Plot twists are incredibly difficult to pull off. When done well, they expand further on the plot’s themes and the film’s overall structure (i.e. Chinatown ). In cases of some campier films, like Sleepaway Camp (1983), the twist may be ridiculous, but Christ it works so well. Then there are films that are awful, and made worse by a stupid and sloppy twist. Additionally (and perhaps even more disappointingly) there are wonderful films that are completely ruined by their twists. The following list includes a collection of those two examples, and I guarantee that multiple cringes will be induced while you peruse this list. Needless to say, many spoilers are ahead. However, in my defense, please read on—I could be saving you a bit of time.
Stay (2005), dir. by Marc Forster
I don’t think there is any plot twist more tired than the “it was all a dream” shtick (and yes, I intended that pun). It’s lazy, it’s sloppy, and it ruins the whole film. Not to say that Stay was an incredible movie up until the end—it was fairly forgettable (though I’ll never forget Ryan Gosling’s dreamy bangs). I can’t help but wonder, though, if my repression of having actually sat through this film is due to its embarrassingly bad ending. We see a car crash in the beginning of the film, and…everything after that is just a hallucination. Groundbreaking, right? Listen, the whole ambiguity around hallucinations, dreams, and reality can be done, and it can be done really well (look no further than Mulholland Dr. ). For that to work, however, you need to maintain that level of ambiguity throughout, and ask your viewers to be incredibly perceptive. Stay, on the other hand, seems to scream “Gotcha!” at the end, which leaves you feeling hollow and cheap. This film really did have great potential (though its stylized nature borders on arrogant)—largely due to the fact that it stars Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Ryan Gosling. How did they all willingly get involved?
Signs (2002), dir. by M. Night Shyamalan
Oh, M. Night. There are many other films I could have chosen in his filmography, but I chose Signs because of how close it was to being an excellent movie. And I’ll say this: it is hands down my favorite film on this list. After Signs, he was walking on thin ice. Then came The Village (2003). Then came everything else. Luckily he (maybe—just maybe) might be on the right track again with The Visit (2015), but it’s hard for me to believe. Where do I even begin with Signs? How the hell am I supposed to buy the fact that these incredibly intelligent, superior beings knowingly come to a planet that is comprised of 70% of the very thing that is lethal to them? And it just so happens that due to some ridiculous, divine intervention everything works out okay. And just so we’re clear—God told a little girl to surround her house with glasses of water instead of, I don’t know, inflicting a giant storm on the aliens? Or…literally anything else? The only twist that actually works in the film is every time we re-remember Michael Showalter’s incredible cameo. (https://youtu.be/MyeyL0YNGoM?t=1m9s)
Savages (2012), dir. by Oliver Stone
The plot twist in this one is incredibly similar to the gimmicky dream technique. After Ben and Chon (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, respectively) find out their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively) has been kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel, they stop at nothing to rescue her. Fine, whatever. The movie isn’t amazing by any means, but it’s entertaining enough. Based on the book of the same name by Don Winslow, the film is fairly close to the book (so I hear). That is, except for one drastic difference: the ending. Stone apparently argued that the book’s darker ending (the three character’s all die), wasn’t right for his movie. But he still included it. That is, it ends the way the book does, and then the film rewinds and O (who has been narrating this whole time) informs us that’s just how she thought it might happen. What really happened is the couple of three gets off just fine, and they all move to a remote island. Yikes.
Remember Me (2010), dir. by Allen Coulter
Full disclosure: I went into this movie expecting nothing. Less than nothing, probably. There was no universe in which I was expecting this to be a good movie, and it wasn’t. However, it was consistent, and had an average love story between two young people suffering through their own traumatic life events. And that’s what it is…for like, the whole movie. Until the last scene. After our two lovebirds work it all out, Tyler (Robert Pattinson) goes to his father’s office in an attempt to reconnect with him. Then we cut to Tyler’s younger sister in school. The teacher goes to the board and writes the date: September 11th, 2001. I’m going to give you a second to soak that in. Just so we’re clear: for almost two hours, we have a film that is evenly paced, dramatic, and has a romantic spin on it, and all the while, it turns out the film was secretly some sort of “period piece.” For what it was trying to be up until the ending, it succeeded just fine. I cannot think of a more offensive, lazy, and mind-boggling twist than this movie. After revealing the date, we cut back to Tyler looking out his father’s office window, and we pull out to reveal…yes. It turns out his father’s office is in one of the twin towers. Cut to black. The end. I would pay very good money to speak with any of the various people that read this script and said, “Hell yeah! The audience will NEVER see this coming!”
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.