There’s nothing that sends us stumbling into the theater lobby with broken minds like a great twist. It’s that sudden jolt that we’ve been successfully and forgivably misled by a movie that will undoubtedly stick with us for years to come. Charlie Jane Anders at io9 recently wrote about the difference between great twists and mediocre efforts that are worth both a read and a response.
Her main concept is that a mediocre twist tries to fool the audience while a great twist fools the characters. That seems fundamentally true, particularly since aiming to trick the audience often requires jumping through plot holes that threaten the fabric of the story itself. As Anders points out, “characters are harder to misdirect than audience.”
Generally, we’re pretty easy. Set us up with an unreliable narrator, and we could be heading for a shock by the end, but the characters are the ones closest to the story. They either have information or they don’t. They either trust a source or they don’t. Dramatic irony only flows in one direction.
I wanted to look into this a little further by picking a few twists and dissecting them for their component parts – the stuff that works, the stuff that almost works and the stuff that doesn’t.
The Usual Suspects
If we’re talking about twists that work, it’s difficult to find a modern film example better than the crime tale from the devil himself. To set us up, here’s Anders once more:
“It’s a different matter entirely to keep characters charging in the wrong direction. If you don’t do it right, then people start to wonder if your heroes are brain damaged. Are they on drugs? Why don’t they ask the obvious questions or look behind them? When they ask a direct question and don’t get a straight answer, why don’t they keep probing?”
For The Usual Suspects, it’s not so much that Verbal lies to Agent Kujan, but that he lies to everyone. He lies to us, he lies to his friends, he lies to the police. He got an early copy of “The 48 Laws of Power” and operated under several of its principles while violating the old Thick as Thieves rule. Ultimately we end up with:
- An unreliable narrator (Verbal)
- posing as a disabled man (using our biases against us),
- maintaining control of an elaborate story
- against an interrogator who appears smart (but who also has biases),
- who doesn’t panic when he’s in the lion’s den
- and plays chess while everyone is playing checkers
It’s easy to think of the heist tale as being Bryan Singer’s movie or Christopher McQuarrie’s script, but it’s really Verbal’s story. We simply don’t think about him being in control – or how many people he’s used, backstabbed and discarded – while he’s telling it.
The added bonus is an appeal to authority. Not only do we dismiss Verbal because of his affectations, we also trust that a petty criminal, fearful of reprisals, would speak relatively honestly when he’s providing color commentary to a detective. Kujan threatens him with a dangerous stint in jail, but Verbal sees the whole board.
If you really want your mind blown, consider that Verbal is the one who elaborates on Keyser Soze. When Kujan brings the name up in a rage, Verbal could have just as easily denied ever hearing of him. He certainly could have claimed ignorance about details, but he gives a thorough backstory instead. He tai chis his way into a more powerful position (which also brings the audience in on the full story of who Soze is).
The twist is effective because all the characters are being lied to by a powerful guy who they dismiss as an idiot. It also helps that the villain is the one telling the story. People laugh about how difficult it must be for movie characters not to look back while slow-walking away from an explosion, but it takes stony self-control not to want to see a detective’s face when he realizes that the day-long story you just told him was invented by looking at a peg board.
Fight Club is an exception to the rule because the big reveal of the film is fantastic but doesn’t affect the other characters at all. Except the main one.
The movie and the book weren’t trying to fool the characters at all because it’s only the storyteller who doesn’t understand the main reality of the story. All the other characters know who Tyler Durden is, so we get to learn the truth alongside the narrator.
It’s also an effective twist in part because it doesn’t matter. Hear me out.
Imagine for a moment that Tyler Durden and “Jack” really are two different people who accidentally start a boxing club by fighting in a parking lot. They escalate the group, even as one feels subservient to the other, and eventually, the proceedings get well out of control of the meek man who thought he was an important co-founder. One disappears to set something gigantic in motion while the other futilely chases him across the country. When they finally fight each other, the stronger one holds the weaker one hostage and convinces him to accept the destruction they’ve already set in motion.
Absolutely nothing has changed plot-wise.
The only thing that the twist provides is a thorough rationalization for why the narrator has simultaneously bombed a dozen buildings in one night under the guise of a cult-like conspiracy. This is a fun bend on the unreliable narrator trope that acts more to give a sense of richness to the story than to shock the audience (even if that’s what it also ends up doing).
