Friday, January 20, 2006

 

Let's Twist Again -- Spoilers ahead

You all have been warned. This post is going to deal with major plot twists in lots of films, so if there are major movies you've missed — don't say I didn't warn you. So far, the post and comments have included specific and vague references to the following titles: Psycho, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, The Crying Game, In Old Arizona, The Usual Suspects, The Family Stone, Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Lone Star, Vanilla Sky, Sunset Blvd., The Wizard of Oz, Angel Heart, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Matchstick Men, To Live and Die in L.A. and L.A. Confidential.

By Edward Copeland
Every time a friend of mine has a new child — something which seems to happen with more and more frequency — I make one simple request: I beg them to do their damndest to keep all knowledge about the movie Psycho (the original, not the Gus Van Sant travesty) away from them. Can you imagine what it must have been like to see Psycho in 1960 for the first time, unaware that the shower scene was coming and the main character up to that point was going to bite it? I can't. I wish I could. By the time I saw Psycho — I think I was in the sixth grade — I already knew about the shower scene and had seen Anthony Perkins spoof Norman Bates in a Saturday Night Live sketch about the Norman Bates School for Motel Management.

There are lots of movies such as Psycho, where you want to guard their secrets as closely as the Bush Administration tried to hide warrantless wiretapping. However, many times the twist has been blown, often by the movie's own trailer, before you ever get to see it.

Back in 1999, there were two such films with big twists that I knew were coming before I saw the movies. I was very late in getting to The Sixth Sense, but I think that even if I saw it opening day, I would have figured out that Bruce Willis was dead. Granted, I'll never know for sure, but it seemed obvious to me and lessened my interest in the movie. Would I have liked it better if I'd been left in the dark? I'll never know.

On the other hand, I had Fight Club ruined for me by a throwaway line in a David Thomson article in The New York Times that, without warning, gave away the secret that Brad Pitt's character was a figment of Edward Norton's character's imagination.

However, this time knowing the twist actually made the moviegoing experience deeper for me — and Fight Club ended up being one of my favorite films of the year. The fact that I knew what was going on didn't affect my love for the film any less, which to me would seem to indicate that Fight Club is just a vastly superior film than The Sixth Sense.

When The Crying Game came out in 1992, I was lucky. I saw it very early and all I knew about it was that it was about the IRA and it had a twist. When captured British soldier Forest Whitaker made his escape and got killed by a convoy of his own troops en route to rescue him, I relaxed. I figured that was the twist, so the revelation that Dil was a man took me by surprise. One interesting note though: In my experience, female viewers were always quicker to pick up on Dil's gender than male viewers were.

Twists are a long tradition in movies. Sometimes they are used well and help the film, other times they add nothing and make absolutely no sense. Not too long ago, I saw 1928's In Old Arizona, which won Warner Baxter the second Oscar for best actor for playing the Cisco Kid. Even it had a nice twist in it, which I have to imagine was pretty cold and surprising for audiences back then.

Other movies with twists seem to be all about the twist and nothing more. That was my problem with The Sixth Sense and with something like The Usual Suspects. I mean — who cares really who Keyser Soze was? By process of elimination, you narrow it to two people pretty early and by the end, you know for sure and the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

Trailers these days seem intent on ruining their plot twists, even when they aren't blatant about it. Could anyone watch the trailer for The Family Stone and not know that Sarah Jessica Parker was going to end up with Luke Wilson instead of Dermot Mulroney? I didn't see the trailer before I saw Woody Allen's Match Point, but nearly all the reviews gave away that Jonathan Rhys Meyers was going to kill Scarlett Johansson. Even if they hadn't, people who have seen a lot of Woody Allen movies would probably smell a similarity to Crimes and Misdemeanors, especially when Johansson's character takes a sharp turn toward Anjelica Huston's shrill mistress character from Crimes to justify the third act. Then, after I saw the movie, I actually saw the clips they spliced together for The Golden Globes — and they show Rhys Meyers in the apartment with the shotgun. I guess they don't even care if it's ruined.

Granted, from years of moviegoing, it's hard to fool me with much, but some plot twists do take me by surprise — especially if I'm so engaged with the film as a whole that I'm not expecting them. Looking back, I should have seen the twist that Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Pena were half-siblings in John Sayles' Lone Star coming, but I didn't — and it made the movie that much more enjoyable for me.

