People like to levy a lot of complaints against feature films. There’s not a film critic out there that hasn’t labeled a significant mass of film releases as derivative, contrived, or quixotic (because they have to justify their bloated salaries by demonstrating their large vocabularies). To the same effect, many audiences like to complain about hack directors and poor adaptations of original material. While I’m no a stranger to these complaints myself, it is my belief that the worst sin a film can commit is predictability.
We love twist endings. If a film’s narrative concludes in the most logical and straightforward way imaginable, the entire experience can feel like a waste of time. But there is a particularly refreshing sensation that comes with being tricked. It’s a delightful cocktail of confusion, the challenged expectations, and intrigue. Sure, some filmmakers abuse the ‘twist ending’, but I still feel like movie audiences crave mindbender finales. With that in mind, I wanted to compose a list of what I consider to be the best feature film twist endings.
10. Deus Ex Machina (The Adjustment Bureau).
Admittedly, this is likely the weakest type of twist on this list. For the uninitiated, Deus Ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way. The term is Latin for, “god out of the machine” and has its origins in ancient Greek theatre - referring to scenes in which a crane would lower actors or statues to play the part of god on-stage to set things right at the end of a play. As you might imagine, many people tend to hate on Deus Ex Machina endings as their use is often mishandled and usually come out of nowhere. Personally though, that is the exact reason why I love them. The fact that seemingly impossible situations could be solved in seconds by a newly introduced plot device is just so hilariously ridiculous that it really has to be lauded for its sheer ballsiness. The most recent and striking example of this is in 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau. At the film’s conclusion, the main characters are predictably surrounded with no possible escape. Realizing that they’re about to be separated forever or worse, they kiss passionately for an extended period of time. Somehow this kiss resolves the animosity between them and those pulling the strings of their world and one of the film’s primary antagonists tells them that God decided to give them a happy ending because they tried so hard. Is this a well crafted ending? Of course not, but it is delightfully random and hilariously inept.
9. It Was All Just a Dream (The Wizard of Oz).
The hope is that you have seen 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and NOT read the book it was based on, as otherwise this film’s placement on my list probably won’t make a ton of sense. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (novel) makes no bones about stating that Oz was indeed a real place that could be visited on numerous occasions, but the land of Oz was changed into an elaborate dream in the feature film adaptation because its producers felt that, “the 1930s audience was too sophisticated to accept a straight on fantasy like that.” The film revolves around Judy Garland’s Dorothy adventuring through the wonderful lands of Oz on a quest to go home. She accidentally kills a witch with her flying house, liberates a bunch of little people, melts a green woman with a bucket of water, and becomes close friends with a robot, living scarecrow, and gigantic anthropomorphic lion (sounds like an unfortunate acid trip to me, but whatever). In the end, everyone gets exactly what they want except for Dorothy. The audience (and Dorothy herself) assumes that she’s been stranded in a foreign world, until she is told to click her heels together three times and awakes in her bed, surrounded by loved ones. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the implications this had for the land of Oz itself, but I love the fact that every major character she met in Oz was just a fictional representation of the people she knew in real life. That is brilliant screenwriting.
8. Uh Oh (The Ring).
While overweight internet commentators like to cite The Ring as an, “unnecessary remake to a superior film” (Ringu), the American continuity of this series does make some interesting implications with its twist ending. Both versions of this film follow a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it in seven days. Sadako/Samara is creepy as all hell, but the world sleeps soundly thanks to the fact that her deathly influence is limited to the tape holding her psychic powers. While the plot of the Japanese version is mostly consistent with that of the American continuity, it is strongly hinted at in The Ring that by “helping” Samara via the retrieval of her body, our heroes actually released her wrath upon the world without any restraints. This ending is damn intriguing because it breaks the tradition of the horror protagonist saving the day with a “Hail Mary” pass and rewards their efforts with negative consequences. Well done Gore Verbinski; you took an otherwise uninteresting remake and ended it with horrific implementations. Completely unexpected and absolutely welcomed.
