Editor’s Note: This article may contain hints, tips and clues about the ending of Shutter Island. We don’t think they’re spoilers, but we know that some of you are sensitive about these things. If that’s the case, go see the movie first. If not, enjoy this excellent article.
The twist ending is a difficult thing to perfect. Attempting such an ending runs many risks. For one, if the twist occurs with the natural trajectory of the story, the impact of the twist can be lessened for the spectator if they accurately guess it along the way. Perhaps more commonly, twist endings simply don’t work most of the time – more often than not, they come across as cheap, insincere attempts at making the spectator think they have experienced a more intelligent film than they actually have. Such endings act as buffers disguising a lack of depth within the rest of the film. But in the rare instance that a twist does work – when it makes sense, is thoughtfully executed, and doesn’t come out of left field – it has the potential to manifest one of the most powerful types of cinematic gut-punching impacts. The successful, smart twist ending is so effective because it embodies what cinema does best, in that films (intentionally or not) always deliver a selective amount of information from a particular point-of-view (whether that perspective be from a character or the filmmaker), so the effective twist ending shows the skilled filmmaker operating in full awareness of their potential to control everything and anything the audience knows and sees. But what exactly is a twist ending, and does it differ – semantically and in its employment and effectiveness – from a trick ending or a surprise ending? The differences between these terms are vague and overlapping, but an attempted distinction between them can potentially explain why some of these endings work and others don’t.
I’m discussing this subject, of course, in part because of Martin Scorsese’s new film. Shutter Island is certainly no masterpiece, but it’s a strong genre exercise by a director well-versed in cinema technique and well-read on the history of suspense thrillers. With this film there’s been a lot of discussion of its ‘twist ending’ and how predictable it was for many of its viewers. While the mystery structured within Shutter Island may suggest, on the surface, that the ending intended to come across as a head-spinning twist, I’m not sure if this ending is consistent with prevailing definitions of what a twist ending is and what it intends to achieve. Scorsese’s film, and many strong genre pieces like it, fit more readily into a combination of categories.
In the surprise ending, no trick comes out of left field, and no twist makes us rethink the entire film. With the surprise ending, the film concludes at its most natural point. It’s an ending that is explicitly expected in that throughout the film we feel something conclusive will happen – we’re just not sure what – while the trajectory of the film maps out a direct line to such a conclusion, with minimal detours along the way. Despite this clear linear trajectory, the surprise ending remains surprising because of the shock value of the conclusion itself. What the conclusion reveals does not change the entire meaning of the film – rather, it answers the question we were asking the whole time, but perhaps not in the exact way we envisioned it or speculated it taking place. Here is the key to what distinguishes a surprise ending from other endings: the entire film poses a central question, and the surprise ending answers that exact question in a shocking, effective, startling, or revealing way. A good example of a surprise ending is The Vanishing. That film’s end features nothing that puts a twist on or changes the meaning of everything seen up to that point, it merely answers the film’s repeated central question effectively. The Vanishing cannot be categorized as containing a twist ending because it is the most natural, linear way for that film to naturally end.
So what, then, is a twist ending, and how does it differ from the surprise ending? Perhaps it’d be best the approach the twist ending – the most elusive yet all-encompassing of these semantic categories – by negation, distinguishing how it is neither a surprise nor a trick ending.
As hard as I’ve tried to come up with a positive example of the trick ending, I simply can’t. The trick ending is the most cynical manifestation of what is typically referred to as ‘the twist,’ those stamped-on-at-the-last-second uninspired marauders posing as a genuine change in plot and meaning, when in reality such endings simply occupy a slot disguising the emptiness and thinness of the plot thus far. Trick endings suppose that audiences will unquestioningly take in a seachange in meaning at the last second, not bothering to go back and figure out whether or not it makes any sense. The trick ending often poses as a source for deeper meaning, but actually potentially negates and deflates all that came before it. Identity is a good example of a trick ending at play, using one of the most exhausted clichés in the book in a reveal that proves only that everything which has been revealed thus far is of no circumstance to the characters involved or the audience involved with them – a vapid, unimaginative thud of an end to what was otherwise an effective dramatic buildup. A trick ending is called so precisely because of what it does: it tricks the audience into thinking that there’s something more layered and intriguing going on.
So that leaves us with the twist ending, the definition of which was appropriately articulated by Cole Abaius on Sunday’s Reject Radio when he defined it as something along the lines of using the misperception of an initially minor detail to change the meaning of almost everything that has come beforehand. If, by my definition, the surprise ending is one that answers a central question in a startling manner, the twist ending is one that answers a question the audience did not know was being asked, or a question that the audience didn’t know was the most important. With The Sixth Sense, for example, the film’s central question upon first viewing operates with regard to how or why this boy sees dead people and whether or not it can be cured. What goes on in Bruce Willis’s personal life is a secondary question, but becomes the primary question upon the reveal of the twist and its conflation with what we thought the primary question to be up to that point. The twist ending is one of the most impossible to execute effectively, as even the most celebrated of twist endings –from The Sixth Sense to The Unusual Suspects to Fight Club – can be argued to possess their inconsistencies and jumps in selective logic and reason to achieve their ending point. But the effective twist is sought after because it is potentially one of the most satisfying of film experiences.
Following these definitions, my general rule for the employment of the twist is that if the movie is good, it’s good with or without the twist and whether or not the twist can be guessed. Shutter Island’s twist – if you can call it that, and locate exactly which element(s) of the film’s many changes in meaning you’re talking about – is predictable for some, yes, but that’s because it operates within a story containing a strict set of rules that allow such a resolution to exist in its most natural manner. It’s an ending padded by reason and thought, not something desperately tacked on (as trick endings, by contrast, are often unpredictable because they make no goddamn sense). Because of its natural, inevitable execution, Shutter Island’s ending falls more evenly in line with the surprise ending category.
With the well-handled surprise ending, a level of predictability can even be a benefit. Take Seven, for instance, a film in which the answer to what’s in the box can be accurately guessed a few moments before, only to allow the audience to be further horrified with the reveal that what is in the box is exactly what they think it is. The horror of the imagination is tied to the surprising horror when what was imagined becomes what is real. Likewise, Shutter Island‘s gradual, detailed, deliberate reveal of the reality of the characters’ situation is so thoroughly realized that the ensuing flashback revealing what’s really going on is hardly a gut-punch, but an emotionally draining scene about family. This isn’t the work of somebody who is trying to trick us or woo us, but to immerse us in the very best way such a story can be told, which should always be the first priority when it comes to these endings. Sometimes the effect of the surprise owes itself to just how shockingly unsurprising the ending can be.