The 33 Greatest Plot Twists in Movie History
Everyone enjoys a nice surprise, right? History suggests yes -- even if that surprise is actually somewhat dark, disturbing, or shocking. In turn, many screenwriters have dedicated their lives to crafting unexpected twists that will thwart even the most eagle-eyed of viewers. As a tribute to the work, we're counting down the 33 craziest plot twists ever. There are classics, there are underrated gems, but we swear you won't see the end coming. Or will you?
Warning: This article will reveal large plot twists from 33 different movies. If you want to live a spoiler-free life, turn back now.
33. Shutter Island (2010)
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a US marshal investigating a series of odd occurrences at an isolated lunatic asylum. The deeper he digs into the clues, the more confused he becomes as to the true intentions of the facility. Why? Because it was all an elaborate ruse by the hospital staff to cure Daniels, who is not a US marshal, but a murderer institutionalized at the asylum! Whoa!
32. Se7en (1995)
The "what's in the box?" sequence is nothing short of staggering, but it sometimes seems to overshadow a remarkably clever piece of twisty screenwriting. Viewers lose themselves to the detective story born from the deadly sins, only to miss the inevitable conclusion. The twist is that the killer tricks Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) into delivering the final sin (Wrath) after providing him with a horrific motive (Envy). It's very grim stuff, but it's also quite beautifully constructed.
31. Dark City (1998)
There's something truly strange about the overtly noir-ish landscape that poor confused John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) finds himself lost within, but I bet you didn't expect that the whole damn city was just a life-sized simulation that takes place inside of a giant spaceship! I sure didn't. That kick-ass ending gives an already-fascinating genre film a few new layers to consider -- and it makes the movie even more compelling the second time around.
30. High Tension (2003)
I put this one way down on the list because it's so damn controversial (at least among horror nerds), but I really dig it anyway. The whole movie is basically two tenacious young women trying to stay one step ahead of a brutal madman, but then at the end it turns out that, nope, one of the girls is actually the killer and the whole movie was her (skewed) version of reality. Or perhaps her attempt at an alibi. Either way it's a freaky way to end a powerfully ferocious horror movie.
29. A History of Violence (2005)
A likable nobody in a small Indiana town kills two criminals without breaking a sweat. The real trouble starts when a mobster named Carl Fogarty hits town. Turns out that our reluctant hero has killed two low-level mafiosos, and now their boss wants to find out what happened. After all sorts of trouble arises, we learn that our small-town hero is actually (wait for it) an infamous assassin who retired long ago but -- clearly -- still retains all sorts of killer moves. This one may seem like a pretty simple twist, but it's the way in which it's presented that makes it such a satisfying twist... thanks mainly to a rock-solid screenplay and some typically confident direction by David Cronenberg.
28. Primal Fear (1996)
Sometimes all it takes to sell a simple twist is a particularly fantastic acting performance, and that's precisely what happened when a young actor named Edward Norton made his cinematic debut in this tight-fisted little courtroom thriller. Here Norton plays a victim who finally strikes back against an allegedly perverted bishop. At first he's little more than a craven, stuttery schizophrenic. That quickly changes in the final act when the movie reveals that, not only is Norton a murderer, but his schizophrenia was all an elaborate ruse. Again, it sounds like a pretty basic twist, but good lord, Norton sells it.
27. Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker's fantastic New Orleans noir gained a lot of attention upon its release because of the frank sexiness displayed by The Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet. But Angel Heart still holds up as a dark, moody, and highly effective mystery story. Here Mickey Rourke stars as a seedy detective who has been tasked with tracking down a missing singer called Johnny Favorite, but every witness he interviews promptly ends up dead. At the end we get not one, but two creepy twists: one is that our sleazy detective and the missing singer are one and the same guy, and the second twist... you'll just have to track the movie.
26. The Village (2004)
While it's tempting to say that M. Night Shyamalan painted himself into a corner as "the director who always provides twist endings," the truth is that he's actually pretty good at coming up with those nifty twist endings. Much of The Village feels like a period piece about a colonial village dealing with a mysterious invader of some sort... but then at the end we discover that, nope, it's actually modern times and it's just this one village that chooses to live in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. It's not Mr. Shyamalan's finest twist, but it does add a nice wrinkle to an otherwise straightforward thriller.
25. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan's tale of endlessly bickering magicians is still his best movie, if it's me you're asking. And the wonderfully convoluted story is capped off by a series of twists you have to see to (dis)believe. In a nutshell: Not only does one of the magicians have a long-lost twin (of sorts), but it also turns out that part of the magic trick is not a magic trick at all! These lunatics are actually creating a countless collection of clones -- and then killing them! For entertainment! It's all very devious and contorted and fascinating.
24. Malice (1993)
There are enough plot twists to fill three movies in this exceedingly trashy yet highly entertaining thriller, but the weirdest one comes (of course) at the end, which is when we discover that the evil doctor (Alec Baldwin) is actually in cahoots with his friend's wife (Nicole Kidman) and that he's been shooting her up with fertility drugs meant to cause ovarian cysts so they could split the malpractice settlement together! And there's even another twist after that!
23. Fight Club (1999)
If Fight Club came out today, we'd all see the "Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are actually playing two sides of the same character!" twist coming a mile away. I don't mind saying that not only did I not see it coming back in 1999, but I still believe it's a very clever and masterfully presented movie trick. And don't listen to the haters. This brooding drama still kicks ass today.
22. The Crying Game (1992)
It probably wouldn't come as all that much of a shock these days, but back in 1992 it was pretty uncommon to find a dark political thriller in which a man falls in love with a mysterious woman -- only to quickly discover that she's actually a man! Gasp! (It also happened in 1984's Bachelor Party!) But that's sort of what makes Neil Jordan's The Crying Game such a unique and memorable piece of filmmaking. Not only does it incorporate some then-taboo subject matter into a smart and fascinating tale of terrorism, murder, and retribution, it does so in such a smoothly matter-of-fact fashion that we quickly get over the transgender twist and settle back into the story.
21. Saw (2004)
The Saw franchise is probably known for its elaborately icky murders and its annual sequel deposit, but this series deserves a little credit for delivering some freaky surprises throughout the course of its seven-movie run. Of course the coolest twist comes at the ending of the first film, which is when we discover that our two "heroes" are not chained in a bathroom with a corpse, as previously suspected, but they're in there with the killer! He was only playing dead! And I don't mind saying that when this scene screened at the film's world premiere, the audience went absolutely (vocally) insane. It's a very morbidly amusing surprise.
20. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Although the Marvel movies aren't known for wild or unpredictable plot twists, Iron Man 3 director/co-writer Shane Black seems to have taken that as a signal to try something crazy. The plot twist involving the "faux Mandarin" character (Ben Kingsley) split audiences right down the middle. Some comic-book nuts took exception to the "irreverent" changes made to one of Iron Man's most memorable villains, while plain old movie geeks (like me) thought the misdirection worked surprisingly well.
19. The Game (1997)
It takes a lot of guts to put the nature of your huge plot twist in the title of your film, but that's precisely what David Fincher did for his third feature. At the beginning of the dark misadventure that anchors the film, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) runs afoul of an elaborate role-playing "game" scam, finds himself running for his life, accidentally kills his brother, and tries to commit suicide -- only to discover that, yes, after all that, it was still just a game. Just like it says in the title. Kudos to the amusingly wacky screenplay for telling us the twist at the outset and then twisting and turning all over the place.
18. April Fool's Day (1986)
In many ways April Fool's Day is your standard 1980s slasher flick. It's about a bunch of young adults who gather together in one isolated location and promptly get killed in various and unpleasant ways. Not only does it look, sound, and act like a relatively tame Friday the 13th sequel, but it also features 1980s favorites like Deborah Foreman (the adorable star of Valley Girl and Real Genius), Thomas F. Wilson (that's Biff from Back to the Future), and the amazing Amy Steel (who fought Jason himself in Friday the 13th Part 2) -- so what's the twist? At the end, nobody was slashered at all! It was all an elaborate joke! (There's a clue within the title.)
17. The Gift (2015)
Sometimes a twist is not only unexpected, it's a psychological gut punch. The reveal in Joel Edgerton's unexpectedly powerful thriller The Gift earns the knockout. It's about a slightly weird oddball who runs into an old high school "friend" and then goes about insinuating himself into virtually every aspect of his life. At first the movie feels like a thriller about an unhinged weirdo, but it soon becomes apparent that the "victim" (Jason Bateman) is actually the aggressor, while the "troublemaker" (Edgerton) is, in a way, the victim. (Bottom line: Don't bully other kids in high school. It never ends well.) The movie ends with the former bully unsure as to who the true father of his newborn child is, because his now-fractured former victim may (or may not) have raped his wife. Yeah. Like I said. It's a gut punch.
