M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie in theaters this week, “Split,” in which James McAvoy plays a man with 23 personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls. Shyamalan came to fame (and the billing of “the next Spielberg”) thanks to three big hits in a row, “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but thanks to those, he also became a byword not just for artful genre films, but also “Twilight Zone”-style shocking twist endings.
The big talking point over “The Sixth Sense” was its daring surprise third-act gambit, and Shyamalan continued along those lines with his next few films, including 2004’s “The Village,” to varying responses. The director had a twist of his own in store: His next four movies, “Lady In The Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” were all absolutely terrible — but like Jason Voorhees leaping from the lake, he returned to form with “The Visit” in 2015, and by most accounts, “Split” is pretty good, too (look for our review later in the week).
The film reportedly contains a pretty big surprise at the end, perhaps the first in a Shyamalan movie in over a decade, and so we decided to celebrate by picking out the 50 best plot twists in movie history. On the whole, we’ve stuck to true twists — moments that happen later on, rather than set up the premise of the movie (like, say, “The Matrix”), and that are true revelations rather than reveals, helping you look at what came before in a new light.
We also, on the whole, avoided twists from books or plays that were already famous from literary phenomena, so no “Harry Potter,” “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” or “Gone Girl,” to name but a few (with a few exceptions for older fare, which pre-dated “spoiler” culture). The ones below are movie twists first and foremost. Will “Split” join them? You can find out in theaters from Friday, unless… Oh my god… you’ve been dead all along! It was all a dream!
**SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS**
50. Sam And Pilar Are Half-Siblings – “Lone Star” (1996)
John Sayles’ exquisite Texan neo-noir weaves a compelling mystery — as Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates the uncovery of a long-dead skeleton who may have been linked to his father Buddy (Matthew McConaughey), who held the job in the 1950s — with Sayles’ usual nuanced feel for character and politics. And it climaxes with a doozy of a revelation with a little echo of “Star Wars,” as Deeds finds that his childhood sweetheart Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), with whom he’s recently reunited, was also fathered by Buddy, and is his half-sister. It could play out like Greek tragedy, but in Sayles’ hands, and through the magnificent performances by Cooper and Peña, it becomes something strangely romantic.
49. Clive Owen Never Left The Bank – “Inside Man” (2006)
The closest Spike Lee ever got to selling out and making a blockbuster — and yet firmly and utterly a Spike Lee joint — is this hugely enjoyable heist thriller that melds “Dog Day Afternoon” and a Christopher Nolan-style puzzle box. It’s funny, characterful and exciting, and like the best puzzle boxes, the solution proves to be ingenious: Clive Owen’s opening narration, delivered from inside a “prison cell” and talking about “the perfect bank robbery,” is actually from a secret room he constructed inside the bank, which he’s been hiding out in for a week before walking, as he promised, out the front door. A brilliantly plotted film in general leaves its cleverest gambit for last.
48. She Made Up The Happy Ending As An Act Of… – “Atonement” (2007)
“Atonement,” in both its forms as the Ian McEwan novel and the Joe Wright film of that novel, is a fascinating bellwether for how fiction works. There are those who delight in the tragic reveal that a lot of what they’ve been watching/reading did not actually happen (insofar as any of it happened, because it’s all a fiction, obviously) and was actually a further fictional layer created by the fictional writer Briony (Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave) to assuage her guilt for the spiteful and false accusation she made as a child that destroyed the great love of her sister’s life. And there are others who are left feeling completely, incoherently annoyed by an ending whose self-awareness doesn’t make its manipulation and condescension feel like any less of a cheat. But, you know, either way, big twist.
47. Actually, It Was John Wayne That Shot Liberty Valance – “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
Making a good argument for being John Ford’s greatest film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a thoughtful, elegiac look at the creation of America, and the role of myth-making in its birth, regardless of whether the myths were true — as Carleton Young’s newspaper editor says, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For most of the film, we’ve been led to believe that Jimmy Stewart’s local politician killed the titular outlaw (Lee Marvin), building his career and reputation in it, but near the end, we learn that it was in fact John Wayne’s tough rancher Doniphon, realizing that the girl they both loved (Vera Miles) had already fallen for Stewart and would have her heart broken if he died in a gunfight. It’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect movie.
