It’s the shock of seeing Norman Bates, knife in hand, clad in his mother’s clothes, grinning maniacally in the swinging lamplight. It’s the realization that Kevin Spacey spun us a bunch of lies, and was actually Keyser Söze the whole time. It’s finally connecting “I see dead people” with Bruce Willis being shot at the beginning of “The Sixth Sense.” When movies pull the rug from under us, it’s one of the greatest thrills that cinema can provide.
As Hollywood continues to reboot countless old properties, it’s easy to think that the days of original and surprising storytelling are long behind us. But these films prove that Hollywood still has a few tricks up its sleeve, ones that have kept us talking for years, and have cemented their place in film history.
Beware of spoilers! Here are the best plot twists of the 21st century:
20. “Unbreakable” (2000)
An incredibly unique and unexpected film about super-hero comic books and their myths, which at the end reveals itself to be its own unique origin story. Bruce Willis is an average guy, David Dunn, who after surviving a train crash that killed 130 passengers, wonders if he may have special powers. Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book store owner with a rare bone disorder, uses his deep superhero knowledge to help David mine his past and test his abilities until he finally discovers he can see the criminal acts of those he comes into contact. M. Night Shyamalan directs the story as if it is a mysterious drama, with only a hint of the supernatural underneath as we too wonder what is exactly happening and if there might be some truth in Elijah’s comics. When David shakes Elijah’s hand at the end of the movie he sees that his guru has orchestrated terrorist attacks, including his train crash, as he tells David his purpose in life is to be the villain “Mr. Glass” to David’s superhero. The twist reveals that we have been watching what, in retrospect, feels like an incredibly naturalistic story of what it must be like to discover you really are a superhero. –Chris O’Falt
19. “Get Out” (2017)
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A half-century after “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” writer Jordan Peele revisited the iconic film’s plot for his directorial debut: awkwardness ensues when a white woman (Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her supposedly progressive parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). On a $4 million budget, Peele not only modernized the relevant-as-ever social satire — “Get Out” premiered at Sundance four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered white supremacists back into the White House — but also made a resplendent mystic-action-horror-revenge fantasia. The Armitage family’s evil ploy is to help their loved ones live forever by implanting their brains into younger black bodies, subject to secret slave-like auctions. In the finale, the bad guys are slaughtered and a jocular TSA official saves our hero and countless future victims. Perhaps the biggest twist of all is Peele’s table-flip to anyone who thought he was just a sketch-comedian. —Jenna Marotta
18. “Atonement” (2007)
A seven-time Oscar nominee unfolding mostly over one day at lush London estate in 1935, Joe Wright’s drama hinges on the false testimony of teen playwright Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). She’s jealous that her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), has charmed the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). As comeuppance for Robbie accidentally entrusting Briony to deliver a racy love note, Briony claims he raped a Tallis cousin, sending him to prison. Robbie is freed to enlist in World War II, and the audience learns that he rekindled his romance with Cecilia, now estranged from her family (she knows Briony lied; the actual rapist married Cousin Lola with Briony looking on). However, this too is a fiction, from Briony’s novel: Robbie and Cecilia respectively perished in Dunkirk and the Balham train station bombing. Christopher Hampton penned the 2007 film, based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed saga. —JM
17. “Saw” (2004)
This low-budget phenomenon drew crowds with the promise of intense blood and gore, hitting the zeitgeist at the same time the notion of “torture porn” hit the mainstream. But what kept audiences talking about the film long after the credits rolled was that Jigsaw himself (Tobin Bell) was in the room with the two men playing the sadistic game (Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes) the WHOLE TIME. Don’t ask questions about logistics of playing dead for hours (Did he stop breathing during that time? Did he ever have to pee?) and instead marvel at this simple but effective gotcha moment before the series became bogged down in dense mythology. —William Earl
16. “The Mist” (2007)
“The Mist” doesn’t have a plot twist in the traditional sense — it’s more of a cruelly ironic turn of the screw, a reveal that broadens what we know without tampering with it — but good lord does it pull the rug out from under us. For almost two hours, Frank Darabont’s masterfully oppressive Stephen King adaptation siphons away your faith in the future, trapping its motley crew of characters inside of a Maine supermarket and watching them tear each other apart as a fog of inter-dimensional monsters settles over their world. Our heroes eventually make a break for it, burly painter David Drayton (Thomas Jane) leading the escape.
That’s when the film breaks away from the novella. When the gang runs out of gas, they also run out of hope, leaving David no choice but to put everyone else out of their misery (a mercy killing that involves shooting his young son in the head). And then, just when he’s wondering what to do without a bullet for himself… the mist recedes and the army rolls in. If only they had waited just a few more minutes. If only they hadn’t given up! It’s as devastating a denouement as any the movies have ever seen, and a scarring reminder that hope is always the last thing we have left. —David Ehrlich
15. “Certified Copy” (2011)
None of the other plot twists on this list are as crucial to — or inextricable from — their films as they the one in “Certified Copy” is to Abbas Kiarostami’s late-career masterpiece. The premise couldn’t be simpler or more complex. A writer named James Miller (William Shimell) visits a small Tuscan town to give a talk on his book about authenticity in the arts, and why reproductions are authentic in their own way. There, James spends the day with an unnamed woman played by Juliette Binoche, who a local cafe owner mistakes for his wife. The two strangers lean into the bit, roleplaying as a married couple as they stroll around the countryside.