16. Wild Things (1998)
This wild, wacky, and quite sexually aggressive thriller has more twists and turns than most mysteries even bother with, which partially explains why it's spawned three semi-sequels and still lives on as a cable cult favorite. But beyond the insane premise, unbelievable twists, and (ahem) overt sexuality, there's actually some pretty good filmmaking going on here. At first it's about a cop (Kevin Bacon) and a case involving a high school teacher (Matt Dillon) and the two girls he's accused of raping (Neve Campbell and Denise Richards), but then it turns out that the girls are lying, and then it turns out that they're actually in cahoots with the accused, and then all sorts of double-crosses happen -- also Bill Murray shows up -- and then it turns out that the cop and the teacher were lovers! Didn't see that coming!
15. Orphan (2009)
Ever seen a horror movie about a family who adopts a kid, only to realize that the newcomer is (A) possessed, (B) evil, or (C) plain old freaky? Sure you have. And the creators of Orphan know that you have, which is what makes their nasty little twist ending all the more amusing. Much of the movie is your standard (yet well-made) "killer kid" story, but at the end it's revealed that, nope!, Creepy Little Esther is actually a 33-year-old psychopath who suffers from a rare disease that makes her look like a child. Yes, really.
14. Oldboy (2003)
It's always dangerous to go the "unknowing incest" route for a twist ending, but if classics like Chinatown (and the aforementioned Angel Heart) can pull it off, then so can masterful South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. And this movie has so many other assets besides its nasty twist ending. It's about a man who finds himself held prisoner in a hotel room for 15 years (yes, really!) and then goes on a vengeful rampage once he's finally set free, only to fall in love with a young woman... who turns out to be his long-lost daughter. It's all very unseemly, yet somehow fascinating.
13. Frailty (2001)
Now here's one I really hate to spoil, partially because it's so damn good but mainly because it's highly underrated. Please consider watching this movie before reading any further. OK, the twist. Well, Frailty is about a father (Bill Paxton) who convinces his two young sons that certain people are actually "demons" who need to be killed. Of course the viewer will likely assume that the father is simply insane, but (after we're treated to a very effective "reliable narrator" switcheroo) at the end we realize the Dad wasn't crazy at all, and he actually was killing demons the whole time. (Note: I have yet to meet one person who doesn't like this movie.)
12. No Way Out (1987)
This is a pretty crafty one. Kevin Costner plays a Naval officer who is tasked with tracking down a Russian spy, only he gets caught up in a lot of scandalous chicanery when the secretary of defense (Gene Hackman) is suspected of killing an escort (Sean Young), and it turns out that the Russian spy also spent time with that same escort, which means the investigation is about to get ugly. After all sorts of crazy twists and turns, guess what? Costner is the Russian spy after all. I'm not really doing this twist justice, but it blew me away when I saw it back in '87.
11. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Some would rank this twist ending in their top five, while others might note its iconic status and just move on, but I really dig it. Not only does the "Bruce Willis was a ghost that only one kid could see!" twist blow you away the first time you see it, but the film holds up remarkably well upon repeat viewings, which is not something that most twist-reliant thrillers can claim. Note the masterfully shot scenes between Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams that casually misdirect the audience over and over. That's good stuff.
10. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Yeah, yeah, we've all heard this twist before: "Turns out the main character was actually dying, and the whole movie was happening in his head!" But few movies have been able to nail that landing as cleverly as Jacob's Ladder. Tim Robbins plays a troubled Vietnam vet who suffers from horrific hallucinations and begins to suspect that the military poisoned his platoon somehow. Turns out that not only was he correct, but he also never made it home from Vietnam. We're actually being treated to the poor guy's final dreams, nightmares, and memories.
9. Arlington Road (1999)
There were lots of "(person) from hell" thrillers after The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was a big hit in 1992. From roommates (Single White Female) to nannies (The Crush), there was paranoia behind even the most basic of social contracts, and then Arlington Road pretty much blew that template out of the water. Jeff Bridges plays a widower who begins to suspect that his new neighbors (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) are terrorists who are targeting the FBI headquarters for a horrific attack. Of course none of our hero's claims come with any proof, and in the end, he's not only proven right, but he ends up being an unwitting mule for the bomb. He's killed in an attack at FBI headquarters, and ends up being remembered as a terrorist. Kind of a nasty twist, but it suits the film well.
