Thanks to all the twisters and shouters who continue to respond to the column below. The mail on the inclusion of The Usual Suspects (one of my all-time Emperor’s New Clothes pictures) is running about 60/40 in favor of its ignominy. (The positive e-mails contain florid words of thanks, the negative read like they were penned by Keyser Soze.) Speaking of whom: I think reader Robert Massing knows who Keyser Soze is and doesn’t much care. The problem is that the convoluted scheme to ensnare the rest of the characters doesn’t have much of a reason for being.
Unless… the movie is an allegory! Yes, it seems that in art, allegory is the last line of defense. The script of Million Dollar Baby was mothballed and unrealistic—but it was an allegory with boxing as its frame. The Game made no literal sense—but it was an allegory about a man being forced to surrender control to find his faith. I make the same argument myself when I meet critics of Bringing Up Baby, but that film is supposed to make you laugh.
If it’s not allegory, perhaps it is Dostoevskyan! So said defenders of Fight Club, admittedly an inventive and resonant piece of filmmaking. My gripe with the final twist is that it shifts the drama from the realm of the sociological to the realm of the psychoanalytic. And the finale, scored with the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” comes off facetiously—as if director David Fincher is throwing the movie away.
We can certainly argue civilly and in good faith about many of these films and their outlandish endings. But there can be no argument about Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. Sorry. The dozen of you who wrote, “Dude, try reading Pierre Boulle’s original book! It’s the same ending!” should check out my original review, which discusses the novella (something of a Swiftian satire) and concludes that its ending is elaborately set up—whereas Burton’s doesn’t make a lick of sense. So there, dudes.
I don’t want to overpraise The Ring Two (DreamWorks), but it’s refreshing to see an eerie little coastal ghost movie without a twist ending. Directed by Hideo Nakata (who made the original Japanese Ringu), it hits deeper emotionally than its scarier but junkier predecessor. The emphasis here is not on that videotape from hell; it’s on the vengeful child-ghost Samara, who’s trying to take possession of the son (David Dorfman) of the heroine, Rachel (Naomi Watts). As the boy’s body temperature drops, the physical world, bathed in ectoplasmic bad vibes, becomes a Gothic dreamscape, with swirls of long black hair, twisted trees that spontaneously combust, and moose of death. (That is not a misprint.)
The Ring Two is basically an, uh, allegory of motherly love: Accused of child abuse and brought to the brink of child murder, this mother will go to the pit of hell—depicted alternately as a dank well and the inside of a TV—to save her lost child (in this case, from another child come back from the grave to find a mother). Naomi Watts is really some kind of actress. When she casts herself into Samara’s demon sea, she’s like Brunnehilde in Valhalla, only much thinner. …2 p.m. PT
It’s always a delight when a contest elicits not only a flood of responses but of emotions, and on the basis of the 200 or so e-mails I’ve received since last Thursday, this twist endings business gets moviegoers pretty riled up. I got a lot of rants! The inevitable conclusion is that the climactic whammy is a risky play. For every The Sixth Sense, there is a corresponding—well, The Village, to stick with the Shyamster oeuvre.
The challenge here is to do justice to the badness of these endings without spoiling them for people who will now wish, for whatever masochistic reasons, to take a switchback ride into the doo-doo lagoon. So let’s begin merely by citing the most reviled 20 twists. After that, spoilers will be preceded by three exclamation points!!!
By the way: Hoping to gain some insight into the thinking behind the climactic reversal, I wrote to a publicist at New Line asking nicely whether Mike Binder, the writer-director of The Upside of Anger, would care to explain why he ended such a flawed but fundamentally witty and intelligent script with such an idiotic revelation. So far, radio silence.
There were many endings that didn’t fit the category (they were merely stupid, not twisty), and many of which I’m actually fond. Although not all of these are great movies, I like and can defend the finales of Don’t Look Now, Mulholland Drive, The Others, Vanilla Sky (or, more precisely, its Spanish original, Abre Los Ojos), Femme Fatale, Saw, Dark City, eXistenz, and Arlington Road. I can even make a teensy-weensy case for the outlandish revelation at the end of Identity: Dramatically unsatisfying and therapeutically absurd, it warrants at least a point for weirdness. Magnolia? No, sorry Tim Carvell—the frogs rock. Wild Things? No—double-crosses, triple-crosses, and triple-gainer (with a twist) crosses are standard in that sort of noir, and for its Denise Richards-on-Neve Campbell action, I’d forgive it almost anything. (Similarly, such subpar surprise mysteries as Twisted, Masquerade, Color of Night, and Along Came a Spider are very much of their genre.)
