This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
The twist ending. We all know the moment: the film is almost over, and suddenly, everything turns on its head. We press rewind and wonder how we missed it. The answers were right in front of us the whole time, but the filmmaker didn’t want us to see them until the exact right moment. So we didn’t.
When asked to name the most satisfying twist of all time, a very common answer is the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakout horror film, The Sixth Sense. But why, after 21 of other narrative twists and turns, is this answer still so highly regarded? What makes the film’s final reveal so freaking awesome? And how do we tap into the science of what makes a good twist so good?
The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s third feature, but it was the first to reach critical acclaim and established him as a renowned auteur in the horror genre. This was due, in part, to the film’s iconic twist ending. The shocker occurs when child psychologist, Malcolm (Bruce Willis), who has been helping a troubled child, Cole (Haley Joel Osment), through his ability to see and communicate with dead people, discovers that he has been dead all along. The beauty of this reveal functions on many levels, all of which set a high standard for future twists. Let’s investigate what they are:
First, the discovery at the end of The Sixth Sense is totally unexpected. It is a complete and utter curveball. But, after taking a moment to breathe, it actually is not that unanticipated. The film provides the audience with clues that become obvious after the big reveal hits. For example, Malcolm is ignored by everyone he interacts with: Cole’s mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), and even his own wife, Anna (Olivia Williams). The only person who interacts with Malcolm is Cole, who confides in the troubled psychologist that he can “see dead people” and that they “don’t know they’re dead.” So, the only person in the film who gives Malcolm the time of day is also the only person who can see dead people. Hmm.
But a good twist isn’t a trick. It is merely information indirectly revealed to the audience strategically. The Sixth Sense gives us enough information to make an informed guess about Malcolm’s mortal status. The literal definition of a twist, in fact, is to “rotate around something that remains stationary.” A twist is a rotation, a revelation, not a deception. The new information we are given is not at all divorced from the narrative itself. It’s quite the opposite: we are given everything we need to come to this conclusion on our own.
When, in David Fincher’s Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) tells the narrator (Edward Norton) he is merely a figment of his imagination, we recall that Tyler and the narrator share identical items like briefcases and boxers, and that time when the narrator punches the daylight out of himself and recalls his fight with Tyler, and the moment Tyler crashes the car, but it is inexplicably the narrator who crawls out of the driver’s seat.
Similarly, when, in Alejandro Amenábar’sThe Others, Grace (Nicole Kidman) discovers that she and her children have been dead all along, we remember her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), hushedly discussing Grace having once smothered them with a pillow until they stopped breathing. So, it turns out the answers were there all along. All we had to do was look.
With modern cinema hashing out so many twist endings, it is hardly surprising that few actually work. Many are frustrating or leave us feeling somewhat cheated. Just like when investigating the qualities of a good twist, it can be difficult to pinpoint what makes a bad twist.
An example lies in another of Shamalyan’s works, as he attempted to recreate the moment he struck cinematic gold with The Village, which has a twist that left audiences baffled. The film follows an isolated, 19th-century village in Pennsylvania tormented by unseen beasts lurking in the woods. Viewers, alongside the characters, spend 100 minutes trying to figure out what exactly this unnamed menace is. When, in the end, it is revealed that the film is set in the 21 century and the village is merely a utopian community that shielded its members from the outside world, it is difficult not to feel robbed.
When rewatching The Village, we are not given the same “a-ha” moment as with The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Others, and that makes the ending feel more like a deception than a revelation. The issue of The Village‘s twist is that, in the end, the film introduces a new element (the modern world) divorced entirely from the themes and content of the rest of the film. Other twists that leave us largely dissatisfied, like Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, also suffer from introducing new material at the end to serve the purpose of adding a twist. Orphan and Shutter Island function purely on the basis that their protagonists are entirely not the characters we thought they were.
Despite a large number of misses, we still can’t seem to stay away from twists. Perhaps that is because they make us feel smart when we look back and piece them together, or because they’re just exciting. Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say that, as we speak, writers around the world are working hard to conceive a better twist than The Sixth Sense. And if they succeed, that might just be the greatest plot twist of all.