In an age of pre-release hype and Internet script leaks, a truly-surprising twist ending is especially hard to pull off. Yet Hollywood loves them when they're done right because they mean repeat business, since a well-executed twist ending sheds a new light on everything that came before it, sending audiences back to the theater to watch the movie again in hopes of picking up the clues this time around. Audiences like twists because we like getting duped -- up to a point. A good twist ending leaves you feeling admiration at getting played by a master storyteller; a bad twist ending (think 'No Way Out,' or 'Basic') just leaves you feeling played. The ending can't seem arbitrary, non sequitur, or tacked on; it should flow naturally and organically (if only in retrospect) from the rest of the story. We're betting that a lot of the water cooler talk this week will center on 'Shutter Island,' since, not only was it the weekend's biggest movie, but it also has a shockeroo ending, which most reviewers have been careful not to spoil. Which makes us ponder: what makes a good twist ending?
In an age of pre-release hype and Internet script leaks, a truly-surprising twist ending is especially hard to pull off. Yet Hollywood loves them when they're done right because they mean repeat business, since a well-executed twist ending sheds a new light on everything that came before it, sending audiences back to the theater to watch the movie again in hopes of picking up the clues this time around.
Audiences like twists because we like getting duped -- up to a point. A good twist ending leaves you feeling admiration at getting played by a master storyteller; a bad twist ending (think 'No Way Out,' or 'Basic') just leaves you feeling played. The ending can't seem arbitrary, non sequitur, or tacked on; it should flow naturally and organically (if only in retrospect) from the rest of the story.
Does 'Shutter Island' meet the criteria for top-notch twist endings? We'll let you decide, as you see how it stacks up with the following list of our 10 favorite twist endings.
(Warning: Major spoilers ahead! Though you really should have seen all of these movies by now. Oh, and Rosebud is a sled.)
10. 'Seven' (1995)
There are lots of twists in David Fincher's serial killer classic, starting with the revelation midway through of an unbilled Kevin Spacey as the nameless murderer. But the big shocker comes at the end, when sleuth Brad Pitt opens that unfortunate box and is goaded by Spacey into doing his dirty work for him, completing the series of seven deadly-sin murders and damning his own soul. Maybe the bleakest movie ending ever.
9. 'Rosemary's Baby' (1968)
The surprise isn't that Rosemary (Mia Farrow) has unwittingly given birth to Satan's own bundle of joy, or that her husband and her creepy neighbors are in league with Old Scratch. It's that she peers into the cradle, looks into her baby's demonic eyes, and lets her maternal instinct overcome her sense of right and wrong. Movies in which evil triumphs over good were especially shocking and rare in 1968 (in a Hollywood only just emerging from four decades of a Production Code that mandated evil be punished) and are still rare even today. Though not that rare, it would turn out, in the works of director Roman Polanski (see 'Chinatown' or 'The Ninth Gate,' among others).
8. 'The Sting' (1973)
In a movie that's all about deception and con artistry, maybe viewers should have expected they were going to get conned too. After all, Paul Newman and Robert Redford had spent the entire movie setting up a swindle of the gangster (Robert Shaw) who'd killed Redford's friend, so maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise that even Redford's supposed betrayal of Newman, followed by a climactic shootout, was all part of the con as well. Still, viewers and critics so enjoyed being tricked that the movie won the Best Picture Oscar.
7. 'Fight Club' (1999)
Fincher and Pitt reunited for a truly brain-warping ending. Rewatching the movie, there are clues throughout, starting with the neural-pathway exploration of the opening credits, that Pitt's anarchist revolutionary Tyler Durden has actually sprung from the twisted mind of Edward Norton's nameless, sleepless narrator. The real mystery is, given the movie's grim, apocalyptic depiction of an emasculating consumer culture gone mad, that there aren't more Tyler Durdens bursting out everywhere.
6. 'Memento' (2001)
In every great detective story, what the investigator is really looking to find is himself. Sometimes this is literally true, as in the case of Christopher Nolan's ingenious backwards-told thriller, in which Guy Pearce's amnesiac hero, looking for a killer he can't remember, turns out to be the source of his own quest. His real tragedy is not that he can't remember his own violent history, but that he can't even remember enough to feel pain, guilt or remorse.
5.'Primal Fear' (1996)
Famous actors are so often typecast that you know what to expect from them. Which is why it's good to hire an unknown, as the protean Edward Norton was when cast as the split-personality altarboy/killer in this courtroom thriller. Unscrupulous lawyer Richard Gere gets him acquitted of a sadistic murder, only to learn that Norton's core personality is the killer, and that the stammering innocent is just an invention. (Oops.) Norton makes canny use of our lack of preconceptions about him, as well as his considerable acting skills, to trick us the way he tricked Gere.
4. 'Psycho' (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock is often reflexively referred to as the Master of Suspense, but to him, suspense didn't mean plot twists, it meant the audience knew what was supposed to happen (he liked to give the example of the audience seeing a ticking bomb placed under a table), but it didn't know how the hero was going to get out of the situation alive. That's true for most of his movies, but not 'Psycho,' which really does up-end genre conventions and pulls the rug out from under the audience over and over. It's one astonishing jolt after another, from the murder of the star (Janet Leigh) halfway through to the final revelation that Norman Bates' (Anthony Perkins) murderous mother is really Bates himself, with mom nothing more than skeletal remains propped up in a rocking chair in the basement. Rules of narrative are made to be broken, even by the guy who wrote the rule book.
3. 'The Usual Suspects' (1995)
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," says Kevin Spacey's limping thief to investigator Chazz Palminteri. "And like that, poof. He's gone." So it is with Spacey's elaborate tale of a faceless, all-powerful crime lord named Keyser Soze. Only in the film's final moments does Palminteri realize that Spacey (and director Bryan Singer) has been putting him on the whole time, but it's too late, and Keyser Soze's supposed henchman disappears in a puff of narrative logic. (For this bit of slight-of-hand, Spacey won a well-deserved Oscar.) And like that, poof. He's gone.
2. 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)
Really, simian-loathing astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) should have figured out much earlier that he'd actually been back on Earth (but in the future) this whole time. Still, no movie can visually top that final reveal of the ruined Statue of Liberty that provides the crushing proof. Monkeys 1, Humans 0.
1. 'The Sixth Sense' (1999)
M. Night Shyalaman has a reputation for twist endings, but because he has that reputation, you can usually see the endings coming, so they're not surprises after all. The only time it really worked was the first time, when audiences didn't know Shyamalan yet and didn't grasp his game, or that he had bigger fish to fry than just surprising the audience. Here, the surprise as a narrative tool really fit the theme of the story, and it recast all that had come before it in a different emotional, even spiritual light. Bruce Willis' discovery that he's been dead for most of the movie transforms the film into more than just a horror chiller, but a lovely parable, a meditation on how both the living and the dying need to learn how to let go of the traumatic past in order to move on.