After careful consideration of all the submissions, here are my 20 choices for most absurd twist endings, including the three movies I’ve already mentioned.
1. The Life of David Gale
2. The Game
3. Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton version)
5. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)
6. Suspicion (Hitchcock)
7. No Way Out
8. The Village
9. Fight Club
10. The Forgotten
11. Secret Window
12. The Usual Suspects
13. Reindeer Games
14. Never Talk to Strangers
15. Man on Fire
16. I Bury the Living
17. The Contender
18. Swimming Pool
19. The Stepford Wives (remake)
20. The Upside of Anger
Universal peeves: It was all a dream! It was the dark half of the hero or heroine’s split personality! It was all an elaborate (a very, very, very elaborate) scheme to ensnare or frame the hero!
In many of the films above, you can visualize the filmmakers throwing up their hands, testing multiple endings, and being pressured by the studio to use the one that gives the movie the strongest “button”—even if it violates everything that has preceded it.
My choice for the worst twist ever: The Life of David Gale. Is this our generation’s Plan 9 From Outer Space? The dumbness is epic, colossal: You want to sink to your knees to worship the holy mother of moron twist endings. (You could also read my review, which reveals all.)
Director David Fincher has two films up there, and a lot of people suggested a third—Se7en, the end of which is vile and vicious but breathtakingly effective. Joan Allen is in two winners (as the Texas Monthly’s Evan Smith was the first to point out), and so are Kevin Costner, Kevin Spacey, Christopher Walken, and Helena Bonham Carter (only once in chimpanzee makeup). Draw your own conclusions.
One thing you can say for The Village that you can’t for many of the movies with cheap reversals: !!! Whatever the film’s absurdities (the redirection of flight paths is an especial giggle), the Shyamster was trying to explore, with sympathy, the age-old difficulty of separating oneself and one’s family from a diseased society, be it crime-ridden, chaotic, and amoral or governed by rapacious, right-wing corporatists. (Well, the ultraconservative Shyamster didn’t exactly focus on the latter, but it strikes me as the bigger threat right now.) The problem with The Village is that the Shyamster bungled the suspense and couldn’t manage to come up with a cathartic payoff. Audiences felt rooked.
I Bury the Living is my contribution. It’s nine-tenths of a chilling low budget ‘50s horror film (a minor classic, and a predecessor to something like the Ring movies) destroyed by a nonsensically spurious, down-to-earth explanation. When I complained about the ending to the director, the late Albert Band, he hung his head and apologized.
Much mail about Basic—which I watched over the weekend for the first time. Yep, the ending blows. Bertolt Brecht couldn’t have devised a better alienation effect: They might as well have ended with the scenery being carted off and the stars taking swigs of spring water while getting back rubs from their assistants and laughing about the suckers who bought tickets.
Although it’s not exactly premise-demolishing, the revelation of Man on Fire is in a special category of disgustingness. !!! Little Dakota Fanning gets kidnapped and murdered by Mexico City scum, after which her bodyguard, Denzel Washington—a down-and-out alcoholic until the little girl brought him back to life—taunts, tortures, and executes (to cheers from the audience) the people responsible. Then she turns out to be alive, and anyway, it was her debt-ridden dad who had her kidnapped, and we should probably feel bad about the people who died horribly but what’s a few degenerate Mexicans more or less, right?
I’ll let some of my correspondents take over—and it’s !!! from here on. Thanks everyone who wrote with suggestions and who said kind things about the column. May all your twists be Chubby Checker-worthy.