46. Samuel L. Jackson Is A Supervillain – “Unbreakable” (2000)
After the doozy at the end of “The Sixth Sense” (see below), people came to much-hyped follow-up “Unbreakable” expecting another shock conclusion. So props to M. Night Shyamalan for still pulling off a twist in plain sight that almost no one was expecting. It becomes clear across the film that what you thought was a supernatural thriller about Bruce Willis surviving a train crash was really a stealth superhero origin story, and every hero needs a villain. The villain turns out to be Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle-boned Mr. Glass, who’s engineered a series of disasters in order to uncover someone with superpowers who could survive them.
45. She Was Hallucinating Her Stepmother And Her Sister – “A Tale Of Two Sisters” (2003)
It wasn’t entirely new, and it’s subsequently been ripped off by other films, some good, some less so (“Goodnight Mommy” was a very effective version of essentially the same trick), but the revelation that Kim Jee-woon’s horror classic “A Tale Of Two Sisters” pulls off is just done more effectively than most others. It revolves around teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), who comes to believe that her stepmother (Yum Jung-ah) is plotting to kill her and her sister (Moon Geun-young). But we soon learn that 1) her stepmother and her sister were both hallucinations caused by her mental illness, and 2) the real stepmother is seemingly killed by an actual ghost, having caused the death of the sister. It doesn’t really come across here, but it’s a delirious series of twists that makes much more sense when Kim’s pulling it off.
44. George and Martha Never Had A Son – “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Mike Nichols‘ stunning adaptation of Edward Albee‘s classic play is so crammed full of lurching high drama and career-best performances (particularly from then-married principals Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in one of the most fascinating examples of real-life/fiction synergy ever recorded), there really shouldn’t be room for the kind of gut-kick surprise that the film delivers towards its close. But it delivers, because this final coup de grace is in such a completely different register from all the high-anxiety histrionics and wildly pendulum-swinging power plays that have characterized George and Martha’s night (and apparently their whole marriage) so far. The son, whose character and affections have been used as a particularly vicious weapon in their war of attrition, is revealed to have been a mutually reinforced delusion and it’s George’s “murder” of that fiction, probably the one unforgivable transgression of the entire garbage-fire night, that shifts the story from caustic melodrama to tragedy.
43. Borden Is Two People Pretending To Be One – “The Prestige” (2006)
There are manifold examples, on this list and beyond, of a twist that reveals one person pretending or believing they are more than one person. But it’s rarer to come across the reverse rug-pull: two people pretending, on a long-term basis, to be the same person — certainly without the use of “Mission: Impossible“-style masks or other disguises. But here, the “He has a twin!” reveal, so beloved of trashy soap operas that it’s become a cliche, is given an eerie, somber and entirely uncanny makeover in Christopher Nolan‘s adaptation of Christopher Priest‘s novel. The clever thing about this twist is that it’s actually the less dramatic of the two major turning points (the other is that Hugh Jackman‘s Angier is actually killing and cloning himself, night after night), making the lifelong commitment of Christian Bale‘s identical brothers poetically anticlimactic as well as satisfyingly earned.
42. He’s Been In A Virtual-Reality Afterlife – “Open Your Eyes”
With a few years of head start on the life-is-a-simulation end-of-millennium anxiety that soon became prevalent with Hollywood films like “The Matrix,” Alejandro Amenábar’s breakthrough “Open Your Eyes” pulled off its rug-pull far more effectively than Cameron Crowe’s remake “Vanilla Sky” a few years later. In its final moments, we learn that César (Eduardo Noriega) has been cryogenically frozen and living out a virtual-reality dream after committing suicide, thanks to signing up with a company called Life Extension. There’s little more hackneyed than the “it was all a dream!” revelation, but the sci-fi twist on it here, and the emotional weight given to it, partly by Noriega’s performance, makes this the rare example of the twist being done well.
41. They Faked Their Deaths – “The Sting” (1973)
Decades before the insufferable term “bromance” became ubiquitous, Paul Newman and Robert Redford issued an early defining gospel in the bromance bible with “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.” Reteaming four years later for George Roy Hill‘s ludicrously enjoyable period con-man caper, their chemistry is also what makes this twist work so well: Almost greater than the shock of their apparent deaths is the moment the would-be FBI officer nods to Redford and we understand he’s the rat in the organization. So the relief at discovering it was all a ploy as they resurrect and grin across at each other like post-coital lovers (don’t @ me) is heightened immeasurably by the relief that Redford’s Hooker didn’t betray Newman’s Gondorff and they’re Best. Friends. Forever.