It’s the shock of seeing Norman Bates, knife in hand, clad in his mother’s clothes, grinning maniacally in the swinging lamplight. It’s the realization that Kevin Spacey spun us a bunch of lies, and was actually Keyser Söze the whole time. It’s finally connecting “I see dead people” with Bruce Willis being shot at the beginning of “The Sixth Sense.” When movies pull the rug from under us, it’s one of the greatest thrills that cinema can provide.
As Hollywood continues to reboot countless old properties, it’s easy to think that the days of original and surprising storytelling are long behind us. But these films prove that Hollywood still has a few tricks up its sleeve, ones that have kept us talking for years, and have cemented their place in film history.
Beware of spoilers! Here are 6 of the best plot twists of the last 10 years:
1. “The Mist” (2007)
“The Mist” doesn’t have a plot twist in the traditional sense — it’s more of a cruelly ironic turn of the screw, a reveal that broadens what we know without tampering with it — but good lord does it pull the rug out from under us. For almost two hours, Frank Darabont’s masterfully oppressive Stephen King adaptation siphons away your faith in the future, trapping its motley crew of characters inside of a Maine supermarket and watching them tear each other apart as a fog of inter-dimensional monsters settles over their world. Our heroes eventually make a break for it, burly painter David Drayton (Thomas Jane) leading the escape.
That’s when the film breaks away from the novella. When the gang runs out of gas, they also run out of hope, leaving David no choice but to put everyone else out of their misery (a mercy killing that involves shooting his young son in the head). And then, just when he’s wondering what to do without a bullet for himself… the mist recedes and the army rolls in. If only they had waited just a few more minutes. If only they hadn’t given up! It’s as devastating a denouement as any the movies have ever seen, and a scarring reminder that hope is always the last thing we have left.
2. “Shutter Island” (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s step into the world of horror-psychological thriller was hardly a casual detour into genre filmmaking, but a dark, painful look inward that has become the director’s most overlooked film. In Scorsese’s 2010 adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s book, a U.S. Marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates the disappearance of a murderer from a hospital for the criminally insane. As Teddy’s obsessive hunt drives him deeper into the dark, mysterious bowels of the hospital, his own demons — from the violence of WW2 and the murder of his wife by an arsonist Andrew Laeddis (“the most dangerous patient on the island”) — start to emerge.
In a “Vertigo”-like reveal, Teddy learns that he is actually Laeddis, who murdered his manic-depressive wife (Michelle Williams) after she drowned their children. The events of previous days were staged by the doctors to help him snap him out of his bout of conspiracy-laden insanity. Like “Vertigo,” it’s important that we spent the entire movie strongly identifying with Teddy’s obsessive quest for justice in a corrupt system. The twist forces us to work backwards, realizing the truth of Teddy’s instability was present the whole time. Lehane wrote the 2003 book as a clear metaphor for the U.S. foreign wars after 9/11, but Scorsese’s film adaptation also feels deeply personal as if the director is excavating his own painful regrets and guilt.
3. “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
For his directorial debut, Ben Affleck turned to his hometown, Boston, and his own brother, Casey, for an adaptation of the 1998 Dennis Lehane detective novel of the same name. The younger Affleck stars as Patrick, a Boston P.I. who is hired to help a young mother, Helene (a superb Amy Ryan), find her missing daughter, Amanda. As Patrick digs deeper into the case, he realizes Helene isn’t the doting mother she appeared to be on television, when she tearily pleaded for Amanda’s safe return. Patrick finds connections to Boston’s drug world and believes the child has been kidnapped because Helene and her boyfriend have ripped off a Haitian drug dealer. With the help of Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), Patrick tries to negotiate Amanda’s safe return at a local quarry, but things go haywire: A gunfight breaks out and it seems Amanda has fallen off of the quarry and drowned in the river below. Patrick is stricken with grief, but as he continues to work on other cases, he realizes something just isn’t right about Amanda’s death.
The quarry, it turns out, was a setup, orchestrated by Doyle. Amanda isn’t just alive, but she’s now happily living with Doyle and his wife, who were raising the child after the loss of their own daughter years earlier. It’s a shocking twist not only because the audience is convinced of the child’s death, but because of Doyle breaking the law to assuage his own grief.
4. “Gone Girl” (2014)
Gillian Flynn adapted her bestselling whodunit into a bankable 2014 screenplay, produced by Reese Witherspoon and helmed by David Fincher. Gleaming Gotham transplants Nick (Ben Affleck) and pregnant Amy (Rosamund Pike) recently relocated to Missouri, but the national press pounces when she vanishes on their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick is immediately the prime suspect, assailed for being too composed and unfaithful — a la real-life convicted murderer Scott Peterson — especially when bloodstains are found in their home. Instead, Amy meticulously framed him, and later a doomed ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris), even swiping urine from an expectant neighbor. She returns home with a fabricated rape claim and another surprise: she actually is pregnant, thanks to Nick’s banked sperm. When the film ends, the couple presents an uneasy, united front.
5. “Memento” (2000)
The movie that shot Christopher Nolan to fame as one of the most inventive filmmakers working today, “Memento” is both enigmatic and highly accessible. The premise — a man who suffers from extreme short-term memory loss tries to avenge his wife’s death — instantly draws you into Nolan’s carefully constructed narrative. The audience follows a complex trail of breadcrumbs along with Leonard (Guy Pearce), who uses an intricate system of polaroids and tattoos to remember important information. When the film’s two timelines, one color, and one black and white, finally converge, Leonard must face the ugly truth of the secret he has been repressing. It’s a wallop of an ending following a wild ride full of intricate surprises. Cerebral crime thrillers were never the same after Nolan had his way with them.
6. “Oldboy” (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s visceral and stylish “Oldboy” is one of the most beloved foreign titles of the 21st century, and that has everything to do with its no-way-can-this-be-real twist (okay, maybe that one-take, four-minute hallway fight scene is also why). Chan-wook’s revenge story is driven by paternal bravery for much of its runtime. After all, any father that goes on a manhunt to find his lost daughter after spending 15 years in solitary, drug-tampered isolation has to win some kind of “father of the year” award whether he succeeds or not. But then comes that third act jaw-dropper, a plot twist so revoltingly deconstructive that it folds the entire story in on itself with a nasty, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head punch. It turns out the woman who has been helping the father find his daughter is actually his daughter, and they’ve already fallen in love and consummated the relationship. The twist is rightfully regarded as one of the most shocking turn-of-events in film history.
Can you think of any other movie twists that had you questioning everything you had watched up until that point? Share them in the comments below.