Avid filmgoers like myself are hard to be shocked or suprised what we see on screen. So when a movie manages to catch me off of my guard, it leaves an impression. Few things manage to do this better than a twist. A cinematic standby since the earliest day’s of the medium, they serve as the filmakers equivelent of the magician’s table cloth trick. If done well, it can create a magic movie moment that won’t soon be forgotten; if executed poorly, you’ve got a mess on your hands, often one that can wreck the remainder of the film.
However, a few of these twists elevate themselves to entirely new levels, leaving an impression on the viewer long after the movie is over. From the revelation of what Rosebud was in Citizen Kane to the closing shots of the spinning top in Inception, these twists create some of cinema’s finest moments, and today, I would like to showcase ten of what I feel are the best twist endings of all time.
Of course, it really goes without saying a list covering ten of the biggest movie twists of all time will come with quite a few spoilers, so for those of you who do not wish to risk a few spoiled endings, now is the time to click on a different article. However, if you are curious to see what I consider to be the biggest bombshells in cinematic history, please read on.
10) Primal Fear (1996) – Lawyers are a lousy judge of character, who knew?
This movie begins like any typical courtroom drama, with Richard Gere playing a slick Chicago attorney defending a meek, stuttering alter boy accused of killing an archbishop, whom was later proven to be involved in both sexual abuse and corruption. Things begin to get complicated when it appears that the alter boy, Aaron, suffers from multiple personality disorder, with a violent sociopath alter-ego called Roy – and that neither from can remember what the other does. Gere manages to get Aaron declared not guilty by means of insanity, only for Aaron to reveal he was faking multiple personality disorder – and that ‘Roy’ is his true personality, and that he committed the murder without remorse.
9) Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Eat your heart out Tom Cruise
One problem I always have with historical films, is that as a history buff, I almost always know what will happen in the movie. This proves to be quite annoying in the countless historical thrillers that Hollywood pumps out every year, especially ones with less then a Hollywood ending. Nowhere is this more true than the handful of movies following the various attempts to kill Hitler, which, just as in history, end horribly for the would-be assassins. So when I watched Inglourious Basterds, I expected to see it play out much like the earlier film, Valkyrie, and for a while, it looked like that would be the case. That is, until Eli Roth fired enough rounds into Hitler to turn his remains into paste while a fire consumed the rest of the Nazi high command. This delightful but of counter-factual history caught be completely off-guard, and had much of the theater cheering when it happened. I’ll be honest, it was nice to see the good guys win for once.
8 – Fight Club (1999) – Do not talk about the fight club, especially to yourself
Cult-classic film Fight Club is a movie well-known for it’s trippy and daring storyline, and a big reason for that know doubt has to do with the big twist involving the main characters. The film follows an unnamed narrator suffering from insomnia who becomes acquainted with soap-salesman turned anarchist revolutionary Tyler Durden, whom organized fight clubs across the country which are then used to recruit members of what Tyler calls ‘Project Mayhem from. After a series of events, the narrator comes to realize that he IS Tyler, whom happens to be a dissociated personality of his that controls his body while he sleeps. this culminates in the narrator retaking control of his body by ‘killing’ Tyler and him taking the reigns of Project Mayhem himself.
7) Brazil (1985) – I suppose in a way, he still did escape
Terry Gilliam’s dystopic satire Brazil, which is about a man named Sam struggling to stay sane in an overly-bureaucratic 1984-style dictatorship, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. No doubt a large part of that is due to the ending, which begins to come to climax after Sam is arrested for helping the woman he loves escape from the regime permanently by changing her records. Just as he is strapped to a chair and about to be tortured for information, the resistance leader he helped earlier in the film comes to save him. After a prolonged fire-fight and chase sequence, Sam escapes the Ministry, blows it up behind him, and eventually we see Sam settling down in the country will Jill – only to reveal this happy ending has all been a figment of Sam’s imagination. In reality, the torture has left him essentially brain dead, and the film closes as his interrogators declare him to be a ‘lost cause’, leaving him alone, catatonic, still strapped in the chair humming the movie theme, at long last, free from the insane world around him.
