In the movie Adaptation a fictionalized-Charlie Kaufman, attends a screenwriting seminar by a fictionalized-Robert McKee, the noted screenwriting guru and author of the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. At the seminar, in the middle of a batch of voice-over, McKee castigates his group of would-be screenwriters, in a delicious bit of irony, to avoid voice-overs in their work as it smacks of narrative weakness.
Though this was intended only for its ironic effect I couldn’t help but think that maybe McKee had missed a real narrative weakness, one that I’m beginning to wish was eradicated completely from the filmmaking process, which is the over-reliance of modern filmmakers on the twist ending.
***Warning, here there be spoilers***
What is a Twist Ending?
Wikipedia defines a twist ending as “an unexpected conclusion or climax to a work of fiction…which often contains irony or causes the audience to reevaluate the narrative or characters.” Though Wikipedia is hardly a bastion of truth and honesty – more likely the bastion of misinformation and obfuscation – there is little reason to argue with this definition.
Over the course of history many types of twist endings have developed, including Chekov’s Gun, and Anagnorisis, and some of the greatest works of fiction and drama have employed a twist ending of some sort. Perhaps the original – or at least the most famous – occurs in Oedipus, wherein, after attempting to avoid the fate prophesied for him, that he would murder his father and marry his own mother, Oedipus discovers, much to his horror, the prophecy has come true. Promptly, he puts his own eyes out. Equally famous is the ending of MacBeth, where, as the king lays dying from wounds suffered at the hand of Macduff – a man “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d,” – he suddenly realizes that the witches prophecy that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” has come to pass after all.
Though twist endings had their beginning in fiction and drama – there certainly were no films in 500 A.D. – when the moving picture arrived it picked up device with a vengeance. Vertigo, a sadly overlooked film, at least in its own time, has not one twist, but two. Witness for the Prosecution, Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the play based on the short-story by Agatha Christie, used a twist that was later recycled for an episode of Law and Order. The twist of Psycho, another Hitchcock film, has become so well known it’s now a punch line, just like the twists at the end of Planet of the Apes and Empire Strikes Back.
Naturally, TV hurried to join the act as well. There is the aforementioned episode of Law and Order, several episodes of The Prisoner, and others. Perhaps the most famous twist – at least to some – is the ending of the Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough at Last. For those who don’t know it the episode centers on a bank clerk, played by Burgess Meredith, who manages to survive a nuclear disaster because he’s reading in the vault on his lunch hour. On the verge of suicide he heads off to the library, where he finds he finally has time enough to read everything he ever wanted, in peace and quiet. Before he can open the first volume, though, he stumbles and breaks his glasses, in a cruel twist of fate.
As famous as this episode is, and it’s rightfully famous, its hardly the only one in which that series employed a twist ending. Indeed, twist endings were the Twilight Zone’s stock-in-trade.
Re-emergence of the Twist Ending
Twist endings never really went away so to say they ‘re-emerged’ is somewhat disingenuous. However, given how TV bastardized the twist the fact that they returned to films, as the ‘in-vogue’ narrative device, means it’s as close to a re-emergence as we may see and so that’s what we’ll call it.
If Oedipus is the classic example of twist endings, then the modern standard-bearer has to be M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 ‘horror/thriller,’ The Sixth Sense. The Sixth Sense is the story of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), whose marriage is seemingly in disarray after he is shot by a former patient. Into his life comes a young boy, the in-artfully named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who claims he can see dead people. At the end, when the curtain is pulled back, it is revealed that one of those dead people is indeed Dr. Malcolm Crowe.
Released in what was, until then, the doldrums of August, the movie went b-a-n-a-n-a-s at the box office. It hauled in $293 million in the United States alone and turned Shyamalan into an overnight sensation. The reason is surely the films ending, which was shocking to moviegoers and forced them to second and third viewings just to understand what they’d seen.
