Perhaps the first surprising plot twist I remember watching was in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I had not read the books yet, so I, a seven-year-old girl expecting another fantasy flick at the movies, was totally baffled by the fact that Voldemort was hiding in Professor Quirrell’s turban. If you think about it, that’s quite a creative and unusual way to reveal a movie’s villain. And a great deal of a plot twist’s effectiveness depends on the way the film plays with our own expectations, especially if it is part of a popular genre such as fantasy, horror, action, or rom-coms, all of which are characterized by a set of tropes that condition our approach to the story. But also, plot twists play with an intrinsic part of our humanity: our tendency to be storytellers.
We make sense of our lives by telling stories about ourselves or other people. They provide us with a sense of order in the chaos of real life, of us being the creators and architects of our lives. Nonetheless, one of the most beautiful –and perhaps quite distressing– parts of life is the fact that we’re in synchrony with other “storylines,” and they can affect the plots we create for ourselves in the weirdest ways. That’s real life, but what happens when we find a bit of that chaos in the controlled and “predictable” universe of a movie?
To make an epic plot twist without it being a cheap deus ex machina or a nonsensical addition to the plot is quite a difficult task. Most films might have a slight twist or an unexpected revelation that changes the character’s motivations or the storyline’s outcome. However, only a few are able to totally turn your perception upside down, to the point that you could end up both amazed by the mastery with which the twist frames the plot as well as hating the story due to the way it played with your expectations. By doing so, these plot twists mirror the unpredictability of real life.
If you’re thirsty for the thrill of plot twists, you must watch these 7 films that achieve them in a masterful way. In case you haven’t watched them, I’ll keep them as spoiler-free as possible to avoid ruining the surprise.
Psycho (1960), Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This is an oldie, but Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece has become an iconic reference when it comes to plot twists. At the moment of its release, the plot twist was so important Hitchcock himself would show up at movie theaters urging his audience not to reveal anything. However, to truly understand the way Psycho revolutionized film, we must take a look at the tropes popular in crime and horror stories at the time. By then, people already knew how to identify the “villains” of these types of films: they could be dressed in black, physically ugly, or actual monsters. However, people wouldn't have known what to expect from a film in which none of the characters had any of these features. Who was the psycho murderer of the film? The final revelation would change the way villains were portrayed in fiction, showing that the sickest mind can hide even behind the most innocent façade.
The Sixth Sense (1999), Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
The unexpected twist is probably the plot device that makes M. Night Shyamalan’s films so famous. Sometimes they’re masterful, other times… not so much. However, the first movie that made him famous around the world was The Sixth Sense. The worst part is that, by the time you get to the film’s big reveal, you realize there were clues all over the place, telling you the truth about the protagonist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, and the supernatural beings that follow his young patient, Cole Sear.
Atonement (2007), Dir. Joe Wright
Ah, one of my personal favorites. Talking about expectations and storytelling, this film plays with them so cleverly that by the time you get to the end, you can’t help but look at your puzzled reflection on the black screen as the credits roll, and think, “Why…?” Based on a novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement tells the story of Briony, a young and imaginative girl who aspires to become a writer. As she witnesses the torrid romance between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of her family’s housekeeper, an unexpected crime and her testimony will forever change the fate of these two lovers. I won’t say anything else, so I don't ruin the film’s surprise for you.
Fight Club (1999), Dir. David Fincher
Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club’s effectiveness lies in the way the audience buys the narrator's tale. Bored of his 9-to-5 life, the protagonist meets the intriguing Tyler Durden and together they create a secret fight club that evolves into a massive underground group. In a similar way to The Sixth Sense, the clues to the final twist are all over the movie. It’s just a matter of looking closely…
Brazil (1985), Dir. Terry Gilliam
The great thing about science fiction as a genre is that, despite its recurrent use of similar tropes, such as futuristic societies, robots, or aliens, there aren’t as many formulaic stories, as it happens in other popular genres. Nonetheless, despite its unpredictability, some movies belonging to this genre can manage to create mind-bending outcomes that make you reflect on actual, real-life problems. In this film by Terry Gilliam –inspired by George Orwell’s 1984–, a daydreamer fights against the strict bureaucracy of the dystopian world where he lives to find a woman, falsely labeled as a terrorist, because she happens to resemble a character that's always appeared in his dreams. As the movie’s surreal story progresses, the lines dividing reality and fantasy blur, creating the perfect formula for a surprising and bittersweet outcome.
Se7en (1995), Dir. David Fincher
Another masterpiece by David Fincher, this psychological thriller follows two detectives, Somerset and Mills, as they go after a twisted criminal whose murders are based on the seven deadly sins. If you haven’t watched this film yet, go watch it now. Not only will it leave you at the edge of your seat, but its sickening and brilliant plot twist will make you ask yourself where the limits between justice and crime are, and how easily we can succumb to our darkest drives.
Oldboy (2003), Dir. Chan-Wook Park
To round up this list, I wanted to include something a little different from Hollywood’s productions. This South Korean action-packed thriller belongs to Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy. After Oh Dae-Su, the film’s protagonist, is kidnapped and trapped in a room for 15 years for no apparent reason, he will look for his captors and seek revenge. With the help of a young sushi chef he falls in love with, he will find out the reason he was imprisoned, unlocking old mysteries from his past and stomach-churning revelations that will turn his quest for vengeance upside down.
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