Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: The movie “Serenity” is making noise for all the wrong reasons. Not only are stars Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey furious over how the film was released, but critics and audiences can’t stop joking about the thriller’s wild plot twists (which we wouldn’t dare to ruin for you here).
This week’s question: What is the worst movie plot twist ever?
Beware: Spoilers abound!
Mae Abdulbaki (@MaeAbdu), The Young Folks, Movies with Mae
One of the most ridiculous plot twists that comes to mind is the one from “Source Code.” The entire film’s premise is predicated on the fact that the simulation Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter Stevens, is in is only meant to last eight minutes and takes place inside the memory of another man’s consciousness. Why, then, does the movie decide to take the happy ending route by allowing Colter to reenter the simulation, diffuse the bomb, and carry on with life as though this is his new reality? The twist not only negates all of the information presented earlier in the film, but it also allows Colter to live on in Sean Fentress’ consciousness, essentially erasing him from existence.
This twist, in its attempts at being ambiguous, forgets that Colter is entering a space that no longer exists, a memory suspended in time, and one that is not able to continue past its eight-minute mark. “Source Code” is so focused on giving Colter a happy ending that it stops making any sense. He might have saved everyone on the train in the simulation, but the events of the memory have already transpired in the real world and the people he saves are already dead, rendering the ending pointless. The source code technology is only meant as a means to stop another bombing, but instead, “Source Code” insists on creating an alternate reality of sorts and the twist is still frustrating even after all these years.
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, Remezcla, MovieMaker Magazine
If one’s in search of disappointing revelations, genre films can be a plentiful well overflowing with bad narrative decisions. A decade ago, Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan” arrived as a prime example of a plot twist so convenient it almost felt like offensive parody. The film’s basic premise involves a 9-year-old girl from Russia, Esther (portrayed by then child actress Isabelle Fuhrman), who is adopted by American parents unable to have kids of their own. As expected, Esther starts behaving dementedly and people died horrific deaths at her seemingly innocent hands. All that is typical evil-kid-horror stuff, the real shocker (and not a good one) is when the girl’s identity is unveiled: she is a woman in her 30s living with a condition that stopped her growth and posing as a little girl. In essence, it’s not implausible given that hypopituitarism is a real condition, but in the context of “Orphan” it comes across weirdly insulting exploitation of a little known affliction in a way that is feels like it was pulled out of someone’s pile of bad ideas.
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Harper’s Bazaar, The Wrap, New York Times
“The Village.” I could have literally selected pretty much any M. Night Shyamalan movie (save for “The Sixth Sense”), but “The Village” was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was 2004, back when I still had hope for his movies and thought because his premises are so great that the movies will be as well. Enter: “The Village,” about a secluded 19th century community that thinks that terrifying creatures lurk in the forest and they’re under strict orders by the Elders not to pass through. Cut to the end when 1: they’re actually living in the present, not the olden days, and are part of a strange social experiment (only Shyamalan could think of this). And 2 (this is the worst one): there are no actual creatures waiting to get them in the forest but rather members of their own community dressing up in the most unscary costumes to intimidate those that dare to cross into the forest. Like seriously, the costumes look handmade. There is so much build-up for this reveal that is such a tremendous, hilarious letdown.
Roxana Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi), Pajiba, Chesapeake Family magazine, Punch Drunk Critics
If the movie’s plot can be summed up with, “It was all in the protagonist’s head,” and if someone can guess that from the trailer, then maybe that twist could have been handled with a little bit more nuance! My partner guessed that was the deal with Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” and lo and behold, he ended up being right. The film has a strong cast led by a desperate Leonardo DiCaprio and a spooky Ben Kingsley, and cinematographer Robert Richardson shot the film beautifully (and would create magic again with Scorsese for 2011’s “Hugo”), but the twist is an infuriating one, a narrative device that cheapens the preceding two hours of film. I appreciate Dennis Lehane’s writing (he gave us some of the best episodes of “The Wire”!) but the feeling that watching the film adaptation of his “Shutter Island” amounted to nothing just can’t be shaken off.
