watch for any evidence of them leading up to the reveal. I will report that there are several tells, but I will also report that they are stupid. And to talk about why, I’m just going to have to spoil this nonsense right now:
McConaughey is actually a character in a videogame. This is revealed to him when a pencil-necked salesman (who looks like the lawyer in The Simpsons) who has been chasing him the whole movie finally catches him and starts babbling about how he is “the rules.” As in, the rules of the videogame they are in. They are all the creation of his abused son, who is using the game as a means of acting out his revenge fantasies. He’s reprogramming the game, you see, turning it from a dumb fishing simulator into a level of Hitman.
First, press “X” to set the hook in a lunker of a largemouth bass. Then, press “Y” to drown your first mate in the livewell.
Jim: What console, exactly, is this meant to be taking place on? I like the idea that you can just reprogram games on the fly, using your game controller, while playing them. With player characters who are sentient.
Ken: They do show him on a full PC with a backlit fiber optic keyboard, so.
Jim: Alright, if he’s a member of the PC Master Race I guess I can accept this.
Ken: Now here is the thing, Jim. The hints at the reveal are all there and all, as I said, stupid.
For example, everyone in town knows what McConaughey is thinking and doing, spouting garbage about the island being small as the reason. This is clearly meant to suggest that the computer’s AI can’t keep secrets from itself. It’s also annoying.
Jim: They’re Final Fantasy NPC’s. Are there a bunch of shops selling various colors of potions in this town?
Ken: Jim, you aren’t even kidding about that, because he has several interactions with the fishing lure saleswoman. The radio in his truck is tuned to a station that starts talking increasingly to him and him alone, just like your Pip Boy in a Fallout game. At one point, and I want you to really appreciate this, McConaughey is striding toward a cliff to take a dive in the ocean. The camera does the over-the-shoulder view thing, and then shifts several times in exactly the manner it would if you were to move the right thumb-stick in any modern action title. This happens Jim, something like an hour before the reveal. There can’t possibly be a .gif of it yet, so just close your eyes and imagine.
Jim: It actually sounds pretty clever, to be honest. Batshit, but clever.
Ken: It would be if there were more things like that, or if the movie ever committed to them, but it avowedly does not. It carries itself like the story of burnt out man getting closer to convincing himself to kill some horrible man who is utterly without nuance. And when the reveal finally hits, it doesn’t go full into the pivot. It has no fun with its own insane premise.
Ultimately, McConaughey just kills the guy. And as he does, in the real world, the son pulls a knife out and murders the terrible husband and then we get news reports shouted at us about how he beats the rap for reasons of self defense and everything.
Jim: Hahahaha, they justified the murder of a dad by his son?
Ken: Well, Clarke’s character is his stepfather, but yes. That’s the takeaway.
Jim: I do kind of wonder why they would bother to use THIS crazy convention to tell THAT story. Once the reveal hits, does McConaughey have HP and mana? Or like, extra lives? Or does he knock Jason Clarke into the water with a blue koopa shell?
Ken: NO, BUT HE HAS TWO SEX SCENES WITH DIANE LANE AND ONE WITH ANNE HATHAWAY WHO IS THE MOTHER OF THE KID WHO IS PROGRAMMING IT!!!
And then he programs himself into the game to go have father-son hugs with McConaughey, whom we learn in real life died as a soldier in Iraq. This is played as a totally straight happy ending.
Jim: “Look at me. I’m just a 10-year-old PC game programmer. There’s not a court in the world that would convict me.”
Ken: This is after basically everything we know has been cast into doubt. You could argue the total lack of nuance of the horrible stepfather is because this kid is just amplifying his terrible traits, but doesn’t that then make the ending the triumphant scheme of a violent young boy with a creepy Oedipal complex?!
Matthew McConaughey gravely considers what Grand Theft Auto wanted level he’ll end up at if he pushes Jason Clarke off a boat.
Jim: Ken, I thought I read something at some point that the other NPC characters try to stop McConaughey from going through with the murder or something? Like the programming of this game is fighting back against the boy’s efforts to change a fishing game into a murder simulator?
