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18 Best Plot Twists in Movie History
A good plot twist is, ideally, one you never see coming. But that’s also such a narrow way to think about twists in film. Realistically, a good twist isn’t that dissimilar from a good roller coaster: even if you see it coming, you’re filled with anxiety and fear and excitement knowing what’s to come. For this list, there’s a mix of the two—the blindsides and the slow burns. No matter what your taste is, there’s a film around to whet your appetite. When putting together a collection like this, you have to find a balance.
With every honor you bestow the Hitchcockian genius of Psycho, there’s a need to nod a hat to the big end film twists like Us. As you wade through the great movies on this list, it’s clear to see how the trope has evolved and how filmmakers have stepped up to reinvent what has already been done. But never forget: you’d never have a twist like the one in Parasite without the genius of those who came before.
Oh, and just in case we didn’t imply it already? Big spoilers ahead.
What’s in the box? It’s a devastating twist that elevates an already gory, creepy film to the next level. This serial killer thriller builds the horror and tension to the ultimate moment, when the final murder victim is revealed.
Jordan Peele’s horror film hinges on elevated social commentary, but the most terrifying moment is realizing that even the convincingly “woke” character has her own agenda. Somebody needs to come get their Karen.
To begin, it’s impossible to say which of Gone Girl’s twists goes down as the best. One thing is certain: “Amazing Amy” has more than one trick up her sleeve. As the domestic life thriller takes turn after turn, Gone Girl does the impossible.
The Usual Suspects
In a film riddled with twist and turns, the biggest one is handily the end when Agent Kujan discovers that Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint was Keyser Söze, the man he’s been looking for the entire film.
This one is a twofer. First off, the character of Zep was never the mastermind as much as he was a blackmailed henchman for Jigsaw… the truly sadistic figure in Saw. The second twist is that the body in the middle of the room for most of the horror film wasn’t dead and was, instead, listening to Gordon and Adam the whole time.
The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about fight club. That’s the second rule as well. The third rule is that you don’t talk about the twist in Fight Club, which is that Tyler (Brad Pitt) never existed. Dammit. We broke the rule.
This upstairs-downstairs Korean drama won Best Picture at this past year’s Oscars, but what makes Parasite so good has more to do with the downstairs than the upstairs. After a whole first act where a poor family starts to move in and overtake a wealthy family’s home, they discover that the basement has more in storage than just canned vegetables. The “parasite” already exists, and the whole second act explores what happens when two families war over the right to invade another.
There’s technically two great twists in Psycho. The most obvious is the reveal of Norman Bates as the killer, but the more nuanced one is that Alfred Hitchcock had the audacity to kill his main character halfway through the movie, turning expectations for the rest of the film on its head.
Planet of the Apes
Like a lot of great twists, you have to wait for the very end to discover the shocker in Planet of the Apes. The big reveal is that the titular planet was always ours, just in the distant future, when apes rounded up humans and became the dominant species.
It all comes down to “rosebud.” After a journalist sets off to discover what Charles Foster Kane’s final word “rosebud” meant, he comes to discover that it was simply the name of his childhood sled: a metaphor for the life he sacrificed.
Us, or as I like to call it: Jordan Peele’s twisted version of Switched at Birth, saves its final twist for the very end of the movie when it’s revealed that Lupita Nyong’o and her soulless doppelgänger actually switched places at a carnival when she was a child. Thus, human Lupita had been living underground for years and her identical clone had been living above ground as a human.
We love a time travel movie, but the truly heartbreaking moment in this alien/time travel drama is when Amy Adams’ character realizes (after being given the “gift” of non-linear time) that her future daughter will die. With that knowledge, she chooses to carry on the budding relationship that will eventually end in marriage, her daughter’s birth and subsequent death, and the heartbreaking ruin that will follow.
The Mist is an anxiety-ridden mess of a film that features Marcia Gay Harden in what would become a pretty convincing imitation of a Trump supporter, so yeah, we get why Thomas Jane and Laurie Holden wanted to get out of there. But then, when all hope is lost and Jane’s character shoots everyone in the car, only to find out seconds later that the mist had passed? Damn you, Stephen King.
The twist from The Prestige left so many people scratching their heads because, like a lot of Nolan films, it’s not as cut and dry as viewers might believe. It appears that at the end of the film, Borden is left to deal with the fallout (and charge) from Angier’s death, but is Angier actually dead? Or was this just his final one-up in this face off of rival magicians?
The Sixth Sense
Everything should have started clicking when Haley Joel Osment said, “I see dead people.” Yeah, that’s why he’s looking at you, Bruce Willis. When the truth is revealed, M. Night Shyamalan must have been pretty damn proud of himself because The Sixth Sense’s twist might still be one of the greatest of all time.
Don’t you hate when you’ve stumbled upon a house of ghosts, starting figuring out their behaviors and daily goings on and then realize that, in fact, you are the ghost? Bollocks! The 2001 horror movie was so revered that it locked in acting nominations for Nicole Kidman at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, along with a BAFTA writing nomination.
You know, considering how many people end up dead at the end of films, it’s probably not a twist that should take us by surprise as often as it does. Nevertheless, in Jacob’s Ladder, the horror film that follows a man named Jacob who was stabbed in Vietnam, escapes the war-torn environment just as he passes out, and then awakes in New York City. He tries to reestablish a life back in the States but continues to be haunted by his past. You’re rooting for Jacob, only to find out at the end that not only did Jacob die in Vietnam, but he was given a dose of medicine that turned him and his fellow soldiers into killing machines, one of whom was responsible for Jacob’s death.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
At the risk of being too succinct, we only have five words to describe the greatest twist of all time: No, I am your father.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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