Friday, March 13, 2009

Twist Endings

By Steve Evans
Great is the film that throws a third-act curveball, a corkscrew twist that makes us reevaluate everything we have seen. Often, we want to see it again immediately to discover how we were manipulated. From a commercial standpoint, this is a tremendous benefit to the producers of these sly movies.

In today’s installment of Cinema Uprising, lucky Friday the 13th, I offer my thoughts on nine of the most effective movies with twist endings. But first, a caveat of danger: “here there may be spoilers.”

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a classic of German Expressionism, must be the first narrative film in cinema history to reverse itself with a surprise conclusion. A small German town is plagued by murders that coincide with the mysterious Caligari and his zombie-like somnambulist, Cesare, who dwells in an oblong box. The twist has been imitated and parodied so often that contemporary viewers might wonder what all the fuss was about. Just remember that Caligari did it first and best. Martin Scorsese will tread similar thematic territory with the upcoming Shutter Island, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).

Psycho (1960) comes to mind as a classic of misdirection and manipulation. “Mother – what is the expression? – isn’t herself today.” This wee-budget picture may be the most influential motion picture in the history of cinema. We can thank Psycho for creating independent cinema, for the advent of the slasher film, and for keeping a generation out of the shower. The movie has influenced directors as disparate as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, and John Carpenter, and a host of hacks who need not be mentioned here. Few movies contain as many visceral shocks – and just as many macabre jokes. Hitchcock always insisted his film was meant as comedy. He famously told Francois Truffaut that the goal of Psycho was to play the audience like a musical instrument, to mesmerize and manipulate them with “pure cinema.” Mission accomplished, Alfred.

The Crying Game (1992) is another movie that jolts audiences with a radical change in direction: Three times, no less, with an Act II surprise that is either touching, revolting, or laugh-out-loud hilarious, depending on your perspective. IRA soldier Stephen Rea befriends kidnapped enemy Forest Whitaker. Later, Rea gets involved with soldier’s lover Dil and things really get strange. Director Neil Jordan makes provocative films for adults. This is the one he will be remembered for.

Ed Norton played a simpleton to perfection in Primal Fear (1996) as an altar boy accused of murdering a priest. As his cocky but actually quite clueless attorney, Richard Gere gets a nasty shock in the final reel. No good deed goes unpunished and we all get a good lesson in the deadly sin of pride.

Se7en and The Usual Suspects were released within months of each other in 1995. Both have terrific twists thanks to the little dances of death performed by John Doe and Keyser Soze. Both are committed by Kevin Spacey. For some time now, movie lovers have been waiting for an answer to this tricky question: When will Spacey make another good film?

“I see dead people,” Haley Joel Osment observed in The Sixth Sense (1999). He wasn’t kidding. We enjoyed a good jolt and Bruce Willis got the surprise of his afterlife at the climax of this effective chiller. Director M. Night Shyamalan has been making increasingly ludicrous films with a growing whiff of desperation about them ever since.

Speaking of twist endings, cult film fans are encouraged to explore the Heidegger connection between these two obscurities: Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990). These films draw on the ideas of the German philosopher to get at the very notion of being, of what it means to be aware of one’s existence, while underlying a common human fallacy. It is this: when we allow perception to serve as reality, trouble cannot be far behind. Smart filmmakers understand how to exploit this weakness of the mind. When people accept what they perceive as the real deal, the resulting dramatic conflict creates satisfying cinema. Indeed, seducing an audience into trusting perception over reality is the very essence of the effective film.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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