For months water-cooler talk was alive with the final revelation, but don’t let yourselves be mislead to think it was a big deal only with ticket buyers because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was just as charmed, nominating it for six Oscars. In a nifty twist of fate the film lost every award it was nominated for, most of them to the also-told-by-a-dead-guy-story-though-not-dead-in-a-twist-ending-sort-of-way, American Beauty.
Twist Ending: A Thing of Beauty
When done right, a twist ending can be a thing of beauty. It can surprise, it can inspire, it can make a body think, and isn’t that the point of good drama? Just imagine how movies like The Prestige and The Others were made all the more amazing by their endings and just how the twists forced you to see everything again in a different light and with all new meaning and depth and gradations that didn’t seem to exist before.
The decades best example of a twist done right was the film Memento. To this day I distinctly remember driving home from the theater late that night fresh from understanding that Leonard had used his own handicap to excuse himself morally for Teddy’s murder and just how alive my mind was trying to decipher the twist and just what the movie meant in light of it. Even now the ending still has me in awe, just from the implications alone. It’s clear to see, then, that when a twist is done right, it makes the movie electric.
Sometimes, though, a twist doesn’t have to have such high-minded goals and that’s fine too. Sometimes it’s enough to know that a twist can shock, can give you one last little scare after you thought you’d already figured it all out. Or it can invest a film with extra menace, that one little smack in the back of the head to send you on your way.
Every time I watch the movie Frailty – a sadly under-looked film – and see the static roll across the video monitor at the end of the film as Mathew McConaughey wanders off into the night, it still gives me chills. Anybody who’s seen the original Dutch-language version of The Vanishing – not the vapid Hollywood remake – will never forget the horror of the main character waking up in the coffin to learn the truth of his girlfriends disappearance some years ago, only to realize she too was buried alive. And just think of how much different The Blair Witch Project would have been if at the end Heather and Mike and found it was just nothing but a little hysteria and they all just died from exposure. Certainly the movie would be tragic and frightening but it’s that last shot, that last image of Mike standing in the corner before the camera goes dead, that little twist of a moment that makes you think ‘maybe this is real’ and absolutely urges the movie to heights it could have never otherwise reached.
Twist Endings: A Beast
Sadly, while a twist done right is a thing of beauty, aside from a few isolated examples as of late they’ve just been a bunch of beasts. Buoyed by the box office success of The Sixth Sense, a legion of screenwriters and filmmakers decided they too needed a twist ending to add to their mundane soufflés, but rather than use the twist to improve the art of filmmaking and stretch the bounds of narrative, these wanna-be-Shyamalan’s were much more interested in having another commodity to exploit – in the same vein of the busty, bubble-headed blonde running around in slo-mo, the dude with the perfect smile and rock-hard abs, and the pop songs on the soundtrack – than in narrative fidelity. And by ignoring the narrative in these films it’s not surprising that as twist-endings have become de rigueur the movies themselves have become simply dreadful and stretch all credibility.
Consider the grimy, grim hit, Saw. The movie, at least the propulsive portion of it, takes place entirely within a single room, between two men chained to the wall, a dead body between them. For what seems like hours they try understand why they are there and to solve their way out of the puzzle. It is only at the end, after Cary Elwes has sawn through his ankle – that Prince Wesley was in this movie is a true example of an actor slumming – that the dead body suddenly stands up and walks out. For a split second this seems like the height of sadism, the Jigsaw killer laying there in the room pretending to be dead as these two argued just for the kicks, until one thinks about what it would require of a person to actually lay on the floor, completely still and seemingly dead. Only in the movies would this fallacy be accepted with a straight face, at least by the characters.
Thinking about it, though, I can’t help but wonder if it’s lazy filmmaking by the copycats that are to blame for the illogicality of the twist endings, or if it’s something deeper, something else entirely. Upon consideration it seems to me that just as the success of the twist in The Sixth Sense is to blame for its appearance in a hundred facsimiles, so too is it to blame for how illogical they’ve become.