7. Stayin’ Alive (House on Haunted Hill).
The original House on Haunted Hill (not the 1999 abortion) was directed by one of horror’s coolest showmen, starring the immensely talented Vincent Price, and featuring one of the coolest twists in early B-grade horror. Vincent Price plays eccentric millionaire Fredrick Loren. He and his fourth wife, Annabelle, have invited five people to a haunted house with a grisly history for a birthday party. Whoever stays in the house for one whole night will earn $10,000 (which was worth a considerable amount more in the 1950s). It is revealed that Annabelle, in league with one of the guests, Dr. Trent, faked her own death in an attempt to frighten another guest into shooting Fredrick so she can inherit his fortune. After being driven into a fit of hysteria by repeated frights, Nora, seeing Fredrick walking towards the basement (with a gun in hand), shoots him and flees. Annabelle and Dr. Trent assume they have succeeded in their dubious plots and the good doctor attempts to push Fredrick’s body into the vat of acid in the house’s basement. The lights go out and we hear a struggle, then a splash. Annabelle, hearing this, runs to the basement to ensure that everything is alright, but is pursued by a floating skeleton and pushed into the vat of acid herself. Fredrick then emerges from the shadows, holding the controls to a pulley system used to move the skeleton. He tells Nora that the gun she used on him had been loaded with blanks and that he is ready to let justice decide his guilt or innocence. The first time I saw this flick my mind was blown by this revelation.
6. Unwitting Pawns (The Matrix: Revolutions).
No, I am not talking about the oddly-toned Architect scene at the end of the film or how Neo travels to the the Machine City and asks the god-like supercomputer that supposedly rules the Machines (who has never been mentioned before this point) to consider peace instead of destroying Zion. I’m talking about the mind-bending implications that are made about the supposedly saintly Oracle. The Architect may be the mastermind behind this dark, robot-oriented universe, but the Oracle is most definitely his raging counterpart. The entire plot of the Matrix series has been heavily influenced by the Oracle’s desire to create unbalance for the Architect (beneficial towards humans, but her programming isn’t necessarily designed with their needs at the forefront). On numerous occasions, she provides motivational lies to the film’s main characters. She tells Trinity that she will fall in love with a dead man who is also the One. As a result, Trinity falls for Neo and sacrifices everything for him to succeed. She tells Neo that he’s NOT the One and that Morpheus will sacrifice himself for Neo because he believes Neo to be the one (something that the Oracle essentially told Morpheus). Neo can’t live with that so he saves Morpheus, awakening his powers along the way. To the same effect, this omniscient being provides cryptic messaging to our protagonists on many occasions that may actually be counter-beneficial towards their ends, but will suit hers. She wasn’t programmed to fight for humanity and I see her ‘kindness’ in a dubious light. Her goal - as revealed in her final conversation with the Architect - was to win what was essentially a large-scale game of chess. Humanity may have won the war as a result, but that doesn’t mean that humanity’s heros were anything more than her pawns. That is my favorite twist of this series.
5. Dead All Along (The Sixth Sense).
Ah, The Sixth Sense - famous for its twist, other people ruining its twist, and the twist not actually being a twist anymore. Allow me to start by saying that the people who venture to say that they “knew Bruce Willis was dead from the start” are full of crap. I sincerely doubt anyone originally saw this twist coming and that’s why it is so bafflingly impressive. Bruce Willis plays successful child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe, who is shot and injured in his home by a disturbed former patient of his. Months later, a still-shaken Malcolm comes across the case of 10-year old Cole Sear, who is exhibiting exactly the same symptoms of his former patient (frequent panic attacks, social withdrawal, unexplained injuries, etc.). Seeing a chance to redeem himself by helping Cole, Malcolm takes steps to counsel him. We learn, at the same time as Malcolm, that Cole is repeatedly assaulted by things that can’t be seen by the average person. “I see dead people.” is uttered by the poor kid and Malcolm is revealed to no longer be among the living. Again, it’s not like this is at all obvious. Throughout the film, it appears as though living, sentient people are actively interacting with Willis’ character. Also, it makes sense for him, as a child psychiatrist, to take an interest in Cole. We don’t question his place in the film until forced and when we do it is a pretty startling revelation. Maybe in ten or twenty years, when everyone has forgotten about the twist, people can actually enjoy this film again.
