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The Greatest Twist Endings

If only someone could bottle the experience of watching a great twist at the end of a film. It’s something you can never repeat, except by tracking down some unknowing friend, forcing them to watch it as you sit there watching them, clutching your knees and hoping to god they find it as mind blowing as you did.

What follows is my list of the greatest twist endings in cinema. My criteria was simple: the film must conform to The Three Laws of Twists.

The twist has to occur in the final act of the film.

The twist must force the viewer to re-evaluate everything they’ve seen.

The twist must not undermine everything the viewer has seen.

Needless to say, GREAT BIG SUPER SPOILER TWIST SPOILER WARNING SPOILER SPOILER.

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10. The Others 

A twist so maddeningly simple it’s a joy to rewatch. Brilliantly devoted to the haunted house genre, Alejandro’s Amenabar’s film ratchets up the atmosphere by not only draping everything in ridiculous fog, it also ties us to an unreliable narrator, who is revealed to actually be the one doing the haunting. Bonus points for getting Nicole Kidman in a good film.

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9. Memento

I had to see this again after many years recently just to remember how deft the sleight-of-hand is. Like all good twists, it gives you the answer directly – remember Sammy Jankis? – and you have no idea it’s happening. Again with the unreliable narrator (there’s a few of them in this list), Guy Pearce’s Leonard not only let his wife overdose on insulin, he’s also on a never-ending revenge murder spree. The best thing about this twist and about the film is the structure. By giving us a character who has amnesia, it places the twist at the beginning, but then through its reverse narrative places that beginning at the ending.

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8. Magnolia

The twist that isn’t a twist. Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling San Fernando Valley mosaic begins with the brilliant Rick Jay’s voiceover recounting three urban legends. What the characters in the film are unaware of, and the audience too, is that the apocalyptic rain of frogs that brings about the denouement reveals them all to be participants in their own (sub)urban legend. The frogs are a release for the characters, and bring a sudden clarity and resolution to their fractured, messy lives. Additionally, Ricky Jay is one of the world’s expert magicians.

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7. Psycho

Can’t really leave it off the list. Still shocks and chills new-time viewers fifty-odd years after release, Hitchcock had life-size cutouts of himself placed in cinemas around the US bearing a message of request to viewers not to reveal the ending to incoming queues. Great publicity, in that there was a priming for the shocking twist, but no suggestion that there were actually two: the brutal murder of the hero halfway through the film, and the final reveal of Norman and his mother/son split personality.

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6. Shutter Island

A real punch in the face of an ending. It also has ongoing ripples of reveal: Leonardo DiCaprio’s detective investigating a missing person case from a mental asylum on the titular island discovers firstly that there is no missing person. Then that he is actually an inmate of the asylum. Then that he murdered his wife. Then that he has had this series of facts revealed to him several times already, but he constantly regresses back into fantasy. And then, shockingly, the final scene where he either regresses yet again, or voluntarily chooses to have a lobotomy so as to forget forever.

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5. The Prestige

Another one from Christopher Nolan, and again one where he tells you the answer bluntly and directly. In fact, he challenges you in the opening frames to believe him when he gives you the answer: are you watching closely? The story of two duelling magicians is actually a story about story, about how we believe the make believe, and don’t want to accept the reality. The ending’s two reveals – one magician is a twin, the other is making duplicates of himself – is so built into the narrative we can’t help but feel we knew this all along, we just really didn’t want to believe it was anything but magic.

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4. The Usual Suspects

The original film for me where you force someone to watch it just to enjoy the thrill of the reveal all over again. Bryan Singer revels in his glorious final twist – that the arch-villain Keyser Sose is actually the man talking to us – it’s a joy to watch and rewatch the cross cutting of revelation on Chazz Palminteri’s disbelieving face and the once crooked steps of Kevin Spacey’s limp straighten out and stride away. Even better, the twist rewards future viewing, in that it unravels every possible strand and makes you wonder where the truth of the story ends and the lies begin.

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3. Seven

More than Shutter Island, this ending just ruins you. Brad Pitt reportedly had the ending written into his contract – that his character completes the cycle of seven murders by shooting the serial killer – as so many executives were disturbed by the moral culpability of it they couldn’t believe anyone would actually film such a disturbing ending to what was already a pretty damn disturbing film. The terror of Morgan Freeman, as he realises that his and Pitt’s detectives have no control over the situation, is perfect. And for lasting impact, we all still believe we saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in that box, even though it’s never shown. Great filmmaking, great twist.

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2. Chinatown

The greatest ending, the only one that could oust Seven for greatest twist in cinema. Like that film, it doesn’t rely on an unreliable narrator, on fooling the viewer with a clever narrative trick, Chinatown just delivers a cruelly lush and patient exploration of mystery, murder and missing water, as Jack Nicholson’s P.I. investigates the death of a chief water engineer, believing it to be a political crime. Only, the more he investigates, the more he realises he has no idea what’s going on, and the biggest crime here is far more personal and immoral. It’s such a great twist I can’t even spoil it here.

And in the final twist for me, rather than the Number 1 twist, I’m going to give you the Worst Twist Ending Ever.

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1. The Sixth Sense

Appalling. Awful parlour trick masquerading as elegant cinema. It breaks the third rule above, in that it undermines everything that came before in the film. So, wow, Bruce Willis was actually dead and was one of the ghosts the boy saw all the time. Big deal. The point of the film up until that moment, the reason of the narrative until that ridiculous ending, was to discover why the boy saw dead people. But rather than answer that big question, hit the audience with a surprise, cue the credits, and run away before anyone realises that it’s a terribly crap film. Ta-da.

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