I have never denied that I disdain The Sixth Sense, and why shouldn’t I? It’s deadly dull, paced like a lead balloon, and is about as fun as a funeral for a busload of girl scouts. The dialog? Stilted and contrived? The look? Muddy. And the scares? Not so scary. The only thing that makes it meaningful, in any way, is the twist, and even then the twist makes no sense, even under the most cursory examination. That such a head scratcher of an ending can be so lauded and lucrative has to be the cause of a thousand shadows that followed behind it, as bad as the one before.
The greatest injustice, though, is that The Sixth Sense was a lousy movie made ‘good’ by the twist ending and to me, any movie that needs a twist-ending to make it good is a failure.
Think about it this way. Take the twist out of The Sixth Sense and what do you have? What does the movie amount to? You have a melancholy movie, without much drama, about a failing marriage and a disturbed little boy.
Consider, as an alternative, Citizen Kane, with it’s sled standing in for Chekov’s Gun. Strip it of that last reveal, that last push in on the sled slowly burning up and the realization that image brings with it, that what they were searching for was right there all along and that sometime it’s the minor things that define our entire lives, and what do you have? Is the movie any different? Is it any less daring? Is it any less important? Is it any less than it was? I think not.
Put another way: how does the movie hold up to repeated viewings or even to knowing the twist when seen the first time? Does knowing that Darth is Luke’s father, that Rosebud is a sled, or that Borden and Fallon were the same man makes those films something different? No. They are still great movies. Unfortunately, when you hold The Sixth Sense to the same standard it fails, and that is why it must take the blame for a million imitators.
Sadly, though,, the lesson of The Sixth Sense to moviemakers is that a lousy movie can be made ‘good’ with a twist, meaning that there’s no need to concentrate on anything else. And when so many movies are following the lead of a failure, it’s not surprising that they’re all a little bit terrible.
The True Victim
As much as movies have been dumbed-down by this twist-happy culture, the real victim of the madness is the man who made them so popular in the first place, M. Night Shyamalan. In fact, it’s just about ruined him.
I’ll say it again, I think The Sixth Sense is a lousy movie – the twist is the only thing the movie has and that isn’t saying much – but assuming, for the sake of argument, that that the movie was good, look at what its success did to the director. His follow up was the big-budget meditation on comic books tropes, Unbreakable – how pretentious is a person when they meditate on comic book tropes – which was received with indifference. Signs made a boatload of money but when the meaning of the wife’s dying words were revealed I felt like I’d been ripped off – and this does not even mention that the invading aliens chose to land on a planet covered with water when water was toxic to them. The Village, which everybody else hated but I kind of liked, worked pretty well as a thriller and evoked a certain time and mood until the final twist, which strained all credibility. On the upside, at least he didn’t give himself a part in that film like he had in the previous three. (ACTUALLY, He was in that movie; I’d so wanted to forget the ending that I blocked his part in it; thanks to the commentor for bringing that back to my attention). After that came the one-two punch of the dreadful Lady in the Water and the laughable The Happening. Up next: The Last Airbender. Ugh.
Shyamalan is the most notable victim of this twist-happiness simply because, with a career built on the success of a movie dominated by a twist ending, he’s spent the last decade trying to top that one moment. Unfortunately, though, instead of finding spectacular ways of outdoing himself he’s failed time and again. Still, the deepest cut of all has to be the knowledge that when his work is stripped of the one thing that made him – the twist – he’s exposed as exactly what he is: a mundane writer, a lousy actor and barely-competent ‘auteur.’
Given all this it’s tempting to call for a moratorium on twist-endings, at least based on M. Night’s recent work, but given that so many other filmmakers have artfully employed them, I am torn. It’s the age old question of the sweet and sour that Jason Lee expounds upon in Vanilla Sky, a movie with its own marginally successful twist. The sweet, is never as sweet without the sour. So, are good twist endings really good if there are no bad twist endings?
Perhaps, under the circumstances, it’s best to let Shyamalan stand as nothing more than a symbol, a warning to all would-be filmmakers. Those who would like to deploy a twist ending are free to do so but would do well to tread lightly. After all, once Pandora opened the box, there was no reigning in the evils that she wrought upon the world.