6) Soylent Green (1973) – You are what you eat, literally
Though it’s warning of the ‘imminent dangers of overpopulation’ may seem a tad ridiculous by our standards, it remains one of the finest science fiction films of all time, in a large part thanks to it’s infamous twist ending. The movies follow Thorn, a detective played by Charlton Heston trying to solve the murder of a board member of the Soylent Corporation, eventually follows the trail to one of Soylent Corporation’s production facilities. Once here, he uncovers a horrifying truth: that the popular Soylent Green wafers are made from the only meat still in large supply, human cadavers. In the immortal words of Heston: Soylent Green is people!
5) Psycho (1960) – A boy’s best friend is his mother
Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed master of the unexpected twist, and of all his films, Psycho is the best. The rug is literally torn from beneath the audiences feet several times over the course of the film, with the most famous twist being how the films leading lady is killed off not even half way through the film in the films infamous shower sequence. However, as anyone who has ever seen Psycho knows, that is only the FIRST twist of the movie, and one that falls flat compared to the far bigger twist concerning Norman Bates. Toward the end of the mother, his all-too creepy relationship with his mother becomes infinitely creepier once it is revealed his mother died years earlier, and that she remains alive in some form by means of a portion of his personality that is also responsible for the string of deadly murders. Talk about a momma’s boy.
4) The Usual Suspects (1995) – The greatest trick the devil ever pulled
Keyser Soze, a criminal mastermind of near-legendary repute, has just gotten away with over $91 million in drug money, leaving 27 people dead in his wake, and leaving two survivors: one critically injured Hungarian thug providing details to a police sketch artist, and a crippled con-artist named Verbal Kint, who is providing details of surrounding events to the authorities in exchange for near total-immunity. After telling the officer everything, Kint makes bail and leaves – only for the officer to then notice that the details and names of the story were taken from various objects from around the room. Just as Kint – having dropped his feigned disability – gets into a waiting car, the officer gets the artist’s impression of Soze’s face, which turns out to be Verbal Kint.
3) Planet of the Apes (1968) – We blew it up!
Making the second Charlton Heston-centered science-fiction classic on this list, this one features a twist of, you might say, statue-esque proportions. Heston plays Colonel Taylor, an astronaut who lands on a planet run by sentient primates whom rule over feral humans with an iron fist – Taylor’s two shipmates are even stuffed and put on display and lobotomized. Taylor himself struggles to prove he is no dumb animal himself, as well as figure out where he is exactly. Though the thought that this ape-run planet may very well be Earth is very present throughout the film, and is almost obvious at times, nothing can really beat visual confirmation. As the movie closes with the shot of Colonel Taylor cursing his fore-bearers in front the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, you cannot help but feel your spirit drop and lament the fall of Mankind alongside him.
2) The Sixth Sense (1999) – I am dead people
M. Night Shyalaman may be a one trick pony entirely too dependant on twists in his movies, but considering that he was responsible for this particular gem, it could almost be forgiven (Sorry M. Night, The Last Airbender was unforgivable). The Sixth Sense is one of the most chilling and terrifying horror movies put to film, and it literally keeps on on the edge of your seat until start to finish. That is, until the ending where you will fall out of your seat following one of the most jaw-dropping twists of all time. The movie follows a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis as he tries to help a child who can speak with the dead come to terms with his abilities and use it to help the dead move on into the next life. Turns out to be a perfect job for Bruce, seeing as he’s been dead since the start of the movie. What a twist!
And the number one most shocking movie twist ending of all time?
1) The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Worst Dad Ever
This particular twist has become so legendary that it almost everyone takes it as a fact now, but for anyone who remembers watching the Star Wars Trilogy for the first time, the exchange between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader hit you harder than two proton torpedoes. After coming to Bespin to try and save his friends, Luke instead only succeeds in getting his ass handed to him after a brief dual that costs him his right hand. With Luke dangling over one of the endless chasms of death that seem to frequent the Star Wars universe, Vader offers Luke the chance to join him in ruling the universe. Luke refuses on the grounds Darth Vader killed his father, to which Vader utters five words that made the most legendary twist in movie history – No, I am your father. Not surprisingly, Luke’s and the audience’s reaction was one of utter disbelief and shock.
This twist was huge, greatly changing the entire dynamics of good and evil in the Star Wars trilogy, and affecting everyone who witnessed it. It was everything a good solid movie twist should be – memorable, unexpected, shocking, and changes the way you look at the film in the process. Though three crappy prequels and countless parodies/references may soften the blow for future generations, myself and millions of others will never forget that moment – just as we never saw it coming in the first place.