Ken: Djimon Hounsou throws a monkey wrench in his plan by injuring the stepfather character so he initially doesn’t want to go out on the boat, but it provides a hiccup of maybe three minutes of screen time. The other island characters all start trying to follow him around or make him focus on catching the big tuna again. At one point a random NPC shows up on the boat to prevent him from getting the Silent Assassin ranking, but it just has no effect—he kills Clarke anyway, right in plain view of the kid.
But Jim, they do not all start turning into Agent Smith or run him off the road, or kill him with NPC kindness. This could have been a truly hilariously batshit movie that makes fun of dumb videogame conventions and slyly points out how they are the death of a player’s fun and agency, while also asking what that agency means when it’s “I just want to imagine murdering my stepfather, I don’t care if dinner is ready, MOM.”
Jim: The idea that all the people within the game are sentient for some reason is one of the weirdest aspects to me. Like, why would the game resist the kid modding it? It’s like the computer is filled with electronic human beings, like it’s that ’90s cartoon Reboot.
Ken: Yes. This is a movie that does not understand programming.
Jim: The thing about a twist like this is that it raises so, so many questions that it will never have time to address.
Ken: That’s definitely true. I also think another major complication is that it hints at what would have been a far more interesting movie that this writer/director was not prepared to envision or to tell.
Jim: Is it possible that the film was originally written to be that more interesting movie, and then a studio looked at it and demanded it be more “erotic thriller” like we would have seen in the ’90s, some Basic Instinct stuff?
Ken: I really don’t think so, or at least if that is so, what was left on the cutting room floor must have been truly copious. This seems like Knight got an idea into his head, wrote the script himself, never hired anybody to punch it up or doctor it, and somehow got the A-listers for a two-week shoot and nowhere in the process did anybody tap him on the shoulder to tell him it was a bad idea.
Fortunately for all involved, it hit theaters in January. By the time we publish this humble article, I imagine the three other humans in the theater with me the other night will have forgotten it.
Jim: It’s only occurring to me now to ask why the film was called Serenity.
Ken: It was the name of the boat. Literally revealed in the first shot of the movie, so there isn’t even a satisfying title call at any point.
Jim: Case closed!
Ken: So Jim, looking at these two failures side by side, are there any telling similarities you can see? Could they both learn from the same lessons?
Jim: To me, the Glass twist is more a violation of the audience’s trust. You sit in the seat and have a contract of sorts with the storyteller, in which they’re supposed to give you everything you need to reasonably process the film. Shyamalan fails at that, because he’s more concerned with the novelty of surprise than making his surprises make sense. Serenity’s twist, on the other hand, is simultaneously more bizarre but also more warranted, because its DNA is built into the whole picture. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, but perhaps that it was at least better conceived. I would love to hear Knight explain his whole thought process on that one.
Ken: I dread that inevitable commentary track.
Jim: Oh man. Now that would be a trip. Assuming this wasn’t the first draft of Serenity, how much crazier do you think his initial vision could have been? Perhaps McConaughey could have been inside a Cooking Mama-style game as a professional chef, or Mass Effect as a starship captain.
Ken: As I say, the sky could have been the limit here. Graphical glitches palette-swapping Diane Lane mid-coitus with the hoary old barkeep would have been my minimum demand.
Jim: I very much want to see that now.
Ken: See? Like all twist endings that go over like a wet paper bag, it’s a tragedy of what might have been.
Jim: How about a part of the film where he runs into a sudden difficulty spike and dies a dozen times, having to keep reloading his auto-save? It could go all Edge of Tomorrow on you.
Ken: You should be a Hollywood scriptwriter, man. Instead, we get an ineptly written movie with not much of a mystery at its core. Which sort of describes all bad plot twists. Let’s hope this trend died in January.
Jim: As long as people don’t know how to finish their movies, the poorly justified plot twist will never die, Ken. Let’s just hope instead for some well-executed ones in 2019, if we’re lucky.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste Movies, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.