Cinema's 13 Most Underrated Plot Twists, From 'The Usual Suspects' To 'The Prestige'
Who is Keyser Söze? 20 years ago, on Aug. 16, 1995, a little crime drama called The Usual Suspects was released in theaters. It was directed by Bryan Singer, the man who would go on to kickstart our culture's superhero obsession with 2000's X-Men. It was penned by Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter who would go on to direct Tom Cruise in this summer's smash hit Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation . It starred an emerging actor named Kevin Spacey who would go on to win an Academy Award for his role as Verbal Kint — and who would, one month later, turns heads as the villainous John Doe in David Fincher's Se7en, launching a career leading him to a second Oscar win (for American Beauty) and a Golden Globe (for House Of Cards ). It also featured an ending that was so mind-boggling, it would go down in history as one of cinema's greatest plot twists.
Whenever anyone is putting together a list of the craziest twist endings in movie history, the revelation that (spoiler alert!) meek Verbal Kint is criminal mastermind Keyser Söze (end spoiler) almost always ranks highly among them. (Actually let me just go ahead and say that this entire article is pretty much one big spoiler alert. You've been warned.) Most of those lists are also populated by a host of usual suspects — pun intended — including Fight Club, Se7en, and The Sixth Sense. And while those are all undeniably terrific twists, in honor of The Usual Suspects' 20th anniversary, I wanted to put together a list of unusual suspects.
What follows is a list of cinema's most underrated plot twists. Each of them takes a type of twist popularized by a film usually found on lists like this and executes it just as well — or better.
(One last time: MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT. The endings of all these films WILL be spoiled!)
The "Who's Your Daddy?" Twist, as popularized by: Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
When people think of Star Wars, they think of lightsabers and Yoda's convoluted syntax. But the franchise is also responsible for one of the most famous twists of all time. (And yes, even audiences back in 1978 had to contend with bothersome spoilers.) This 2008 action flick — which, fun fact, contains a cameo by pre-fame Chris Pratt — featured a variation on the same twist when the villainous assassin that James McAvoy's character was charged with hunting down turned out to be his own father, who was actually trying to protect his son from the real villain: Morgan Freeman.
The "Mommy Did It" Twist, as popularized by: Friday The 13th
Another parental-themed twist. Most people associate the Friday The 13th franchise with hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees. But the killer in the original 1980 film was actually Jason's mother, Pamela Voorhees, seeking vengeance for her son's death, who drowned when the counselors failed to supervise him properly. Similarly, in this moody 2013 thriller, Hugh Jackman's character suspects mentally unstable Alex of kidnapping his daughter — even going so far as to torture the young man — but it turns out Alex's surrogate mother, aunt Holly, was the real culprit. (And she wasn't Alex's real aunt, either; he was simply her very first kidnapping victim.)
11. Shutter Island
The "He's Crazy!" Twist, as popularized by: Fight Club
Is there any twist more classic than the revelation that the main character was crazy the whole time. Fight Club, in which Tyler Durden turns out to be a figment of the Narrator's imagination, is far from the only example: Hide And Seek, Identity, Primal Fear, Secret Window, and more have all featured variations on this theme. But one of the best examples in recent years is this 2010 thriller, in which it's revealed that Leonardo DiCaprio's U.S. Marshal is actually an inmate at the mental hospital he's investigating. What makes Shutter Island's twist stand out is how superbly it's executed by director Martin Scorsese: even if you saw it coming, the way the twist plays out, with Leo's slowly unraveling sanity and the unexpected depths of the conspiracy surrounding him, is still chillingly effective.
The "Unreliable Narrator" Twist, as popularized by: The Usual Suspects
The reason the Usual Suspects twist is so compelling is because he rarely expect our narrators to lie to us. This unreliable narrator trope can be traced back to Agatha Christie's 1926 novel The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, in which it's ultimately revealed that the narrator was the murderer — he just neglected to mention that fact to us, the readers. When this 1998 thriller starts with the words, "I'm gonna tell you about the time I almost died," we assume they're spoken by Denzel Washington's character, Detective John Hobbes. So it's a punch in the gut when the ending comes and Hobbes becomes possessed by Azazel, and we realize that the demon has been narrating the entire film, not Hobbes.
9. Final Destination 5
The "Surprise Setting" Twist, as popularized by: Planet Of The Apes
"You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!" And so ends the 1968 sci-fi classic, when our hero realizes that he's been on Earth the whole time. For the entire duration of the film, astronaut George Taylor, along with the audience, has assumed that he crash landed on an alien planet dominated by ape-like creatures. The twist comes from the fact that the entire film has been taking place in a setting contrary to that assumption. This exact twist is what makes Final Destination 5 far more clever than the fifth entry in any waning horror franchise has any right to be. While we naturally assume that the events are taking place after Final Destinations 1-4, the ending reveals that the 2011 "sequel" is actually a prequel taking place in 2000, as our protagonists die in the fiery plane crash that opens the original film in the franchise.
8. Gone Girl
The "Unexpectedly Early" Twist. As popularized by: Psycho
Yes, the "twist" in David Fincher's 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel is that Amy faked her own abduction. But the real twist is how early in the film this twist is revealed. While other, lesser films may have saved that revelation for a dramatic eleventh-hour gasp, Gone Girl's twist happens barely midway through the movie's 150-minute run time, leaving well over an hour to deal with the ramifications of the game-changing revelation. Similarly, modern viewers might consider Psycho's twist to be the final reveal that Norman Bates was the murderer, audiences in 1960 were just as (if not more) shocked by the twist that Janet Leigh — by far the film's biggest star and its ostensible protagonist — was killed off a mere 45 minutes into the movie.