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect Shot, Birth.Movies.Death.
I’m a sucker for a wild plot twist, “Serenity” style. The more bizarre, the better, even if it doesn’t really land. That doesn’t mean I attach quality of the film to absurdity of the twist, but it means I’m not going to choose something like “The Village”. At least it tries for something. Bad plot twists are the kind of plot twists that have no stakes despite thinking they do. In that light, I pick Sydney Pollack’s “The Firm.” Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) joins one of the most wealthy accounting and tax law firms in the nation after graduating from Harvard Law School with flying colors. And the twist is that the firm is corrupt.
So, you’re telling me the slimy white dudes swimming in more excess luxury than they know what to do with aren’t ethically obtaining their riches? Yeah right. Next you’re going to tell me Tr*mp wasn’t emotionally, professionally, or mentally fit to take office. In all seriousness, it would be a bigger twist if the firm wasn’t corrupt. It’s like John Grisham wrote the novel for an alternate universe where people bury corporations instead of the other way around. If you’re going to make a movie about things the way they plainly are, don’t try to frame the obvious as a twist.
Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for Variety, SheKnows, FreshFiction.tv
There are dumb plot twists and turns (like in “Signs,” or “Morgan”) that suck all the air out of the room once they’re revealed, and there are confounding ones that exclusively serve to frustrate and infuriate. The head-spinning third act twists in “Splice” are all of those things. Two-thirds of director Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi-horror film about two pioneering genetic engineers (played by Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody), who create a murderous, mischievous human-animal hybrid in the name of science, contains an intriguing “Frankenstein”-inspired commentary and a decent sense of building tension. However, the final third undoes all of our goodwill when it turns into a rancid pile of garbage, needlessly stirring us into a state of visceral anger.
The twist snowballs from the ridiculous (when it’s revealed the creature’s human DNA came from Polley’s character), to the absolutely ludicrous (when the creature has consensual sex with Brody’s father figure character), to the abysmally abhorrent (when the creature switches gender and rapes Polley’s character, who then becomes pregnant and keeps the baby). It’s supposed to be provocative, but the only thing it provokes is the regurgitation of our previous meal. Needless to say, there was audible booing in my regular paying audience screening.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List
There are few twists dumber, or less impactful, than the third act reveal in lame slasher sequel “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” (the first movie is fine, even if it makes little to no sense, and has aged well enough). After getting soaked while running from the killer, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s returning heroine thinks she’s safe with new friend Will Benson, him of the suddenly crazy eyes. Then Will gravely reveals he’s actually been pretending to be her friend all along and is actually the killer they’ve been running from the whole time (to be fair, who else could it have been? Obnoxious Rastafarian Jack Black? Brandy?).
Benson, a college bud of Hewitt’s drippy Julie, isn’t just the killer, though. He’s also the son of the killer from the first movie. Hilariously, this is hammered home via the instantly iconic line: “Will Benson! Get it…? Ben’s son!” He somehow orchestrated the whole Bahamas trip to isolate Julie and her friends so he could kill them one by one, all as revenge for the death of his father, himself a serial killer. It makes precisely zero sense and adds absolutely nothing to the complete lack of tension established in the preceding 90 minutes. Oh well, at least they all got a nice trip out of it, right?
Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com, Freelance
I’m going with “Remember Me”, the secret 9/11 movie. It was just such an unnecessary twist. “Remember Me” is romantic drama with the class shades of “Pretty in Pink” and “Jersey Girl” (the 1992 Jamie Gertz movie, not the Ben Affleck one), and Robert Pattinson at the height of “Twilight” mania. It should have been a soft lob to Pattinson fans, a sufficiently melodramatic romance to keep them going between “Twilight” movies. It turned out to be totally insane because of its twist ending, revealing that the romantic hero played by Pattinson dies in f*cking 9/11. What, a car crash wouldn’t do? Brain aneurysm? Tragically young heart attack? It HAD to be NINE ELEVEN?