What Almost Works
There are several things that work in Identity, but the twist is not one of them. It’s great to see that they cribbed from “The Mousetrap” without having it be the main shock, but the rug pull fails here because a loose thread makes it too obvious.
The movie doesn’t have a specific in-story narrator, so we get to assume that it’s a third-person omniscient viewpoint. The problem is that we’re being told two separate stories, and since they don’t seem to matter to one another, we have to assume that they matter a great deal. We’re immediately trying to piece them together.
The movie opens on a legal hearing concerning a convicted psychopathic killer but then shifts quickly to the “Ten Little Indians” narrative of strangers being murdered in hilariously gruesome ways while stranded at a motel. The stories are so disconnected that when a character in a police car shows up, you have to assume he’s transporting the original serial killer we saw, but he’s not. Thus, we start to wonder why we’re seeing the serial killer subplot at all.
It’s the cinematic equivalent of saying, “Oh, and the priest also loves backgammon” in the middle of an otherwise solid joke. As soon as you point out the alien life form living just outside a contained story, you draw focus to it and imbue it with importance.
Granted, it’s better than delivering this entire movie only to reveal that we’ve been in the mind of a serial killer we’ve never seen before, but it’s a clunky way of trying to get away with the same principal. The only way to make it work is to connect the two stories more directly and to leave more bread crumbs along the way.
What Doesn’t Work
The twist of High Tension doesn’t work because it lies to the audience without squaring the circle.
It’s as if the filmmakers thought consistently about how a giant, lumbering mad man would kill a house full of people before saying it wasn’t him instead of thinking, from the beginning, how a tiny young woman would kill a house full of people while effectively hallucinating a giant, lumbering mad man.
That’s a fundamental problem.
The Usual Suspects has a storyteller who tells us exactly what he wants us to know; Fight Club has a storyteller who tells us what he thinks is true (but isn’t); Identity tells us two stories that end up being connected; but High Tension presents a reality that makes no sense once the truth of the situation is revealed. It doesn’t so much sink into place as it jars everything out of orbit.
It’s a twist that threatens to undermine the entire film, a third act screaming, “Just kidding!” Did you know everything in Big Fish happens in the mind of a serial killer? Or that Dorthy from The Wizard of Oz is actually Keyser Soze? When your God’s eye view narrative doesn’t line up with your twist, you could tack any ending you wanted onto anything.
Revealing a radically different reality near the end of a film only works if it also lines up with what we’ve seen so far. Or if the narrator is an unreliable one (who we trust to our own detriment). Otherwise, the audience will feel betrayed or, at the very least, will feel as if the filmmaker is too lazy to earn our shock.
What Works and What Doesn’t
By looking at these films, I think I’ve laid down a few specific elements to achieve what Anders was promoting as a golden rule of twisting narratives. Unreliable narrators seem like bread and butter here — specifically, because they allow screenwriters the means to invisibly lead us down the garden path before revealing someone’s true intentions. It offers a kind of scapegoat to point to. “He was telling the story and lied, not me.”
Without the unreliable narrator (i.e., with a third person omniscient behind the wheel), things get a lot trickier, and you ultimately have to tell your story as if the audience knows the truth all along while concealing the truth from them. The Sixth Sense is an obviously good example of this. It’s not a specific character telling us the story, but we get a lot of information from a young child who never feels the need to express specifically that his therapist is dead. Why would he?
Plus, unlike Identity, two seemingly disparate stories (a therapist being shot in his home by a disgruntled client and a little boy freaking out about all the ghosts around him) are tied together in an understandable way because of the plausibility that the therapist survived the shooting. We don’t see him die, so when he shows back up (weathered and beaten down), it’s easy to assume we’ve jumped in time after his recovery to see the aftermath the attack has put on him and his relationship. Unlike the serial killer in Identity, Dr. Crowe is an active part of both the prologue and the main story of The Sixth Sense. He fits in, so we’re never looking to how he fits in. A great test for this is watching the movie while knowing the twist to see how many plot holes you can spot. With The Sixth Sense, things are almost completely clean while, with High Tension, none of the killings make sense anymore.
Out of all this, the major lesson is: don’t lie. Have your characters do it for you.
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