NOTE: This article contains a mild spoiler for Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and a major spoiler for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
“The audience knows the truth…the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, you make them wonder and then you [get] to see something really special… the look on their faces.”
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), The Prestige
There’s a peculiar glee to having the rug pulled out from under you. That feeling of having all you assumed to be true thrown into doubt. Because, just for a moment, it feels like anything is possible.
In film, a good twist is more than just an unexpected plot development. It’s a dramatic reveal that changes all that came before it. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Those two characters were actually one character. That last example gets at how invigorating a good twist can feel and how infuriating a bad one can be. Because God knows that particular revelation has been unveiled a couple times to the sound of audience gasps and countless others to disbelieving groans.
In Adaptation, one of the greatest movies about movies, Donald tells his brother Charlie about his screenplay’s brilliant twist.
DONALD: We find out that the killer really suffers from multiple personality disorder, right? See, he’s actually really the cop and the girl. All of them are him. Isn’t that fucked up?
CHARLIE: How could you have somebody held prisoner in a basement and working at a police station at the same time?
DONALD: Trick photography.
After a film like Donald’s has made its final big reveal and the credits are rolling, it’s common to have these sorts of basic logic questions niggling away at you. If the aliens were allergic to water, how’d they make it through our atmosphere? If he wasn’t actually dead, wouldn’t the coroner have said something? If it was all just a dream, why did I have to watch this movie at all? For a twist to work it can’t just be shocking, it has to feel retrospectively inevitable. Meaning that once you know the truth, the rest of the film makes MORE sense, not less. If you re-watch Fight Club or Memento, certain characters actions make a lot more sense than they did the first time around.
Logical consistency isn’t the only thing vital to a good twist. It’s also important for the viewer not to feel cheated. It’s not a particularly impressive twist if the narrator just outright lies to you, claiming the film isn’t going to end a particular way only to have it end that exact way (looking at you, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl). The big reveal should feel both surprising and earned, like the final puzzle piece clicking in place to reveal a completely unexpected picture. In The Usual Suspects, for instance, the tell-tale clues were there to be seen from the start, if only you knew how to look.
The twist can be used to varied emotional effect. In Sleuth or The Sting, for example, you’re provided with a steady supply of unexpected turns that leave you giddy with wonder. They’re like beautiful Rube Goldberg machines, where the delight comes from watching the narrative cogs click perfectly into place. Whereas the twists in Oldboy and Martyrs are emotional gut punches that feel visceral and raw. Often we search for clues during these films, trying to anticipate the ending, but as Michael Caine tells us in The Prestige, “You’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it of course, because you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”
Whether you’re fooled or not will be immediately obvious to anyone watching. It’s the look on your face.