This twist isn’t just bonkers, it’s tasteless. Any death would have done. It did not have to be via the most traumatic national event seen in a generation. And it’s not like “Remember Me” has the grace to just end with a shot of the World Trade Center after revealing the date, and leaving the audience to put it together. Oh no, this movie makes the utterly insane decision to show the immediate aftermath, complete with ash and paper raining down on other characters. (Pierce Brosnan actually looks embarrassed to be there.) A good twist is hard to pull off, but one key ingredient is that the twist itself is not repellent. The only reason I remember this movie is because of its ending, and the sheer amount of vocal “what the f*ck” it provoked from the audience. For being both bonkers and gross, “Remember Me” is the worst twist in movies.
Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Cinemayward.com
On the small list of films I wish I could un-see lies Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List,” an effectively disturbing and nihilistically bleak film. When blue-collar hitman Jay takes a job from a mysterious client, he and his assassin buddy, Gal, end up in the bizarre scheme of a Wicker Man-esque cult. While we’re never made privy to the cult’s purpose or motives, in the film’s final confrontation, a captured Jay is forced by the cultists to battle a knife-wielding cloaked attacker wearing a mask. Surrounded, Jay engages in ritual combat, eventually stabbing the hunched figured repeatedly and brutally. When the mask is removed, surprise! It’s Jay’s wife, Shel, wearing their son tied on her back (?!), now stabbed to death by Jay. Shel laughs maniacally as she dies in a pool of blood while Jay looks stunned and the cultists celebrate. This terrible out-of-left-field twist feels more arbitrary and nonsensical than a natural narrative culmination of the earlier plot. Why is Shel the final victim? Why was she attacking Jay instead of trying to stop the fight? Why was she *laughing* as she died? Was she part of the cult all along? (Wheatley has rejected that interpretation in interviews.) Why and how did the cult orchestrate any of this?
So, what’s the point and purpose of the twist in “Kill List”? Sometimes plot twists are due to resisting exposition and embracing paradox; other times, it’s just the result of poor writing. The tonal shift in “Kill List” from British kitchen sink realism to batshit crazy horror–a mashup of Ken Loach with Robin Hardy–simply doesn’t flow well, eliciting more of a “…why?” than a “whoa!” by the conclusion. If Wheatley was intending for allegorical interpretations–the Iraq war, toxic masculinity, British politics, marital tension–the film doesn’t merit such intellectual contemplation. Needlessly vile and with little logic, it’s a bewildering coda to a pointless film.
Mike McGranaghan (@@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
I actually think the plot twist in “Serenity” is the worst — at least the way writer/director Steven Knight handles it. Despite a couple of clues getting dropped along the way, the surprise revelation feels totally unearned. It’s almost as if Knight thought, “Who cares if it doesn’t make sense? Audiences will never see it coming!” Instead of properly setting up the twist or tipping us off that there was going to be an element of fantasy in the story, he merely throws it out there and expects us to be dazzled. Filmmakers have a responsibility to play fair with the audience. Pulling the rug out from under us is fine, provided that act serves a greater storytelling purpose. When the rug is pulled out simply because it can be, that’s a betrayal of the filmmaker/viewer bond. It’s no wonder so many people are so angry at “Serenity.”