8. The Wicker Man (1973)
If all you know of this film is the goofy Nicolas Cage remake, I firmly recommend you give the original a fair shot. It's about a police detective (Edward Woodward) who visits an isolated island community after a young girl is reported missing. After all sorts of weird investigations, our hero comes to the conclusion that this group of weirdos still practices ritual sacrifices to their god, which makes the solution obvious: Clearly the citizens of Summerisle have killed the girl as part of some terrible ritual. Right? Wrong. The "missing girl" story was all a ruse put on by the cult. Turns out that our detective is meant to be the sacrifice after all.
7. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It may not seem like that big of a deal to you adorable youths, but the "Luke, I am your father" twist melted the collective minds of my entire generation and owned the pop culture conversation for little nerds between mid-1980 and mid-1983. Darth Vader is Luke's father?! Really? Could he be lying? And who was the other Jedi that Yoda mentioned? And did Luke really get his arm cut off? AND COULD VADER REALLY BE HIS DAD?! Imagine three years of that. It was actually pretty amazing.
6. The Others (2001)
Not only is this a brilliant piece of old-school haunted-house filmmaking, but Alejandro Amenabar's work boasts a highly satisfying twist ending that feels like a natural progression of the plot -- not merely a surprising diversion. Nicole Kidman plays the exceedingly protective mother of two small children who seem to have a biological aversion to sunlight. After a while it becomes evident that the family's wonderfully spooky mansion has been beset by unhappy spirits of some sort -- but once our heroine delves into the mystery, she learns that horrible truth: She and her children are the spirits!
5. Psycho (1960)
Everyone remembers the iconic shower scene, but let's not overlook one of the creepiest, freakiest, and most unexpected horror finales of the 1960s. It's well-established throughout the film that uber-weirdo Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is kept on a short leash by his unseen but thoroughly domineering mother, but once an embezzling adulteress goes missing, and all sorts of people start poking into Norman's affairs, the horrible secret is revealed: His mother died years ago; Norman was a maniacal schizophrenic who liked to dress up in her clothes.
4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Another one of those "iconic" twist endings, not unlike The Sixth Sense, that quickly became a piece of popular culture. It pretty much defines the "unreliable narrator" trope, and it does so in such a deviously clever fashion. A low-level crook (Kevin Spacey) is the only survivor of a horrific massacre, and we get to go along for the ride as he spins a crazy story about what happened, who was involved, and how everyone died -- only at the end of the movie do we realize that this sleazy thug's story is all a bunch of nonsense, and that he's the infamous kingpin that everybody's hunting for. We get to the truth about 15 seconds before the cops do, and that's what makes the brilliantly crafty ending so much fun.
3. Unbreakable (2000)
Most people would point to The Sixth Sense as M. Night Shyamalan's cleverest plot twist, but for my money that prize goes to the man's masterpiece, Unbreakable, and a wildly inventive finale that I simply didn't see coming. Bruce Willis stars as a man who slowly begins to realize he has superhuman powers. He befriends a comic-book expert with a strange disease (his bones are very brittle), and eventually has to accept the truth. It certainly does seem that he's a superhero who cannot be injured -- and that's when he learns the truth about his new friend: "Mr. Glass" (Samuel L. Jackson) is actually an evil terrorist, as well as our reluctant hero's newfound arch-nemesis. I can still remember that supremely satisfying little "click" that occurred inside my brain when this twist showed up and I finally saw the puzzle Mr. Shyamalan had constructed.
2. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
.... I can't do it. I cannot spoil the ending of Sleepaway Camp. Forgive me, I just can't… OK, fine. It's about a freaky teenage girl who goes to summer camp and has a miserable time even before someone starts hacking people up. You won't believe who the killer is. And the big twist is that... I can't. See this horror gem.
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Perhaps it's because this is the first massive "twist ending" I ever saw, but there's something so simple and perfect about the last few minutes of (the original) Planet of the Apes. We spend the entire film under the assumption that a lost astronaut (Charlton Heston) is fighting for his life on a distant planet governed by super-intelligent apes... but then we learn that -- TWIST! -- our "lost" astronaut is still on Earth, only far in the future, and apes have taken over because we were so damn warlike. Everyone remembers the first time they saw the half-buried Statue of Liberty sticking out of the beach. That's a big reason why we love a good twist ending so damn much: They're not only memorable in and of themselves, but they remind us why we keep coming back for more.
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