The enigmatic spontaneity of a movie plot twist is an experience like no other and remains one of the oldest cinematic tools to shock, surprise and captivate the audience. Just like the hidden dips and curves of a high-speed rollercoaster ride, you never quite know when, or indeed ‘if’, a twist will happen at all, making the narrative device one that harks back to the fleeting joys of cinema as a mere carnival attraction.
Filmmakers such as M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan have made a career out of packaging such a thrill as both of the blockbuster directors strive to bring shock, awe and fanfare to popular cinema. Such creates an enthralling pop-puzzle of indulgence that can work to either service and strengthen the plot or provide a fantastical finale to an otherwise undeserving film.
At its best, a twist can shock, surprise and provide genuine lasting excitement, though at their worst, they can truly spoil an otherwise appetising cinematic feast. So, whilst ignoring the rotten narrative spanners of The Village, High Tension and Planet of the Apes, let’s look into the very best plot twists ever to grace cinema.
The 10 greatest movie plot twists
10. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)
Having created some of the most impressive spectacles of the 21st century in Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s very best narrative twist comes in his Oscar-nominated cinematic breakthrough, Incendies.
Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is an Oedipal tale of one family and the cruel fate that life has dealt them. In an unnamed country in the Middle East, a pair of Canadian twins try to uncover their past according to the last wishes of their mother. There is an underlying sense of foreboding and dread that culminates in the films disturbing twist that reveals that their brother had been raping their mother for years.
Revealed with artistic brilliance from Villeneuve, this isn’t a twist that will brand itself into your memory.
9. Uncut Gems (Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, 2019)
With wild, frenzied electricity Josh and Benny Safdie present a New York bustling with fury and excitement in this 21st-century thriller masterpiece. Together with 2017s frenetic Good Time, the Safdie brothers have solidified themselves as icons of contemporary cinema.
Stalking the movements of Adam Sandler’s scatty Howard Ratner, a jeweller with mounting debts to pay as he risks his life and finances to stay afloat, Uncut Gems pierces the retinas with an adrenaline rush born from the streets of New York. Presenting the American dream of a modern consumerist gambler, the twist of the Safdie brothers’ classic film was that, despite his successful efforts and final ‘victory’ he is killed at the hands of his blind greed.
Whilst such similar films end on a high note, the Safdie’s show a painful portrait of the American dream, always so close yet ultimately so far.
8. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
The Star Wars universe is undoubtedly the most iconic film franchise of all time, permeating into the popular, everyday culture in multiple ways, no less than in its influential final plot twist in which antagonist Darth Vader reveals he is in fact the father of hero Luke Skywalker.
Both silly and strangely sophisticated, The Empire Strikes Back balances the series’ camp roots, whilst elevating its story into something far more impressive and spectacular, fulfilling its role as a perfect sequel, one of the best ever for that matter. Not only is the film a celebration of the creative freedom of sci-fi storytelling, but it is also a triumph of filmmaking, perfectly melding sound, lighting and cinematography, particularly in the final battle between Luke and Vader.
Its final twist is fitting, iconic and sets up for one mighty final battle.
7. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
The sophomore film of director Bryan Singer, The Usual Suspects, quickly became an iconic film of the 1990s upon its release midway through the decade, largely for its impressive ensemble cast and its surprising twist ending.
Centring on a small-time con-man, Verbal (Kevin Spacey), and his interrogation regarding the events of a massacre on a ship docked at the LA harbour, The Usual Suspects’ most iconic moment comes at the very end of the film where the villainous killer named Keyser Söze is finally revealed. Turns out the answer to the mystery was right under our noses the entire time as Kevin Spacey’s Verbal hobbles out of the police station only to break out into a stiff walk and escape scot-free.
Having been imitated many times across TV and film, this twist is a proper hoodwinker.
6. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
Not to be confused with Tim Burton’s awful remake of the sci-fi classic that coincidently makes for one of cinema’s worst-ever twists, Franklin J. Schaffner’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s timeless novel remains a cinematic great.
