Writers' Note: Plot Twist the Knife
Updated: Apr 2
Most great mysteries come with plot twists. This month, the BFBs were asked to identify memorable plot twists in movies or series. Their strong reaction to the revelation could be inspired by its developmental brilliance or sheer devastation factor, but the most important aspect is that the implications of it are strongly felt. We ensured that the choices were not too recent, but nonetheless, we recommend you read the spoiler warning before proceeding.
Spoilers for The Game (1997), 24 season 1 (2001), Nightcrawler (2014) and Big Little Lies season 1 (2017) lie ahead.
The Game (1997) follows successful but cold-hearted banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), who, on his 47th birthday, is gifted a voucher by his brother Conrad (Sean Penn). The voucher is for a game offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). We also learn at the beginning of the movie that Nicholas and Conrad’s father killed himself on his 48th birthday. Nicholas goes and applies for the game, but ends up getting rejected. Soon, however, a series of bizarre events occur, and over the course of the movie, they become more dangerous and life-threatening (for example, all of his finances are drained and he is buried alive in Mexico).
Eventually, he and a woman named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) – a CRS employee posing as a waitress who weaves in and out of the events of the film – go to CRS headquarters, where he holds her hostage at gunpoint on the roof. She explains to him that everything that’s happened until then has all been a game and that his friends and family are waiting on the other side of the door to the roof. He doesn’t believe her, and when the door opens he shoots the first person to come out, which is Conrad. Realizing what he’s done, Nicholas jumps off the roof but lands on a giant air cushion after falling through a skylight. The events on the roof had all been a part of the game, and a very-much-alive Conrad presents him with a novelty t-shirt and says “I had to do something. You were becoming such an asshole.” He then presents Nicholas with the bill for his birthday present, the titular game.
I find the contradictory impulses at play fascinating. Nicholas is driven to commit suicide on his birthday, like his father before him. This time, though, it results in a rebirth. The self-actualization that results is something that’s rarely afforded to the rich; the general rule seems to be that the tradeoff for all that money is a feeling of misery that no material thing can fill, and at that point, your wealth so detaches you from your problems that any emotional progress seems impossible. Yet it’s this immense wealth that lets Michael Douglas' character have this life-changing experience in the first place, and his agreement to split the bill with Conrad is the ultimate acknowledgment that the experience worked. It’s truly the perfect gift for the man who has everything.
All of this magnificent depth is then undercut by how casual and glib everyone is about the whole affair. There’s the bit with the novelty t-shirt (a T-shirt which was gifted to me by my good friend and fellow BFB writer Jonathan) which reads “I was drugged and left for dead in Mexico – and all I got was this stupid t-shirt,” and the “why” of it all ends up being “you were becoming an asshole.” These are funny moments for sure, but they feel a little shallow.
On top of that, Michael Douglas' character is suddenly fine with all of the insanity that has happened up until then. I appreciate the catharsis the ending offers and was incredibly moved when Nicholas starts sobbing in Conrad’s arms, but I do wish that there was more ambiguity as to Nicholas’s fate. When watching the scene where he crashes through the restaurant skylight after jumping off the roof, I remember thinking it looked like a sort of dream sequence. The yellow-brownish tint evokes an otherworldly feeling, which is only heightened by what feels like an impossibly tall room. Although it’s made clear that it’s the real world (and I doubt we’re supposed to think otherwise), I would have loved it if Fincher took it in that sort of figurative direction.
Kiefer Sutherland’s explosive television star vehicle 24, featuring a fictional government agency devoted to fighting terrorism, made waves for its uncanny timing in somewhat unintentionally exploiting a national fear, since the show’s premiere was postponed due to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The title of the show refers to its adrenaline-inducing concept – each of a season’s 24 episodes comprises one hour in an exhausting season-long day for Sutherland’s Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer. To keep up the pace, 24 includes multiple storylines that are each packed with their own mind-blowing twists. The first season stands out among the others as the most personal for Jack, and while it may seem impossible to narrow down eight seasons’ worth of twists to just one for this post, one twist from season 1 is so memorable to me that it wasn’t difficult to choose.
