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Movie Plot Twists: An Analysis

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There seems to be a disturbing trend in the "surprise-ending" tactics used by certain mystery/thriller movie-makers these days: they build a story line around the psychological objectives of the main characters, but then surprise the audience with a logically-acceptable plot twist that abandons (or violates) the characters' original objectives. While movie audiences are filling theaters and movie rentals houses to watch suspense films for the fun-filled about-face turn-around at the end, the method that the filmmakers are using to tickle the audience is based on a short-sighted formula that may not have legs if not done more carefully.

To illustrate this, let's examine one of the most well-known films of this class: M Knight Shayamalan's "The Sixth Sense." The story essentially has two main characters, a little boy with a supernatural ability to see dead people, and the boy's psychologist, played by Bruce Willis. We all know what the boy's problem is, and there's no mystery to unfold: he's frightened by the dead people he sees. Sure, we want to figure out why, but there's no psycho-drama here - it's just a matter of "suspense." The real drama here is Willis' character's personal objective of understanding himself and his relationship with his wife, a struggle that began after a shooting incident at the beginning of the movie. Throughout the film, we see the two stories unfold around each character, and we find they both come together in the end with an alternate reality that we didn't consider.. But it's the audiences investment in Willis' character that is left unresolved because we're so captivated by the plot-twist. Yes, the new reality answered quite a few factual mysteries (carefully constructed throughout the film to serve this surprise), but what happened to Willis' need to understand and fill an emptiness in his life? The ending made this a moot point from a factual point of view, but not the psychological one. His personal problem is still out there, even if only in a spiritual sense.

Many people didn't mind this omission of an important element to the character, and the film did quite well both critically and financially. But it treaded very close to that line where the surprise might not have worked. In fact, this is precisely what happened in M Knight's next two films, "Unbreakable", and "Signs." In this latter film, the main character is a preacher who loses his faith in God after his wife dies in a car accident. He spends the movie in search of the meaning of life, and as aliens land on Earth to threaten our very existence, his true faith is put to the test. Through this experience, he learns something that presents an interesting and creative plot twist that surprises him and the audience, but the movie fails to show us how he manages his personal struggle with "meaning and purpose." It turns out that the "facts" make it all a moot and irrelevant point, so it isn't possible to see how the preacher reconciles this problem on his own. The movie didn't do as well in the box office, mostly because of this somewhat anticlimactic element, even if the audience wasn't entirely cognizant of why the movie felt unfulfilling.

So, what's going on here? When does a surprise plot-twist ending work, and when does it not? The element of surprise is the result of being presented with an outcome that lies within the circle of believable possibilities, but not one the audience had considered. The more unexpected the outcome, the more dramatic the surprise effect, so long as the new ending lies within that circle. Fall outside the circle, and the audience doesn't buy it. It turns out, however, that the closer you get to the edge, the more profound and dramatic the outcome feels. If the result is entirely predictable - directly in the center of the circle - then the story can be equally anticlimactic. So, suspense films that offer plot-twists at the end need to find a way to get close to the edge of the circle of possibilities, but not breach that grey boundary.

What filmmakers need to remain aware of is that the circle of possibilities is not just limited to the factual elements of the film; the ending must address the psychological objectives of the characters involved. If an ending is a surprise factually, but doesn't serve the characters, the sense of surprise will be compromised. Audiences don't readily pick up on this consciously; it usually manifests itself subconsciously in how we witness people's behaviors as we identify with their needs.

Another current film that illustrates this problem less ambiguously is "The Ring." Here, an entire story is based on the main character's objective of figuring out why people mysteriously die after having watched a particular video tape. We are presented with facts and circumstances that, as events unfold, draw us into the murder-mystery theme, where we want to see how all the minute details of the video and the events that lead up to it explain or justify why things happen the way they do. More importantly, we invest in the objectives of the main characters and want to see something happen as a result. Good or bad, it doesn't matter. Just address it. Yet, the unexpected twist at the end throws it all out, abandoning pretty much everything for the sole purpose of the shock value of the surprise. Sure, the "facts" were logical, the mystery was "understood" (though not entirely "solved"), and the surprise, while unexpected, stayed within the circle of possibilities. But what about the main character? Everything she did throughout the film to discover the underlying mystery of the killer and her history all turned out to be moot and irrelevant. So, while the movie was enjoyable as a B-grade suspense-thriller, it failed to really capture us because we were left dangling in a critical way at the end.

A good counter-example to "The Ring" is Peter Medek's 1980 film, "The Changeling", starring George C. Scott. This film is very similar to "The Ring" in many forms, but the suspense and ultimate surprise is far more engaging because the twist had everything to do with the main character's personal objectives. Here, Scott's character loses his family in a car accident, and when he moves into a house that happens to be haunted, he slowly discovers its ghost is a young boy who could identify with Scott's character's plight, and the two help each other with their objectives.

Not every ending has to be happy or even satisfying - ambiguity is often more desired than a definite resolution. So long as you serve the character's objectives. Let's consider the current film, "Identity." The main character is a serial killer with multiple personalities who committed some horrific murders. He is being treated by a psychiatrist to establish whether the man should be put to death based on whether the murders were the responsibility of the "true" identity of the individual, or one of the underlying personalities in his psychosis. It's a brilliant premise, and the execution of the film is very well done. We are presented with a mixture of different story elements that, at first, appear incongruent, but later make more sense as events unfold. What's more, we also learn that the killer himself was once the victim of injustices that lead to his insanity, drawing more sympathy for him, and thus, attachment to the end objective that we're all waiting to see.

When we are presented with the surprise ending that, yes, makes perfectly logical sense, and it does satisfy the "search" for the killer's true identity, the discerning viewer may notice that the film never addressed the main character's objective. A partial reason for this is that it isn't entirely clear who the "main character" is right away, and we spend a good deal of the movie trying to figure that out. That's fun, but the movie implies, if not only by screen time, that the "main character" is one of the personalities of the film that seems to care more about solving the mystery than the other characters do. Here, the psychological struggle is that character's objective, and we identify with the film through him and him alone.

When the ending is presented, we see that the surprise is a logically viable solution, but it dropped the objectives on the floor. We had to break the bond with the main character in order to accept that new ending. For me, that was a stretch, but I acknowledge that it might not have been so for others. After all, most people go to movies to escape reality and not get so intellectual and analytical as this. But results can be measured and quality identified. For example, compare "Identity" with "Seven", a murder mystery that's similar in that it involves characters that you wouldn't expect, but the ending of that film worked so well because it served the objectives of all the main characters.

In each of these films, even the ones that abandon their main characters, the filmmaker certainly evokes a sense of surprise, and they do so very effectively at a factual level. However, history shows us that surprise endings that are done at the expense of the main characters don't do as well as those who remain true to them. If filmmakers have the skill to develop an interesting psychological persona, it shouldn't take that much more ingenuity to incorporate plot twists and remain true to their characters' objectives.

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