Twenty years ago this week, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects opened in theaters, and everybody lost their minds. What seemed initially to be a low-budget indie neo-noir/Tarantino riff became the summer’s must-see movie, launching the careers of director Singer, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and co-stars Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro, among others. It ended up not only nabbing two Oscars (for McQuarrie and Spacey), but also redefining the “twist” ending, becoming a kind of shorthand for a left-field, eleventh-hour plot development that reconfigures everything that’s come before. But it was neither the first nor the last movie to do that ending, or do it well.
(And before you go clicking through and raging in the comments, Chuck-heads, no, your beloved Fight Club isn’t on here, because Fight Club does not have a good twist ending. Unlike the last-minute sucker punches of the films that follow, it arrives far too damn early, causing viewers — or this viewer, at least — to spend much of the film’s third act puzzling out the twist and finding its many holes, rather than paying attention to what’s happening on screen. Decent movie, mediocre twist.)
(And also, many spoilers to follow, duh.)
The mother of all twist endings (see what I did there?), Psycho is also a classic case, stylistically, of the dog wagging the tail rather than the other way around. Because the film makes such a leap to that ending, it could easily have been handled clumsily or even comically (this was 1960, after all). But because Hitchcock’s style, even in this stripped-down, low-budget, black-and-white form, was so lurid and Gothic and over the top, the logistics of putting across “Mother’s” secret — the way she’s photographed, her exaggerated voice, etc. — merely seem like Hitch doing his thing. That notoriously miscalculated explainer at the end dulls the impact a bit, but this is nonetheless a terrific twist, capping off a spectacular (and spectacularly influential) horror flick.
Planet of the Apes
Apes co-screenwriter Rod Serling loved a good twist ending — this was the creator and key writer of The Twilight Zone, after all — so the game-changer at the end of the original 1968 adaptation of Pierre Bouelle’s novel was sort of a given. Invented by Serling for his screenplay (the book’s ending was, in fact, much closer to the dreadful conclusion of Tim Burton’s ill-advised remake), the revelation — that the distant planet “where apes evolved from man” was, in fact, Earth itself far in the future — was a masterstroke, and one conveyed via the simple, stark, and iconic image of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the sand.
Apes star Charlton Heston was a bit of a twist-ending magnet; five years after weeping in the sand, he headlined Richard Fleisher’s classic story of a post-greenhouse world and the food supply that nourishes it. Or, as Heston’s Detective Thorn famously puts it, “Soylent green…. Is people!” Frankly, it’s hard to know what’s made the movie such an enduring favorite — the genius of the twist, or the strangulated intensity of Heston’s line reading.
“I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you the truth,” Faye Dunaway insists breathlessly, and that’s all par for the course in Roman Polanski’s homage to the classic private-eye pictures of the ‘40s and beyond — in which the beautiful dame paying the bills never owns up to her true intentions, and half the mystery for the gumshoe at the center is cracking the client’s bullshit story. But the Hays Code prevented those movies from ever uncovering an answer as ruthlessly shocking as the one screenwriter Robert Towne cooked up.
And that particular, very queasy topic brings us to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, which seems, for much of its running time, a stylishly executed revenge thriller in which Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) attempts to discover who kidnapped and imprisoned him for several years, and why. The story concludes with him finally unlocking that mystery — and another one he wasn’t expecting, concerning the backstory of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the kind young woman who took him in, helped him in his search, and became his lover. Suffice it to say, he comes to regret that last descriptor.
No Way Out
Some twists, you see coming a mile away. But the best ones are the totally unexpected, in which a movie seems to be humming along on one clear track, and then suddenly, the filmmakers trip a switch. That’s what happens in No Way Out, director Roger Donaldson’s gripping 1987 thriller, which plays out as a love triangle mystery, with Gene Hackman escaping blame for the murder of his lover and Kevin Costner investigating that murder, in which he is also implicated. And then, in its final, stunning scene, Donaldson and screenwriter Robert Garland really drop the hammer.
The Sixth Sense
The closing revelation of M. Night Shyamalan’s monster 1999 hit — that protagonist Bruce Willis, who had been helping Haley Joel Osment cope with his visions of ghosts, didn’t realize he was one himself — became a Suspects-style classic, a simple yet devastating narrative recalibration that takes full advantage of our limited view of the events onscreen. But it also became a trap for the filmmaker, who was expected — by audiences, himself, or some combination of both — to replicate it in each subsequent picture, with rapidly diminishing results. In retrospect, everyone (Shyamalan included) seemed to forget that Sixth Sense wasn’t just about that ending, or only great because of it; this was a film of emotion, tension, and sensitive storytelling, where the twist ending was the cherry on top of the dessert, and not the entire meal.
Under most circumstances, the “It’s all in his head” twist ending would land with about the same ingenuity as “It was all a dream.” But the genius of Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s cause célèbre novel is how thoroughly she burrows into the mind of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), how her film does not flinch in the face of its considerable, and often comic, violence and gore, so that when the twist arrives, it doesn’t feel like a cheat — but like the only logical conclusion to what’s come before.
Once again, a case of the twist as bait-and-switch: David Fincher’s 1995 breakthrough film spends nearly two hours as a police procedural, albeit a particularly grisly, gory, and unsettling one. But there’s nothing particularly surprising in it: crime scenes are surveyed, motives are floated, a suspect is pinpointed, a grudging respect develops between the two mismatched detectives. And then screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker throws out the rulebook, marching the suspect into police headquarters (covered in blood, natch) to turn himself in, throwing the entire well-established narrative into a tailspin that only becomes clear when Morgan Freeman’s Somerset opens that box.
The Usual Suspects
It’s why we’re here, and for good reason. The magnificence of McQuarrie’s screenplay isn’t just that he thought up a cool twist (or that, like Shyamalan, he wrote a good movie even without said twist). It’s that it’s a cool twist predicated on a notion that wasn’t being used all that much in movies at the time: that of the unreliable narrator, spinning a story that we take at face value because the guy at the center of the movie is telling it, and then springing the idea that maybe it was entirely an improvised fiction. Suspect’s final scene then makes it clear that the truth was in front of us the entire time — in visual cues and telltale dialogue — before checking in one last time with our storyteller, and then getting the hell outta the movie as quickly as possible. It’s a perfect ending, elegantly constructed, stylishly executed, and justifiably celebrated.