It’s midnight in Los Angeles. Jack’s daughter Kim is not in her room and is soon confirmed missing. Jack’s attention is called away by urgent CTU work and his wife Teri is left to desperately search for Kim. Teri doesn’t have to search alone for long, as she soon receives a call from Alan York. Apparently, Kim and her friend Janet (Alan’s daughter) snuck out of their respective houses to meet some boys. While Teri has little-to-no contact with Jack, Alan becomes a support as the two follow up on leads, discover that the midnight rendezvous turned into a kidnapping, and mutually encourage each other to keep going to find their lost daughters. The search eventually leads them to the hospital when they find out that Janet has become the victim of a hit-and-run.
24 at its best is a master class in how to lull the audience into a false sense of security, what little security can be had in the shadow of an impending terrorist attack, by playing on the characters’ trust in each other. Jack is told by a dying mentor at the opening of the show to “trust no one” and he has been tipped off that Kim’s kidnapping is a part of the larger terrorist plot. So when Jack finally has a chance at 5:00 am to meet a worn-out Teri and Alan at the hospital, Jack immediately grills Alan on why he knows so little about the antics of his daughter. Teri, who has judged Alan’s parental concern to mimic her own, tells Jack to lay off. The show has already made clear that Jack and Teri have an unsteady relationship, Jack recently having come back after a separation. In Teri’s words to Alan, Jack is “wound up tighter than the rest of us” – and so easily discredited. Jack soon relents and apologizes to Alan for his rudeness, Alan returning understanding at the pressure Jack is under.
Having reconciled, Jack requests to speak to Janet for news of Kim. It’s only natural, of course, that Alan wants to protect Janet from Jack’s potentially difficult questioning and he states that he would like to go in alone as Janet regains consciousness after surgery. And then the show pulls the rug out from under the audience. As Alan walks over to Janet’s bedside speaking gently, Janet – groggy and attached to life-sustaining machines – shakily but clearly says, “Who are you? Where’s my dad?” That’s when “Alan” proceeds to suffocate Janet with her own oxygen mask, proving to the audience – not for the last time – that Jack’s instincts are trustworthy.
The show goes on to have many more shocking twists – season 1’s devastating finale brought about by Jack’s closest colleague, Jack being forced to kill both foes and friends, and even a scheming president (this one not so hard to believe with the benefit of hindsight). It might be because this is one of the first, or that the “mole” had such a calming presence through the first five episodes, or that Teri’s story is the one in which I was most invested – and it was probably a combination of all three – that the impact of this twist remains with me. Whatever the show became afterward, 24’s early seasons are a genuine example of edge-of-your-seat, binge-worthy television.
I have not watched Nightcrawler since 2017 (at which point I regarded it as the best movie I have ever seen), but I think it’s because part of me is afraid that I won't be as shocked by it the next time. I'd prefer to forever savor the feeling I got when I learned its last-minute plot twist – or rather, all-time villain initiation moment.
The film follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a deliberately solitary, unemployed man who discovers a way to make money as a freelance cameraman (a "stringer") providing on-location footage for local newsrooms. He is no stranger to crime, but this job now puts him in the position of filming those on the receiving end of it. He relishes the opportunity and soon strikes up a strained relationship with a news anchor, Nina, who is interested in purchasing his tapes for her station.
Lou is one of the best psychotic loners to hit the silver screen in the 2010s; his neurotic freak inspired a second wave of Taxi Driver copycats in both the mainstream and a devastating amount of made-for-YouTube shorts by angsty film students. But the conceit with Lou was that he sort of came out of nowhere. Nightcrawler was Dan Gilroy’s first film as director, and bearing in mind that his double-duty writer/director follow-ups have been progressively stinkier (Velvet Buzzsaw is just sooo bad), this one feels extra special. Bloom screaming and breaking a mirror doesn’t come off like a cheat code to the Oscars, it just feels like an honest moment of rage (and also kind of camp).