The "Undiscovered" Twist, as popularized by: Citizen Kane
There is a rare but effective subgenre of twist that only gets discovered by the audience themselves, while going completely unnoticed by the movie's characters. Citizen Kane is by far the most famous example of this, as viewers are provided with the revelation that "Rosebud" is the name of Kane's childhood sled thanks to a shot of the sled just before it's thrown onto a bonfire; however, the meaning of Kane's dying word forever remains a mystery to the characters in the film itself. This 2002 thriller contains multiple twists: that Matthew McConaughey is the killer, who's been posing as his own brother; and that he's not crazy, but is actually an instrument of god, striking down demons on Earth. But the most ironic part of the twist is that the only person he reveals the truth to turns out to be one of said demons, who he immediately kills, preserving his secret and leaving the twist "undiscovered."
The "Incest" Twist, as popularized by: Chinatown
Long before Game Of Thrones made incest an acceptable trope in popular culture, the revelation that family members had been... intimate... was still taboo enough to be shocking. Famously, 1974's Chinatown ended with the revelation that the daughter of Faye Dunaway's character Evelyn was also her sister, having been conceived by Evelyn's father. In this 2003 South Korean thriller, our protagonist Oh Dae-Su falls in love with a young woman after having spent 15 years in captivity. (I'm sure you can see where this is going.) Of course, it turns out that his captor has arranged an elaborate revenge scheme that involved manipulating Dae-Su into sleeping with his own now-adult daughter. Gross. When Dae-Su learns the truth, he's so traumatized he cuts out his own tongue. As if that wasn't enough of a twist, the film ends with Dae-Su seeking out a hypnotist who can make him forget what he learned... so that he can continue the relationship happily oblivious of the terrible truth.
5. No Way Out
The "Protagonist Did It" Twist, as popularized by: Memento
Guy Pearce spends all of Memento trying to track down his wife's killer while struggling with his own amnesia, only to learn that he himself is the one who accidentally killed her with an insulin overdose. At least he'd forgotten the truth, so the revelation was as much a surprise to him as it was to the audience. Kevin Costner's Lieutenant Farrell has no such excuse. In this 1987 thriller, Farrell is tasked with hunting down a KGB spy within the U.S. Navy. Guess who the mole turns out to be? You guessed it: handsome young Costner himself... although he's able to successfully frame someone else for his misdeeds, which means this could also land in the category of "undiscovered" twists.
4. Matchstick Men
The "They Were In On It The Whole Time" Twist, as popularized by: The Game
David Fincher's 1997 thriller The Game is one of the notoriously twisty movies in existence, as the line between the fabricated "game" and the protagonist's real life grows increasingly blurry. Of course, it turns out in the end that it all really was a game: everyone, from his brother to his waitress to strangers on the street, were all in on the elaborate hoax. That's a remarkably upbeat ending compared to Ridley Scott's 2003 crime caper, in which Nicolas Cage learns that not only has his partner swindled him out of his life savings, but the young woman he thought was his long-lost daughter was in on it too; she was just a con artist his partner had recruited to help in his dastardly scheme. Cage is left penniless, partnerless, and daughterless... but he gets together with his supermarket cashier so, yay?
3. Arlington Road
The "Evil Master Plan" Twist, as popularized by: Se7en
It's always satisfying to watch someone who's really, really good at their job — even when that job is committing seven grisly murders to coincide with the seven deadly sins. And Spacey's John Doe is so good at it, he even manipulates Brad Pitt into helping him complete his own evil master plan by personifying Wrath. This 1999 thriller pulled off the same feat a few years later, to equally mind-blowing results. In the film, Jeff Bridges grows increasingly suspicious that his neighbors, Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are terrorists. Not only is he right, but his neighbors are able to manipulate him — despite his suspicions — into carrying out their attack for them by driving a van full of explosives into the FBI headquarters. Jeff Bridges dies and his neighbors are able to pin the whole thing on him. Oh, look! Another "undiscovered" twist!
2. The Prestige
The "There's Two Of Them!" Twist, as popularized by: Scream
In 1996, Wes Craven devised a clever way to mask Ghostface's identity: it turned out there were two people masquerading as the cloaked killer. That way, they could both appear separately in a room with Ghostface, eliminating themselves from suspicion. The twist was utterly brilliant in its simplicity. So is the ending of Christopher Nolan's 2006 drama, in which Hugh Jackman goes to desperate lengths to recreate Christian Bale's disappearing/reappearing act, eventually tracking down Nicola Tesla to build him a machine that magically clones his body during every performance. So how did Christian Bale do it? Without an ounce of magic, in fact: he simply had a twin brother.
1. The Others
The "Dead People" Twist, as popularized by: The Sixth Sense
Ah, the quintessential movie twist: Bruce Willis was dead the whole time! It's staggeringly obvious once you know it, and you wonder how you ever missed it the first time through. This 2001 horror film used a variation on that same twist two years later and, I would argue, utilized it even more beautifully. For two hours, Nicole Kidman struggles with the growing realization that there are ghosts in her house — only to learn that she and her children are the ghosts, and the mysterious apparitions are the new, living inhabitants of their home. After her husband died fighting in World War II, she went mad from loneliness, smothered her children in their beds, and then shot herself. They've all been haunting the house unknowingly ever since. It's the best kind of twist: the kind that makes you want to immediately re-watch the entire film as soon as you learn the truth.
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