20th Century Fox
Spoilers for Gone Girl follow. Yes, I get the irony of that.
Why do I need a spoiler warning when I’m about to argue that we’re currently enjoying an age without twists? Because I’ve been a ghost this whole time.
But, seriously, that’s the kind of twist I want to examine for a moment. The Shyamalan Twist. The Turns-Out-It-Was-Man Twist. The kind of twist that makes you rethink everything that came before it. This is exactly the kind of plot twist that Gone Girl and a handful of other recent movies don’t have.
That’s not a qualitatively good or bad thing, but it’s fascinating to see cinema toy – or in some cases move beyond – what has become an overly familiar formula. Executing a thrilling twist is near impossible (just ask Shyamalan, whose batting average has dropped over the years as a direct result of becoming known for twists), and it became even harder as we became savvier to the patterns. We’d watch the signposts and think, “They’re all in that guy’s mind,” or “They’re the real ghosts,” or “Ape-raham Lincoln is probably gonna show up later.”
In fact, it’s arguable that 1999 was the last year for truly powerful twists, and it was packed with them. The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Audition, Arlington Road. Obviously there have been strong examples since (see: Oldboy, The Prestige, Saw’s killer reveal), and horror films have stuck to their guns when it comes to presenting laughably heinous, logic-breaking twists that amount to lying to their audiences, but there’s a small groundswell of movies who are shifting “twists” to their first and second acts. Instead of slapping us in the face before rolling the credits, these stories seem more interested in exploring the new world the plot twist has created.
The most recent example is Gone Girl – a highly spoilable movie that reveals midway through the narrative that Amy Dunne is still alive (and that she’s using a faked death to send her husband to the lethal injection chair). Neither Gillian Flynn nor David Fincher were interested in delivering the standard signposts necessary to lay the groundwork for a successful twist. Instead, they both make every tiny look, every small detail, every kitchen cabinet smudge into misleading clues that don’t particularly matter once we cut to Amy teaching us how to pretend you’ve died. The bombshell is silent, presented without fanfare, even as it effectively restarts the movie (and literally restarts the narrative back at Day One).
It’s arguably what a healthy portion of the audience came to see, but the structure of the book and the film is more concerned with showing how Amy plans to pull everything off, what happens when her plan is derailed, and how Nick will handle himself while in the crosshairs.
Imagine for a second what Gone Girl would have looked like in the late 90s or 2000s. The question of “Who killed Amy Dunne?,” itself a faulty starting point, would probably have been treated in typical red herring fashion where more details are uncovered by the wizened detective who always thought something fishy was going on. Amy’s scenes would never have been included. We would have spent an hour and a half with Nick fighting the PR battle, and Amy would have appeared for the first non-flashback time all bloody and shocking and twisty.
Or maybe Nick, raving mad and convinced his wife faked her death would have been killed by the state before we cut to Amy driving off with dyed hair and a new passport.
By creating competing, parallel stories, Gone Girl actually comments on twist culture by yawning through what would normally be the jaw-dropper scene. It’s not exactly a deconstruction of the trope because it doesn’t present a firm reality that’s eventually reframed, but it definitely presents what would normally be a twist (a faked death) as another normal, non-twist sequence. You wanted to know who killed Amy Dunne? She did, now here’s another hour and a half of movie to mull over.
Other recent films have placed their true reality reveal (or anagnorisis if you’re nasty) further away from the final act, like Proxy and relationship dramedy The One I Love – which launched a host of conversations regarding whether its main conceit even counted as a spoiler/twist since it came within the first ten minutes.
I also got to see an Austrian film recently that features an imaginary character, but he’s presented so matter-of-factly that some audience members caught on immediately and delighted in watching him develop while others who weren’t clued in enjoyed the surprise later on. Different movies for different people. The thing is, there was never a singular scene where the character proclaimed he was fake, Whattatwist!-style. The film never attempts to catch us off guard, choosing instead to relish in relationship construction and an ever more frightening scenario. Catching on is more a case of raising an eyebrow than of popping an eyeball.
Granted, avoiding resting your entire movie on a plot twist’s shoulders is the key to an excellent twist, but films like this and Gone Girl treat the shift in reality so blithely that scenes like the wedding video sequence in Sixth Sense seem downright ostentatious by comparison.
This has the potential to be a fascinating new trick for screenwriters and directors to explore. It’s a sign that writers who have fiendishly clever ideas for twists get even more amped up about the three great idea that follow it. Instead of trying to trick us, they want to use deception as a delivery method for human elements that have the potential to be more intriguing.
And after being overwhelmed by plot twists to the point of memorizing the recipe (sorry, The Village), it’s encouraging to see filmmakers getting them out of the way early. In other words, it’s a pleasant surprise.