In honor of April Fool’s Day, The Weekly Listicle issues a SPOILER WARNING as we describe the greatest rug-pulling twist endings in cinematic history!
April 1 is the one day of the year where it’s (sometimes) okay to prank your coworkers, mess with your parents, and generally be cruel and/or silly to everyone around you–especially the gullible ones. Filmmakers bank on audience gullibility, or at the very least, suspension of disbelief. Sometimes, to their credit, they actually manage to surprise us. Movie history is full of “holy whoa!” twists, some of which are successful and some that end up getting a reaction like this. In honor of April Fool’s, William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes) are going to hit you with some of the most shocking twist endings ever to hit the silver screen. Beware, ahead there be spoilers.
GLITTER (dir. Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2001)
Mariah Carey’s ability to hit cringe-inducing high notes made her a pop star in the 1990s, but by 2001 she was fading from the scene. It’s fairly common knowledge that around the time her vanity project Glitter released to some of the worst critical and audience reactions in the history of cinema, Carey suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts (she was hospitalized for “extreme exhaustion”). The film follows Billie Frank (Carey), a young biracial singer, as she grows up, dates a DJ (Max Beesley), and navigates the torrid waters of sudden fame. Sound familiar? Choosing to make a movie whose plot parallels her life story may not have been the smartest idea. Glitter stars such unprecedented talent as Carey, Da Brat, and Padma Lakshmi (though to be fair, Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard also graces the screen pre-Hustle & Flow). It’s simply a stunner the film didn’t do well. Carey even went so far as to say to USA Today, “It started out as a concept with substance, but it ended up being geared to 10-year-olds.” To further heap insult on injury, the movie released on the date of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There are jokes to be made here, but I’m not going to be the one to make them.
Glitter is one of those movies everyone makes fun of, but few have seen. Fortunately, most people decided they didn’t have to suffer through the film in order to guess the end. All previous knowledge of this kind of flick would make you believe some tragedy strikes the relationship between Billie and DJ “Dice,” and just as Billie ascends the sparkly ladder to ultimate stardom, she changes her mind and figures out love is more important. Or else someone gets murdered in a gunfight.
This is not the case. Just when you’re certain of how the movie’s going to end, the filmmakers pop up with a fantastic shocker. Billie settles down to sleep one night, tossing restlessly with thoughts of her life. In a feverish nightmare, a cloven-hoofed demon appears to her. The hypnotically glowing creature offers her stardom, money, and happiness in return for all her makeup, shaving razors, perfumes, and access to plastic surgeons. Faced with the choice, Billie waffles as her life’s history plays before her eyes: her beautiful love for Dice, her lovely singing voice, her horrific childhood, her grinning best friends. Finally, in a gut-wrenching shocker, she chooses to remain the lovely creature she is (sending the demon reeling back into hell). She lives miserably ever after, forgoing her love for Dice, her career, and her friends. But her face glows with the beauty of youth, her breasts remain high and perky, and she never once reveals a bit of body hair for the rest of her life. The filmmakers managed to shock even veteran rom-dram addicts with that one, and I applaud them. The end.
THE HAPPENING (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2008)
Director Shyamalan has become the go-to guy for Hollywood twist endings. I’ll admit an affinity for his earlier movies; the man has a way with colors and cinematography that make most of his films watchable. Somehow or other, he manages to get a very specific style of performance—stoic, nearly stone-faced—out of every actor he works with, be it Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis, or Zooey Deschanel. Unfortunately, by 2008 audiences were clued into the method behind his madness (ego?), and viewers expected an outrageous twist in the final moments of The Happening.
The movie’s trailers actually looked interesting; a teacher lectures on the honey bee crisis, which is frankly a scary prospect; construction workers dive off buildings in droves to splatter on the streets below; sweeping cityscapes and dramatic music punctuate shots of Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, and John Leguizamo (an odd threesome if ever there was one) plotting to save themselves from “an event.” What is this event, and why is it happening?
Wahlberg has displayed a fair amount of acting versatility since his Marky Mark days, notably in I Heart Huckabee’s and The Departed, and on “SNL.” Deschanel and Leguizamo are perennial indie favorites, both of whom are capable of performing well; however, Shyamalan’s knack for stoic performances strips them of any real emotion they might once have had. Be warned: don’t bother watching The Happening unless you plan to take a shot of whiskey every time Wahlberg sounds like a confused, high-pitched idiot (actually, this could easily make it worthwhile!).
Shyamalan’s twists have become sort of a joke, and The Happening just drove a stake into the heart of it. I’ve got your patented Shyamalan shocker ending right here: plants. It’s plants. We’re killing the planet, and the plants fight back by poisoning us with unknown chemicals. It’s devilishly clever, because as we humans run for the hills–the MORE PLANT POPULATED HILLS–they are better able to trap us and murder us all. The fewer humans, the more flora…you know. It all makes sense, right? Right!