And then, at some point, it hits you. That point comes at a different time for everyone, but it arrives like a thunderbolt whenever it strikes. What if these strangers aren’t strangers at all? The truth, of course, is both unknowable and irrelevant, but the question itself opens the door to a dizzying number of implications. In that moment, “Certified Copy” transforms into an inimitably original portrait of relationships as their own kind of performance art. —DE
14. “The Village” (2004)
Funnily enough, when “The Village” arrived in 2004, the biggest twist sounded like that it was made by M. Night Shyamalan. After all, what did the modern master of twist cinema have to do with a period piece set in a remote New England village circa 1897 that followed a group of settlers who live in constant fear of a pack of beasties tantalizing referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of”? The horror-centric elements were certainly intriguing, but the whole affair sounded weirdly straightforward in a way discomfiting to Shyamalan’s well-known style. Trailers and teasers for the film leaned hard into the film’s most basic storyline, barely even nodding at the twist to come.
Even for Shyamalan, it was a nifty trick, and when the ultimate twist did come — Okay, but what if the real monster was modern society? And also people who were like, super-afraid of modern society? — its ultimate message might have been a bit heavy-handed, but damn if that punch didn’t land. By dedicating himself — and his cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, and Joaquin Phoenix doing work that still seems mostly overlooked — to the period elements of the story and even presenting a physical monster to fear (you know you screamed when Howard turned around in the forest and that thing was standing there), Shyamalan delivered a twist that was bolstered by his unnerving ability to play even the craziest stuff totally straight-faced. The twist was that we all thought that Shyamalan doing a period piece was weird, when it was the most obvious choice he could have made. —Kate Erbland
13. “Shutter Island” (2010)
Martin Scorsese’s step into the world of horror-psychological thriller was hardly a casual detour into genre filmmaking, but a dark, painful look inward that has become the director’s most overlooked film. In Scorsese’s 2010 adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s book, a U.S. Marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates the disappearance of a murderer from a hospital for the criminally insane. As Teddy’s obsessive hunt drives him deeper in the dark, mysterious bowels of the hospital, his own demons — from the violence of WW2 and the murder of his wife by an arsonist Andrew Laeddis (“the most dangerous patient on the island”) — start to emerge.
In a “Vertigo”-like reveal, Teddy learns that he is actually Laeddis, who murdered his manic depressive wife (Michelle Williams) after she drowned their children. The events of previous days were staged by the doctors to help him snap him out of his bout of conspiracy-laden insanity. Like “Vertigo,” it’s important that we spent the entire movie strongly identifying with Teddy’s obsessive quest for justice in a corrupt system. The twist forces us to work backwards, realizing the truth of Teddy’s instability were present the whole time. Lehane wrote the 2003 book as a clear metaphor for the U.S. foreign wars after 9/11, but Scorsese’s film adaptation also feels deeply personal as if the director is excavating his own painful regrets and guilt. –CO
12. “Gone Baby Gone” (2007)
For his directorial debut, Ben Affleck turned to his hometown, Boston, and his own brother, Casey, for an adaptation of the 1998 Dennis Lehane detective novel of the same name. The younger Affleck stars as Patrick, a Boston P.I. who is hired to help a young mother, Helene (a superb Amy Ryan), find her missing daughter, Amanda. As Patrick digs deeper into the case, he realizes Helene isn’t the doting mother she appeared to be on television, when she tearily pleaded for Amanda’s safe return. Patrick finds connections to Boston’s drug world, and believes the child has been kidnapped because Helene and her boyfriend have ripped off a Haitian drug dealer. With the help of Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), Patrick tries to negotiate the Amanda’s safe return at a local quarry, but things go haywire: A gunfight breaks out and it seems Amanda has fallen off of the quarry and drowned in the river below. Patrick is stricken with grief, but as he continues to work other cases, he realizes something just isn’t right about Amanda’s death.
The quarry, it turns out, was a set up, orchestrated by Doyle. Amanda isn’t just alive, but she’s now happily living with Doyle and his wife, who were raising the child after the loss of their own daughter years earlier. It’s a shocking twist not only because the audience is convinced of the child’s death, but because of Doyle breaking the law to assuage his own grief. —Jamie Righetti
11. “Donnie Darko” (2001)
If you went to high school in the 2000s, there was no better litmus test than “Donnie Darko” to weed out the duds from the interesting people. The film announced Jake Gyllenhaal as a serious actor, though not one devoid of boyish charms (however dark). His signature puppy dog eyes turn cold in his portrayal of troubled youth Donnie, who hallucinates a life-sized rabbit named “Frank,” who tells him the world is going to end in exactly 28 days. The doctors think he’s schizophrenic, but Donnie is more concerned with time travel after a teach gives him “The Philosophy of Time Travel” to read. There are clues throughout to the movie’s mind-bending denouement, making it endless fun to re-visit. —Jude Dry