Aaron Neuwirth (AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, Out Now with Aaron and Abe
Nothing is worse than “The Life of David Gale.” This is a film with a ridiculous twist ending so terrible that the film has essentially gone to great lengths to make its whole plot meaningless in the name of self-righteousness. How director Alan Parker made a movie this wrongheaded is beyond me. On top of that, for a film that boils down to “he did it himself,” there are an extra set of ugly questions to ask concerning other aspects of the crime committed.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
The worst plot twist of all time? Possibly it’s in Peter Berg’s 2008 “Hancock” (co-written by Vince Gilligan of “Breaking Bad” fame, who should have known better). After two-thirds of a movie that is actually pretty good, following a depressed, alcoholic superhero – played by an always-engaging Will Smith – as he tries to become the savior he was always meant to be, pushed to do his best by sidekick Jason Bateman, the film takes a turn for the ludicrous when it introduces a twist involving Bateman’s wife, played by Charlize Theron, that comes out of nowhere, unsupported by any of the previous hour’s set-up. Suddenly (spoilers be damned!), it turns out that both Theron and Smith are ancient deities who have a love-hate relationship spanning eons. Cute, right? Unfortunately, this development, beyond its narrative absurdity, also negates our emotional investment in just about everything that has happened up to that point. I get that good third acts pose challenges, but to ruin an excellent premise with a lazy finale is to fail that challenge completely.
Vadim Rizov (@vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine
I’m tempted to say “Shoplifters,” because so rarely do you see a desperately boring film (sorry, “Palme d’Or Winner’) try so hard to recode itself with a Hail Mary deep in the fourth. But for now let’s go with “Terminal,” probably the single worst movie I saw last year. Near the end of Mike Myers’ comeback film (yes, he wears Krump levels of makeup), we learn that Margot Robbie’s character is, actually, twins. This makes a) zero sense b) changes nothing about what we’ve just seen. In an interview I annoyingly cannot find now, writer/director Vaughn Stein explained the purpose of this twist was to be totally unexpected, that you never could have seen it coming. The mission, like George W.’s, was accomplished: you couldn’t see it coming, because it’s dumb. Agatha Christie figured out the ending first, then reverse-engineered the plot to land there accordingly; this will not work for anyone else.
Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge
Warning: spoiler ahead, for something so dumb that it deserves to be spoiled. In the clumsy 2007 thriller “Perfect Stranger,” hateful old acquaintance Nicki Aycox appears out of nowhere and demands that temper-tantrum-throwing journalist Halle Berry help Aycox blackmail rich executive Bruce Willis. Then Aycox is murdered, and Berry investigates, with plenty of side-eye at Willis for presumably having done the deed. Except nothing about the film adds up — why Aycox demands Berry’s help, why Berry gets involved in her murder, why Giovanni Ribisi dutifully hangs around and puts up with Berry’s endless orders and abuse, apparently without compensation.
In the end, surprise! It turns out that Aycox was blackmailing Berry already, so Berry killed Aycox herself, and virtually everything that happens in the film is a red herring. Berry isn’t trying to figure out who killed Aycox, she’s figuring out how to frame Willis for the murder. There’s a germ of a good fake-out in there somewhere, but the execution is so clumsy, the setup is so contrived and abrupt, the flashbacks that are the only hints about the truth are so laughably random and intrusive, and all the characters are so off-putting that none of what they do is believable. This film could be taught in classrooms to illustrate how a big twist that recasts a story in a new light doesn’t matter if people hate every aspect of the story leading up to that twist.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com
This will be an unpopular opinion to the Christopher Nolan worshippers out there, but Matt Damon’s heel turn in “Interstellar” was one of the most bungled twists I’ve ever seen. For a film that swelled with more heart and temperature than most Nolan efforts, the blandness of the whole sequence was alarming. We knew some kind of swerve was probable because the genre tropes of science fiction demand that something has to go wrong for the sake of something having to go wrong. The surprise casting appearance of Matt Damon as the heavily hyped and highly regarded Dr. Mann was bold and promising. The Academy Award winner brings seat-edge-seeking attention to match the gravity of the character’s perceived importance.