One type of twist that really needs to go away is the "It's all a dream" twist. It hasn't worked since Dorothy woke up back in Kansas back in 1939, but films still go there now and then, like Cameron Crowe's awful Vanilla Sky. Even the abundance of movies where the narrator and/or protagonist turn out to be dead, seem like a rehash since Billy Wilder did it so beautifully with William Holden in Sunset Blvd.

I could probably go on and on with examples of twists, both good and bad, but now I want it to be your turn. What movies have your favorite twists? What movies have twists you don't think work at all?


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Comments:
I'm sure I'll think of more but "Angel Heart" was pretty effective... didn't see it coming but only because it was completely illogical.

I think part of the reason "The Sixth Sense" made so much dough is everyone had to see it again to see if the puzzle pieces fit together. The problem with that movie is I did NOT catch the plot twist, I just thought it was a bad movie... I thought the domestic stuff was weakly written and awkwardly played. When the twist was revealed, those scenes made more sense and "worked"... but for it to be a perfect mousetrap the scenes should be strong when you don't know the twist. Did that make sense? I enjoy the move now, and how the audience is tricked, but I remember very clearly sitting in the theater watching it for the first time and thinking it was a bit of a mess.
 
I forgot about Angel Heart -- that was another good one. I think right toward the end I finally caught on, but I didn't early.
 
I know you'll think it's silly, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is probably my favorite - it's just one of those movies I can't be practical about. The twist caught me completely off guard when I first saw it...and it's still fun to watch. Why didn't Glenne Headley's career ever go anywhere?
 
Angel Heart was a good one. The Sixth Sense was obvious from the first scene, I couldn't make sense of Willis and wife not interacting with each other and I fell asleep soon after. Now I read this post and realize I was right he was dead all along. Vindication. So far I find M.Night Shamalama-ding-dong annoying in a I'm-mad-and-I-want-my-money-back kind of way. The end of The Usual Suspects tells me why I found the movie worthless and uninteresting; he was making the crap up. The excellent Fight Club did catch me off guard. I remember when the giveaway occurred I thought "well this is superfulous." I guess I thought it was working well enough already. But repeat viewings show how well it's woven together from the get go. Fincher is nothing if not meticulous. Many films pull the rug out at the end needlessly, and muck up what went before. Right now I'm thinking of Matchstick Men. I'm not sure how well The Crying Game holds up other than as shorthand for a gag done thousands of times before and after. But what about comedy surprises. Many comedies use mistaken identity, swichted duffel bags, fortuitous timing ect. as a line to hang jokes on, but Ernst Lubitsch, now his plot twists were funny in themselves, and he had an inexhaustible supply. Ah yes...we must bow down to Lubitsch. There is no chink in his armor.
 
I envy those audiences seeing "Titanic" unawares, that iceberg came out of nowhere.
 
Here's the danger with this post -- should I be extra careful not to spoil anything for lurkers?

Oh, well. TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA is fresh in my mind because I just talked about it with a friend from my high school days. We bonded over that movie, and one of the things we both liked was the PSYCHO aspect -- it kills off a pretty important character, and not only are you surprised that they killed that character, they do it at a really odd point. Not halfway through the movie, or at the very end, but somewhere in act three. The unexpected, even awkward placement of this twist is what makes it so unsettling. I don't think any movie has ever killed such an important character at that particular point, so there is really no way you could have seen it coming.
 
I thought about To Live and Die in LA too after I had written the post. That did come out of nowhere. Also, the reveal that James Cromwell is the bad guy in L.A. Confidential was pretty good since it also includes Kevin Spacey's death out of nowhere.
 
Maybe I'm straying beside the point here, but if one of the surest tests of a movie's quality is how it stands up to multiple viewings, then how do surprise plot twists fit in to this? To quote Daffy Duck, "the problem with this trick is you can only do it once". So I've never been that big on plots or much delighted with a film taking me someplace new. To be sure, some of my fondest memories are of being immersed in a great movie with no idea what happens next. On the other hand, I've sat thru many a horrible movie not knowing where it was going too. I sometimes wonder if the sheer fact of having to sit thru so many movies forces in professional critics a tendency to over-value novelty and surprise. To me a hallmark of some of the greatest art is inevitability, or even a blatant obviousness. But what do I know. Most of what's on my dvd shelf would be classified as thumb-sucking comfort movies. When I'm sick on the couch I'm gonna go for Hatari!, or Swiss Family Robinson, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in full regression mode. These are movies I return to again and again and love precisely because I know exactly what comes next. Then again I've watched Sunset Blvd. countless times and everytime in my excitement I somehow manage to forget the way it all goes down in the last couple reels.
 
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