Jake Gyllenhaal's beastly performance is much to thank for this atmospheric neo-noir news movie reaching the audience that it did. The film also launched Riz Ahmed into the American consciousness for his turn as Bloom’s later-hired assistant, Rick. Their dynamic is quite interesting – both need the work, but whereas one sees it as a job, for the other, it becomes an obsession.
Lou’s derangement is pretty obvious from the get-go – he even forces Nina into a physical relationship because he knows he has the upper hand – but it’s especially tragic because you briefly think that Rick’s presence might soften him. Their relationship is not at all even, but Rick comes off as a decent guy (if a little desperate) who might be able to bring Lou down to earth. There even appears to be a leveling of the playing field when Rick threatens to expose Lou to the police for withholding evidence about one of the homicides they documented.
Nope! Wrong. In the film’s truly disturbing final moments, the duo witnesses a shootout. Lou is on lookout, and he tells Rick that the coast is clear for him to go in and film the aftermath. Except, one of the shooters is not deceased, and Lou most definitely knows that. Rick enters the scene and he is shot. Lou, rather than trying to resuscitate his dying coworker, films him as he dies, lecturing him about his gall and disloyalty. It's a massive punch in the gut, particularly when the film's denouement confirms that Lou's "business savvy" ends up paying off.
Although Lou did not wield the sword, he is certainly guilty of the crime. His voyeuristic pleasures and slimy power trip took precedence over any emotional bond the two had. The film’s message is quite important, and it didn’t really dawn on me until the tragic climax. Not only just “stop watching the world through a screen,” but also that a perverse interest in beholding violent crime desensitizes us and deprives the victims of their humanity.
This movie reminds me of coming home and flipping on the TV late at night, at the time of day when such violent reports appear to be blaring from all channels. I haven’t forgotten Lou’s betrayal, and I refuse to be sucked into the sensationalist prowl, even if it makes for “good TV.”
Twists don’t have shock value anymore. They rarely did, but in the age of spoilers and opening nights and post-credits scenes, twists carry even less impact. Between The Sixth Sense, Planet of the Apes, The Empire Strikes Back, Fight Club, and endless others, the twist ending had worth as a water cooler discussion, but it never betrayed the heart of the story surrounding it. "Never" is a strong word, of course: after every successful Twist Movie, there were always studios quick to imitate it. And with the advent of Prestige TV, even more so.
The big shows wanted to capitalize on the format of television and leave the audience hanging from that cliff so they have to tune into the next season, but with streaming, these shows felt lost. However, throughout streaming’s binge model takeover of the industry, one Home Box Office stood its ground as event television.
When Big Little Lies aired, it shook the foundation of TV. By 2017, the streaming sensation was in full effect and shows rarely had a lasting cultural conversation beyond the first week of an entire season’s worth of episodes dropping at once. So, when a cavalcade of women with Academy Award wins and nominations surrounded the adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s hit novel, the TV world was abuzz. When the first episode aired, BLL fever was real and the rest of the show grew in ratings and acclaim until the final episode whose twist ending is still one of the best in contemporary storytelling.
Understanding the appeal of this show is easy, but the effect of the late Marc-Vallée’s touches cannot be understated. His pseudo-vérité approach with an always unmoored camera and more naturalistic lighting added a Housewives quality to the show that enhanced the already-elevated narrative and dialogue. He was the key to riding the line between fun and melodrama, which is most clear in this final episode’s reveal that Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry, is the very same man who sexually assaulted Jane (and is the father of her son).
This twist can be seen from a mile away, and the plotting of the show isn’t the most elegant, but Valée’s framing of it and the performances from everyone involved made it one of television’s best moments in years. Speed-ramping the violence that ensues while splicing the footage in between quick shots of waves crashing up against the rocks of Monterey, this is the season’s crescendo, set to a gorgeous orchestral piece, until Bonnie comes rushing in and pushes Perry to his death by staircase. It’s a perfect and breathless finale to a show that reinvigorated TV and demonstrates the fun that its consumption as a weekly event can truly be.
-Nick, Josh, Lydia & August