Twist of the knife
Last week, David Edelstein of Slate solicited reader nominations for the worst twists in movie history and posts edited results here. I'm not a big fan of Edelstein's tastes, but he's got some good picks among the films on this list I've seen. Here's Edelstein's list with brief personal notations:
1. The Life of David Gale - haven't seen
2. The Game - agree strongly
3. Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton version) - agree
4. Basic - haven't seen
5. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang) - haven't seen
6. Suspicion (Hitchcock) - agree mildly
7. No Way Out - seen, but don't remember
8. The Village - disagree mildly
9. Fight Club - agree mildly
10. The Forgotten - haven't seen
11. Secret Window - haven't seen
12. The Usual Suspects - agree
13. Reindeer Games - haven't seen
14. Never Talk to Strangers - haven't seen
15. Man on Fire - haven't seen
16. I Bury the Living - disagree mildly
17. The Contender - agree strongly
18. Swimming Pool - haven't seen
19. The Stepford Wives (remake) - haven't seen
20. The Upside of Anger - haven't seen
Opinionated comments and spoilers after the jump.
The Game is a ridiculous movie, at least as much as Fight Club, but what distinguishes them in present terms is that the twist in The Game makes the whole movie nonsensical, while Fight Club is ridiculous even without its twist. I'm not fond of the ending to Suspicion (who is?) but I can't blame Hitchcock, since the book ends differently and I've heard that the studio imposed the change on him because Cary Grant was playing the lead.
I didn't much like The Village, but don't feel it belongs here. Sure, the ending is very predictable, but it doesn't make the rest of the movie meaningless. In fact, the only grounds I have to criticize the ending to The Village is that delaying revelation of the twist only leaves Shyamalan less time to deal honestly with the issues raised by his scenario.
I'm sure fanboys everywhere (as the reader citing this movie below Edelstein's comments suggests) will spill their Mountain Dew all over themselves at the sight of The Usual Suspects on this list, but it belongs. Oddly enough, I figured out the twist (that Kint was "Soze" and his story is self-serving) only fifteen minutes or so before it is revealed and at the time I thought it was pretty clever. Afterward, I realized I should have figured it out much earlier, as the "barbershop quartet in Skokie, IL" line had stood out in my mind when Kevin Spacey's character said it near the beginning of the film. I had one of those boards in my office at the time.
I've heard several different opinions on what "actually happened" in The Usual Suspects even though the twist ensures that it doesn't actually matter what happened. A lot of people, so it seems, appear to think that none of Kint's story is true, but there's no way to know that for sure. Certainly something happened before the dockside conflagration, and if the initial sequence (Keaton's death) is accurate, whatever events preceded Kint's interrogation could easily be similar to his story. Another thing that appears widely accepted is that the flashback sequences are from Agent Kujan's perspective as he visualizes the events Kint describes to him. This can't be the case, though, because as we see in the very last scene, the man Kint calls "Kobayashi" really exists and looks exactly like he does in the flashback. Only Kint would picture him like that; Kujan wouldn't imagine a man named Kobayashi looking like Pete Postlethwaite. So, the flashbacks are Kint's visualization of his own story. This might bother some people, since it means that director Singer is complicit with Kint in tricking the audience as Kint is tricking Kujan, but I'm not sure that matters to most people. As for me, if the filmmakers don't care what happens in their movie, I have a hard time caring.
On the way home from watching it I realized that the twist drained any repeat viewing value out of The Usual Suspects. I'll go on record that the same thing is also true of Psycho for different reasons. Once you know initial lead Janet Leigh dies early and that Norman "is" his mother, the movie loses almost all interest. Why Gus Van Sant didn't realize that is beyond me.
Since no comment on The Contender appears in the column, I'll offer my own. This movie, a transparent apology for Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal, offers a female candidate (Laine Hanson) to replace the recently deceased Vice President (via the 25th Amendment) whose nomination is imperiled by photos that allegedly depict her in a college gangbang. The contender, played by Joan Allen as sort-of a combination of Elizabeth Procter and Pat Nixon with a bit of Richard thrown in, refuses to respond to questions about it, even to deny that the photos (blurry and inconclusive) are of her. She deems such questions irrelevant, insulting and biased. Several twists surface, not the least of which is the fatal ploy of the leading alternative for the vice presidency, but the twist that puts The Contender onto this list is the last minute revelation made by Hanson to the President (and the audience), after she has spent most of the movie refusing on principle to answer questions about her private conduct, that the pictures aren't of her at all. Apparently, writer/director Rod Lurie wants to make a movie defending the dignity of public officials, to assert a distinction between public and private responsibility for political leaders, but realizes that movie characters must reveal all or risk being unlikable.
I'd like to add another one, although this has better claim to being one of the cheapest twists of all time, rather than worst. In the appalling Bruce Willis thriller The Jackal, the eponymous assassin is hired by some mobster to kill "this person" as a photograph (unseen by the audience) is handed to him. American authorities catch wind of the Jackal's engagement and conclude that the likely target is the (male) Director of the FBI for some seemingly plausible reason. As an audience member, I'm inclined to take that with a grain of salt, since pains were taken earlier to conceal the identity (and gender) of the intended victim. So throughout the movie I'm thinking "who's the real target?"
At one point, however, Willis' assassin walks around the downtown site of an impending public appearance of the FBI Director (and the Real Target, as it turns out) with a camera, essentially casing the place. To close the scene, the audience is given a perspective shot through the Jackal's camera lens at a billboard with pictures of the speakers as he focuses in on the FBI Director and issues a bunch of menacing clicks. While watching the movie, I started doubting at this point whether there would be a twist, since the Jackal knows who the intended victim is and has no reason to do something that will only mislead the audience.
Nope, the First Lady is the target. What a twist... not only was "this person" not the man the good guys thought it was, it wasn't even a man! How thoughtful, in retrospect, of the Russian mobster to avoid spoiling the end of the movie by using a gendered pronoun in that early scene. I'm sure a radical revision of the film could be proposed that the villains know that the audience is watching (and what perspective they have at any given moment) and have been hiding the fact that the Jackal was really hired to kill screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer. Not only does this explain the villains' otherwise unusual behavior, it makes them into heroes.
Like I said before, this twist doesn't ruin the rest of the movie (that end is accomplished by Bruce Willis' absurd costumes and haircuts and the choice to hire the Lucky Charms leprechaun to coach Richard Gere's Irish accent) but it does represent an especial depth to which screenwriters and directors will sink to maintain a cheap ambiguity.