(Ed note: This article purposely discusses key plot twists and twist endings in Shyamalan’s films as well as those in some other films (Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, Oldboy) so please be aware if you are “spoiler” sensitive or have not seen these films. You have been warned.)
The twist ending has been a part of storytelling since people began telling stories. Concealing plot points and keeping viewers on their toes is imperative to keep people reading or watching or listening. There are obviously other ways to do this besides a twist ending, but some people take to the twist and never let go.
One of these people is M. Night Shyamalan, director and writer of such films as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Lady in the Water. It is truly amazing Shyamalan doesn’t have more films on “Best of Twist Endings” lists purely because of how many he has. If you are acquainted with his catalogue, then it makes total sense. Too many of his twists are lame and almost painful. There is almost disrespect for the audience’s intelligence in a few of his twists. Others are just eye-roll worthy. Then there are a few that truly knock you back and make your jaw drop.
First, it’s important to inspect some of the best in twist endings, and consequently my favorites, before returning to Shyamalan.
3. Chinatown (1974) has one of the most classic twist endings and it is difficult to quantify just where it actually ranks among others. The quality of the film itself launches it to third best in my book. Also the incest factor somehow always makes a twist that much better (see next entry). This neo-noir classic featuring Jack Nicholson as private investigator, J. J. Gittes, is based on the (historic) California Water Wars. Gittes become embroiled in a murder investigation that leads him to uncovering more than he bargained for within the corrupt workings of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The twist, that Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) sister is also her daughter, is mind blowing. Somehow it had not been ruined for me as I may have just ruined it for you, but as classic as this film is in American film history, you probably already knew. If not, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
2. Oldboy (2003) the number two favorite twist of mine also includes, wait for it… incest. And that is all I will say about that. If you haven’t seen Oldboy, please do yourself a favor and pretend like the American remake with Josh Brolin does not exist. It is terrible. It is an abomination compared to the incredible South Korean original. Push past the subtitles if you have qualms with them and watch this film. It is fantastic.
(Also, I’m not sure what it is about incest, but it makes for a damn good twist in neo-noir films, which I believe is the only platform in which it works. Such a taboo fits with the dark undertones that make up a great neo-noir film.)
1. Probably the greatest twist ever in the history of cinema came at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995). I may have spoiled Chinatown, but so help me God I won’t ruin this twist. I remember watching this film with my father and when Keyser Söze finally revealed himself I literally gasped as my dad laughed at my reaction. He of course had seen the movie and was excited that I found as much thrill in the reveal as he had after his first viewing.
The film portrays Kevin Spacey as Roger “Verbal” Kint, a con artist who is one of two survivors of a fire aboard a docked ship in San Pedro Bay. He tells the story of how he and a few other criminals came to be on the boat after the job was given to them by a mysterious crime boss, Söze. It is a captivating neo-noir crime thriller that deserves the utmost attention when viewing.
Back to Shyamalan and his ostentatious use of twist endings. Look at any “Best of” list for twist endings and you’re bound to see at least The Sixth Sense (1999) somewhere on there, which is completely deserved. The film is so simple. Haley Joel Osment gives a fantastic and chilling performance and the storytelling is so precise that we were all fooled when it was revealed that Bruce Willis’ character was dead the whole time.
It was and still is Shyamalan’s best twist ending. Since then he has been trying to live up to it and has fallen short. Not every twist that Shyamalan writes is complete shit–they are more forehead-slap-worthy, but no doubt they fail to produce the desired effect.
Let’s run through a few of them quickly:
Unbreakable (2000) Shyamalan’s second attempt at a twist ending and also his second best, again features Willis. This time he is as an unbreakable man, the sole survivor of a brutal train wreck, whose kryptonite is water. I recently watched the movie with a preconception of Shyamalan’s twist endings and didn’t expect too much, but I was legitimately surprised by how much sense the twist made. In terms of the story telling and directing the film itself leaves something to be desired. It makes quick, almost genre changing leaps, which Kevin Smith knows doesn’t work, (see Red State). It is in the finale that the film comes back to itself and wraps the story up with a tiny little bow and may genuinely surprise you.
That is when things start to go off the rails, no pun intended. Shyamalan’s attempt at the extraterrestrial, in Signs (2002) went well up until the ending. Of course the young daughter, Abigail Breslin, had a thing with water and would leave cups around the house. Of course Joaquin Phoenix’ character was a former baseball player, and of course the aliens are defeated by water. Perfectly, Phoenix can “swing away,” as he is told to do sending cups of water into all of the attacking alien’s faces.
What is it with Shyamalan and water?
It really is a great movie until the ending. For once, Shyamalan, please give us a legit ending. Sadly that is impossible and The Village (2004) came next. This film is almost good until the ending when it is revealed they’ve been living in present times the whole time! The elders just wanted to maintain a 19th century lifestyle. There are so many problems with this one I can’t even begin to go through them all, but the one that gets me most is they were located in Pennsylvania. Is there even enough remote land for this to be possible in present day Pennsylvania?
The Happening (2008) might be my least favorite Shyamalan movie and it will be the last I discuss here for its particularly cringe-inducing twist. After people start killing themselves across the country en masse, a man and his wife go on the run to avoid whatever it is that is causing the hysteria. What seems to be an airborne toxin possibly created by the Russians* (is how it would have gone in a normal movie) is actually a toxin being released by plants which causes people to kill themselves. Plants. Not Russians.
Shyamalan has taken too many liberties with twist endings. He needs to be stopped. 2010’s Devil was an abomination, Lady in the Water (2006) should never have been made and now we have The Visit to look forward to later this year.
The concept seems a little cheap; grand kids visit their grandparents but aren’t allowed to leave the bedroom after 9:30 p.m. lest they see the strange things that are afoot. But it has potential. I just hope Shyamalan can write a story of its own merit and not need a twist ending to keep us hooked.
Obviously a twist ending can be employed with success. We’ve seen it many times before. But it is also a cheap way to keep people interested in a movie and can sometimes have disastrous results. We’re curious. We’re built to want answers and when you throw a mystery at us, we need to know the answer. So we will sit through the film and try to solve the mystery hoping the answer satisfies us. It’s when the answer is plants that we drop back into our seats and mumble some bullshit about how that movie was a waste of our time.
M. Night Shyamalan needs to learn movies don’t need twists to be good. He needs to learn that too many of us see him as a punch line. He’s a great writer for all intents and purposes; he just needs to put that to good use and refrain from twisting our arms.
Steve Pipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Step On magazine. He enjoys writing for both the screen and TV. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website. Steve wrote recently on The Films of Spike Jonze: ranked, as well as reviews of Almost Famous and High Fidelity.