The payoff that follows is downright hammy. The awkward physical altercation is a pitfall of silly errors. What telegraphs the badness the worst is the god-awful monologue from Matt Damon as he looms over the struggling Matthew McConaughey. The spoken motives are flimsy coming from a supposed genius and Damon’s dull line readings land with icy thud after icy thud. I get how the scene is demonstrating human flaws undoing technological superiority but, even if you grant the character’s mental distress and desperation, the preposterousness adds up too high in a movie that seeks to carry itself with high-mindedness and emotionality. The level of intellect falls flat and the stirring fervor such a scene such evoke never registers. A scene like that should hit like a ton of bricks not a parade of eye-rolls.
Andrea Thompson (@ areelofonesown), Freelance for The Chicago Reader, The Young Folks, A Reel Of One’s Own
I generally enjoy the work of Jeff Nichols, especially his brilliant film “Loving,” but “Take Shelter” has one of the worst twists I’ve ever seen. Up until the last two minutes, “Take Shelter” is also a brilliant, understated film, where the horror comes from a man who is slowly losing control of his ability to tell reality from fantasy. Michael Shannon gives a performance that I still place as among the best of his career, playing Curtis as a loving family man who also begins to exert a deep aura of menace as his fear and paranoia grows. We equally fear him and fear for him, while Jessica Chastain is equally fantastic as Samantha, whose love may not be enough to save her husband from himself. It’s not only a brilliant portrait of mental illness from the perspective of the person suffering from it, but also the bureaucratic obstacles to getting good treatment, the social stigma, and the devastating economic effects and isolation that can occur if it goes untreated. Then the effect of all this is cheapened by the ending, where “Take Shelter” decides to take a whole different, more ambiguous turn. And the movie is all the worse for it.
Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore magazine (baltimoremagazine.com)
One movie that comes to mind is Bill Paxton’s “Frailty.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen it so I hope I don’t screw this up, but it focuses on a child whose father (Paxton) is a religious zealot who thinks God is telling him to kill sinners. For the entire film you’re very much in that child’s headspace and worried for him—it’s like, “What do you do when your father is an actual madman?” Then at the end of the film, it turns out the father really is some sort of avenging angel? And the kid, our hero, is actually a potential demon? I felt super cheated by that ending. (I probably botched the particulars and I’m SURE y’all will tell me what I got wrong, but that’s the basic idea.) It’s a shame because it’s otherwise a pretty good film.
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool
The “Now You See Me” series is maybe one of the 21st century’s most gloriously dumb franchises – a curious gumbo of “Ocean’s 11”, “The Prestige” and a superhero movie. Imagine if Doctor Strange was less Sorceror Supreme and more David Copperfield (who, laughably, consulted on both “Now You See Me” movies), and you’ve got an inkling of the slick-car-commercial antics of the films’ gang of social justice Criss Angels called the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and – only in the first – Isla Fisher).
The first movie in the series, 2013’s “Now You See Me” contains possibly the most ridiculous, premise-neutering twist in modern film history: the film’s protagonist, gritty FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) spends the entire movie chasing after the Horsemen to bring them to justice, all the while grumbling that he “doesn’t believe in magic” – only to reveal at the very end that he has, in fact, been working with them the entire time. He’s actually the son of a famously disgraced (and killed) magician, and the events of the movie are just one big audition for them to get into the equally ridiculous secret magic society called The Eye. It’s intended to surprise in the moment, but it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny: did Mark Ruffalo go through years of FBI training and work real cases just to pull off this job? What’s more, it invalidates the Horsemen’s’ Occupy-like mission to rob from the rich and give to the poor, and turns them into pawns in a cheap game of financial vengeance by proxy.
The worst kinds of twists are the ones only intended to fool the audience, not the characters, and “Now You See Me” gives us a whopper. Rather than the clever sleight of hand of a magic trick, “Now You See Me” just invalidates the journey we’ve been on by revealing that both sides of the movie’s conflict were working together all along – it’s all smoke and mirrors in the most aggravating way. Morgan Freeman’s mantra in the movie is “Look closely, because the more you think you know, the less you’ll actually see.” In the case of “Now You See Me”‘s absurd twist, truer words were never spoken.