The plot follows an astronaut crew who crash-land on a planet in the distant future where instead of humans ruling the land, intelligent apes are the dominant species. Imprisoning humans as their slaves, Boulle’s tale is one with deep-rooted existential questions, asking why our dominance at the top of the food chain is so absolute. Though, it is, of course, the film’s ending in which Charlton Heston as George Taylor discovers this nightmarish planet is in fact planet earth following an apocalyptic nuclear war.
It’s a haunting, iconic final sequence.
5. Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
The influential twist ending to M. Night Shyamalan’s 1990s classic The Sixth Sense is inextricably linked to the film’s own iconic line of dialogue that has since permeated into the cultural zeitgeist; “I see dead people”.
Undoubtedly Shyamalan’s finest work, The Sixth Sense is the film that established Shyamalan as a filmmaker with a unique vision. The psychological thriller revolves around an eight-year-old child who seems to have the ability to talk to spirits so is paired with child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) for assistance. Typical of Shyamalan’s narrative style, nothing is ever as it seems and the conclusion is one of the most famous examples of “twist-endings” in popular culture but it is in no way all the film is.
By embedding the film’s twist neatly into the narrative all whilst the audience is totally oblivious, M. Night Shyamalan pulls off one of cinema’s greatest deceptions.
4. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
Joining Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as one of the 21st century’s most influential films, David Fincher’s Fight Club is a frenetic tirade against the allure of modern consumerism in favour of free will and individualism.
Narratively dense, the film is a psychological enigma that questions the constructions of the human psyche, particularly when so many ulterior pressures influence the modern individual. Both Edward Norton’s nameless protagonist and his alter-ego Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) are representatives of Freud psychoanalytic theory separating functions of the brain between the suppressed urges of the ID, and the moral conscience of the super-ego.
For those who have seen the film, the two characters are two sides to the same rusted coin, all of which is revealed in the film’s mind-bending twist that finally sees Tyler Durden liberate himself from the psychological torment of contemporary life.
3. The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)
The second and final film the iconic cinema duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford would make alongside each other, the highly accomplished heist film The Sting was directed by previous collaborator George Roy Hill, the great mind behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Set in the background of the American Depression in the early 20th century, Newman and Redford play Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker respectively, a pair of con-men who team up to pull off an elaborate heist on a murderous racketeer. With thanks to both the utterly natural chemistry of the two leading men, as well as a fun, snappy script from David S. Ward The Sting builds a truly absorbing narrative that throws the audience off in its final sequence when it appears their plan has backfired.
Revealing the final sting is actually multiple plans enacted at the same time, Robert Redford and Paul Newman walk away into the sunset loaded with cash, fooling the racketeer along with the audience.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Perhaps horror cinema’s most iconic conclusion, Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, reveals the true insanity of Norman Bates in Psycho’s chilling final scene after peppering twist-after-twist throughout the narrative of the film.
Subverting audience expectations, Hitchcock does away with the film’s lead, played by Janet Leigh, early in the film, showing her demise in the infamous shower scene. After capturing Norman Bates and discovering his mother’s mummified body, he is taken to the police station and examined by a psychiatrist. Revealing the true psychological terror of Bates’ actions, we take a trip inside his mind where his “mother” resides, manipulating his decisions with bitter insanity.
It’s a shocking and deeply disturbing twist in which actor Anthony Perkins gets to show his true maniacal genius.
1. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Park Chan-wook’s immensely popular neo-noir thriller Oldboy is a Kafkaesque tale about a man who breaks out of 15-year imprisonment to seek revenge but finds himself in much deeper trouble. Receiving the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy remains one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films and includes arguably cinema’s finest twist ending.
The introduction to this South Korean thriller begins with a simple mystery, a man is locked in a room for 15 years with no knowledge as to who has imprisoned him or why. One day he is randomly let free however and he engages in a violent rampage to find out what happened. With the help of a young sushi chef with who he becomes infatuated, they manage to track down the culprit and demand answers. Turns out it was one big act of twisted revenge that ends with the protagonist discovering that the woman he had met and slept with was in fact his daughter.
It’s a truly disturbing truth that Park Chan-wook drops on his audience with artistic ambiguity as the lead character requests to have his mind-wiped, though, as he embraces his daughter and lover in the final shot, how can we be sure he has truly forgotten his past?