A great plot-twist guarantees two things. One, it makes sure your viewer will come back to see your movie again in order to see if they can see if they can spot any of the clues carefully hidden in plain-sight by the filmmaker. And two, it assures you that your audience is going to talk about your movie to their friends, loved ones, and fellow movie enthusiasts.
A bad plot-twist will, however, will guarantee that the second thing happens, but with an entirely different set of attendant conversations, probably revolving around how stupid the movie your movie is. A twist can either be something that ties your movie together, or something tacked-on in order to disguise a lack of original ideas. The trick is to how to do it well, and when to use it effectively (that being said, be warned, as there are going to be spoilers, and mostly for those movies that everyone knows the twist to).
An example of a great utilization of the movie twist would be M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Throughout the movie, we are given visual and contextual clues in the narrative that hint towards giving away the final twist, allowing for an effective build-up of tension and suspense, all leading up to an equally believable dramatic climax. Shyamalan’s ability to so expertly manipulate his audience’s attentions, so that when the twist is finally revealed there is more of sense of catharsis in realizing, “Of course! All the clues were there,” as opposed to a feeling of being cheated, and thinking, “What the fuck? Why; what; where; when; how,” is all a part of why and how the film works so well. In The Sixth Sense, we are presented with the twist on a silver platter in the opening sequence of the film, a prologue which depicts Bruce Willis’ death. But given the strength of the rest of the movie (from both a narrative and cinematic respect) Shyamalan’s film is strong enough (and scary enough) that we complicity push this scene to the back of our minds, until the very final moments of the narrative when it’s made clear what has been happening the entire time.
The movie plot-twist also adds an extra thematic layer of psychological density to The Sixth Sense, as we realize why Willis’ wife has been fading him out, why he hasn’t changed his clothes, and why he is never seen interacting with anyone other than Haley Joel Osment (a simple fact of the film’s script that only becomes obvious on a second viewing, but cleverly utilized and presented for first time viewers). The great thing about The Sixth Sense is that the twist is excellent, but it isn’t the whole movie. The movie is strong enough that, upon a second viewing, one is able to more clearly see how the wool was pulled over one’s eyes, and immediately commences to watch the film a third time, as there’s enough artistry in the storytelling that the film maintains a certain mystique and intelligence (even after the viewer knows what will inevitably be revealed).
An example of a poor plot-twist is The Village (also directed by M. Night Shyamalan). The twist here is that the titular village is not old-timey, but is actually modern-timey. Let us count the ways in which this twist sucks:
1. No clues. This movie in no way sets up its twist. It simply happens because Shyamalan was known for his plot-twists, so he shoe-horned one into this movie. It doesn’t tie anything together, or explain anything of novel significance.
2. The film raises questions, as opposed to answering them (questions that are vaguely answered by Shyamalan, in another awful cameo, in which he fails, once again, to deliver dialogue convincingly).
3. It’s dumb and insulting to its audience (and doubly so if Shyamalan thinks that they will be impressed by it).
I think the worst part is that somewhere within The Village is a good movie. I mean, it’s probably three or four drafts away, but the kernels are there. The pointless plot-twist is simply the cherry atop of the shit pie, removing any doubt that what you’ve just watched was anything but awful, instead of being the movie’s crowning moment, guaranteeing its cult status into perpetuity.
In order for a movie to twist well, the first step is to conceive of a plot-twist that isn’t dumb. Also, the twist can’t be a substitute for narrative. It can be the climax or the best part, but when a movie is designed around its twist, it falls apart (particular on later viewings). If the only thing that’s interesting about the movie is the fact that two characters are the same person, the villain is the hero’s father, or everyone is dead, then you’re not doing it right. A twist should be the seasoning to a dish already excellent (like chocolate chips on an ice cream sundae).
Next time, we’re going to be talking about adapting fact into fiction (or the easiest way to win an Oscar).