4. Luke, I Am Your Father (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back).
To be specific, the line was actually, “No. I am your father.” but I think you know where I’m going with this one. A major antagonist revealing that they are in-fact a close family member is a big deal for pretty obvious reasons. That said, I doubt anyone actually expected such a massive reveal near the end of what was already an epic film with many unexpected turns. That’s not to say that it only worked because the second film was such a climactic downer though; there have been plenty of imitators since that have attempted the same thing, but felt flat. This twist ending works because a big part of Luke’s story revolved around his Jedi Knight father, whom he sought to emulate as a Jedi himself. Despite knowing little-to-nothing about him, Luke held his father up as an idol and valued his heroic lineage as a means of being closer to him. Luke let out the big “NOOOOO!” in response to the awful truth because it both destroyed his motivation for becoming a Jedi and fractured the false image of his father. Interestingly enough, It also gave new light into Uncle Owen’s reasons for refusing to let Luke move on with his life. Star Wars had become a family affair - a move that both struck a chord with audiences and raised the stakes of the series’ conclusion.
3. Imaginary Friend (Fight Club).
[Caution: I’m about to break the first two rules of Fight Club]. Imaginary friends are pretty common with children during their formative years as they require a rather substantial amount of guidance, support, love, and companionship, but make-believe friends are a little more rare in adults. When they do occur, it is usually the sign of someone losing their mind. The film follows the days of an unnamed man who has grown discontented with his corporate job, support groups, and life in general. Because he narrates the entire film, he is simply known as The Narrator. During a business flight, he meets a charismatic free spirit named Tyler Durden and they eventually start a “support group” (the Fight Club, as it were) where unhappy, unfulfilled men get together and fight each other in bare-knuckle brawls as a form of “therapy.” More fight clubs start to form across the country and under Tyler’s leadership they become the anti-materialist and anti-corporate organization called “Project Mayhem”. The Narrator complains to Tyler that he wants to be more involved in the organization, but Tyler suddenly disappears. When a member of Project Mayhem is killed by the police during a botched sabotage operation, the Narrator tries to shut down the project, and follows evidence of Tyler’s national travels to track him down. In one city, both a Project member and the Narrator’s love interest greet him as Tyler Durden. When he does see Tyler (in his room of all places), Tyler explains that they are dissociated personalities in the same body. What follows is a crazed series of events that somehow ends in handholding and smiles. WTF.
2. Dying Dream (Jacob’s Ladder).
There are very few endings I enjoy more than the ‘Dying Dream’. It’s kinda like what happened to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz…only if Dorothy was actually dead the entire time. Jacob is being plagued by nightmares that tear his life apart more and more each day. They might be the after-effects of PTSD from his military service in Vietnam, the side-effects from a secret and illegal drug trial that he and his platoon were unknowingly exposed to, or Jacob’s loss of sanity after the trauma of his young son’s death, but as time goes by Jacob starts to consider the possibility that the demons and monsters he keeps seeing might actually be real. As the audience, we question the supernatural nature of everything we see and usually attribute them to the psychotropic effects of ‘The Ladder’ (the drug Jacob was exposed to during the war). The film, however, is a little deeper than that. The title is actually a biblical reference to the path between Earth and Heaven that Patriarch Jacob dreams of in the book of Genesis. Much in the same capacity, at the film’s denouement we learn that Jacob never made it out of Vietnam. His body is shown in an Army triage tent with two surgeons just after he’s expired, with a peaceful look on his face. The entirety of the film up to this point was a dying dream as he climbed the ladder from earth to heaven (and you just had your mind blown).
1. Everything Has Changed (The Usual Suspects).
The eponymous generator of ‘The Usual Suspects Ending’ trope, this film follows the interrogation of Roger Kint, a small-time con-man who is one of only two survivors of a massacre and fire on a ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles. His interrogator, Agent Kujan believes that the explosion was caused by Dean Keaton, a crooked cop, but Kint tells how a diabolical mastermind called Keyser Soze was behind it all. Just after Kint is released from custody, however, Kujan realizes that Kint has been spinning a gigantic lie using objects around the office as inspiration. It’s even suggested that it was Kint himself who is Keyser Soze and was simply playing a role the whole time. We can kinda see this hinted at in the beginning of the film when Kujan states that cops almost always find what they expect to find; Kujan expected Kint to be a weak patsy protecting Keaton, so that’s the role Kint played. He even went as far as to feign cerebral palsy. This, of course, calls into question the reality of everything we saw during the course of the film and turns Kujan’s (and the audience’s) understanding of the situation on its head. This is the best twist ending imaginable because it doesn’t just shock the audience with its initial reveal, it also fundamentally changes the film upon watching it a second time.