Oh, it was aliens. Surprise. Oh, and they were experimenting on how deep runs the bond between a mother/father and child. Of course! That clears up everything! Oh, and since your love for your son can’t be broken, you get him back… and somehow everyone gets to go back in time and no more people are sucked up into the sky, even cops who had nothing to do with it. It’s kind of like it all never happened, but you still remember it happened, which is not clear but that’s okay because the ending is shot in blurry autumnal focus … Surprise!
Justine Emma Barron
My disbelief refused to suspend itself when Michael Douglas chose just the right section of roof to jump from.
I saw the twist ending coming within the first ten minutes, and spent the remaining eight hours of the film coming up with better twist endings:
- The village is on the bottom of the ocean
- The village is in a frighteningly plausible apocalyptic near future
- The village is surrounded by dinosaurs
- The village is on the moon
- The village is part of an elaborate reality TV series
- The village is microscopic, and located at the center of an atom
The Village is remarkable, as its twist ending is not only worse (or at least less interesting) than that of any other movie, it’s worse than any other ending that is conceivable. In mathematical terms, the value of twist ending in The Village is less than epsilon, for any epsilon.
Simon de Vet
We’re led to believe that the John Turturro character is picking off all of Johnny Depp’s friends, and he turns out to be a figment of Depp’s imagination?? How did they pitch this script? The Hitcher meets Harvey??
I figured it out after about the first fifteen minutes. What tipped me off was how bad John Turturro’s hillbilly accent was. It could only be the product of a hack writer’s imagination …
The Usual Suspects
I know everyone will disagree with me; in fact, many will rank this among the BEST endings of all time. But that is because everyone is an idiot. As it turns out, he made the whole thing up! He lifted names from the stuff on the detective’s office wall! Oh my God! Brilliant! Who is Kaiser Sose? We’ll never know! Wow!
Planet of the Apes (remake)
I imagine you’ll get a lot of entries claiming that the twist ending of the Planet of the Apes remake was the worst ever, but I loved it. Tim Burton clearly had to do some sort of twist ending since the original’s ending was among the most famous… I’m sure he resented this (after all what could be more irritating than having to surprise the audience when the audience is expecting a surprise?), so he put in the most implausible ending possible—an ape’s face on the Lincoln Monument. This made no sense whatsoever in the context of the film or otherwise, which undoubtedly tormented those who wracked their brains trying to figure it out, but it was a neat wink at the original in that they both involved the desecration of highly recognizable American symbols. A very funny prank all around.
[You just keep thinkin’, Butch. That’s what you’re good at…–DE]
I think I must have been one of the five who saw it in the theater. Directed by that beacon of great film, Emilio Estevez, it’s a Bonnie-and-Clyde fable with Estevez and his then-real-life fiancée Demi Moore in which they go on a crime spree and they both get shot and killed in the end. Except that the whole crime spree, media fascination with them and their violent deaths were all—a daydream while he was in the bathtub! His fingers must have been prunes by that time.
[I didn’t see this one. Never will, now.—DE]
Making Jon Voight [Mr. Phelps] the villain not only was a rock stupid way to usher in the last act of the film, it was shockingly disrespectful to the legacy of the original show, if not Peter Graves.
The Max Fischer Players
[Yeah, this should get a special prize for infamy. It demolishes not only the movie but the whole TV series.—DE]
Let’s Get Meta
Films such as Mulholland Drive, Memento, Vanilla Sky, and A Beautiful Mind all came out in 2000-2001. They all had similar twists, in which what appeared to be the story was deconstructed and revealed to be the lead character’s subjective misinterpretation of reality. They followed Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, in 1999. That is a very specific kind of twist seeming to be born out of a specific post-millennial anxiety. I say that because some very smart and unique filmmakers were all sort of headed in the same direction.
Justine Emma Barron
[I suppose there is a paper to be written on fin de siecle versus post-millennial anxiety—DE]
Obligatory Signs Insult
Aliens die as a result of being exposed to water. Why would they even come here in the first place? The atmosphere is about 3 percent water vapor and the earth is predominantly covered with water. Furthermore, they have the technology for space travel, but have no ability to make a waterproof suit? Whatever.
Jonathan Bearr, Environmental Scientist
And who can resist…
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Ewok dance party. Need I say more?
The Passion of the Christ
He’s not really dead!