On to William’s Picks:
THE CORE (dir. Jon Amiel, 2003)
A truly great twist ending works on multiple levels: It must be unexpected, it must make at least some sense, and it must actually enrich the film upon multiple viewings. Knowing the truth behind a storyline can ruin it forever if the twist only exists to punctuate an already lackluster storyline (I’m looking at you, The Village), but in the case of a film like The Core, an otherwise run-of-the-mill disaster film, the sudden and highly unexpected reversal at the climax of the film only serves to make the film one of the most endlessly watchable action movies of the last decade.
You didn’t see it, did you? That’s okay. Nobody did. The movie stars the Earth (as itself) and at the start of the film it isn’t feeling well. Mysterious events are occurring all over the globe and it takes a team of scientists (including The Dark Knight’s Aaron Eckhart and Academy Award-nominee Stanley Tucci) to determine that the Earth’s core is slowing down, and if humanity doesn’t find a way to detonate multiple nuclear weapons at the center of the Earth then the electromagnetic field surrounding the planet will collapse and bathe every living creature in deadly radiation. (As always, Earth’s defense is left up to humanity – every other animal pretty much sits this one out, even though they have as much stake in this as we do.)
In classic disaster movie fashion, the crew is comprised of a series of colorful characters played by such fantastic actors as Hilary Swank, Bruce Greenwood (who really deserved an Oscar nomination for Thirteen Days) and Delroy Lindo, and they undergo a series of smaller disasters in their obscenely dangerous trip to “The Core” in a ship made from “Unobtanium.” (So that’s what we needed it for in Avatar. Makes you think.) The immortal DJ Qualls also appears as their adorably geeky hacker friend. But as soon as they reach the core the twist smacks them right across the face: The core isn’t the problem at all. The entire nationwide disaster was orchestrated by none other than DJ Qualls.
Hilary Swank, by now the last remaining survivor of the crew, was fully prepared to sacrifice herself for the mission by the time DJ Qualls emerges from the Earth’s core, clutching a rapier sculpted from precious unobtanium, and describes in detail exactly how he managed to con the people of the earth – using his devious hacker skillz – into believing the Earth was endangered and traveling to the center of the earth… just “because it’s cool.”
Think about that for a moment: DJ Qualls’ motivation may seem nebulous, but it actually mirrors the motivation of the filmmakers for greenlighting such a ridiculous concept in the first place. Why make a movie about as ridiculous a concept as the Earth’s core ceasing to revolve? Because it’s cool, obviously. Hilary Swank, confronted by the height of madness, is then forced to duel DJ Qualls for the fate of the Earth in its very molten core in a swordfight destined for the ages (better than any in the new Star Wars trilogy, anyway).
It’s the height of ridiculousness, but after an hour and a half of absurd melodrama and pseudo-science it’s a breath of fresh air that sheds new light on the disaster genre and reinvigorates it at the same time. Criminally underviewed, The Core shook me, myself, to my very core.
MAID IN MANHATTAN (dir. Wayne Wang, 2002)
Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan is yet another film that deserves inclusion on a list of the greatest twist endings ever made because for a film so steeped in romantic comedy clichés it becomes doubly impressive that it ends on such a surprising turn of events. Seriously, nobody saw this one coming.
Jennifer Lopez (Anaconda) stars as Marisa Ventura, a maid at a fancy hotel and also a single mother and proud friend to several sassy African-American ladies. Over the course of her regular duties she tries on a very fancy coat belonging to socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), which causes the wealthy and handsome senatorial candidate Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes… yes, that Ralph Fiennes) to assume that she’s not so much part of the cleaning staff as she is a wealthy guest of the hotel. They promptly fall in love but since they belong to different social strata Marisa assumes their love is impossible. The film proceeds exactly as you would expect it to (hilarious misunderstandings, etc.) until the twist ending completely pulls the rug out from under your feet and they end up in a suicide pact.
Ralph Fiennes of course approaches Jennifer Lopez on the evening that their mismatched love affair has been discovered. Jennifer Lopez has been crying, uncertain of her future, so he places a loving hand on her own and whispers something we can’t make out in her ear. (A year later, Sofia Coppola would get a lot more credit for this in Lost in Translation.) She smiles weakly and, after a moment, nods in affirmation. He pulls something small out of his pocket and the audience – still in “romantic comedy” mode – assumes of course that it is a fancy engagement ring. Instead, director Wayne Wang slowly reveals it to be a snub-nosed revolver.
Jennifer Lopez doesn’t get enough credit as an actress, because somehow she manages to convey this single mother’s anguish and sudden acceptance of the sweet release of death entirely within her eye contact with Ralph Fiennes (who of course is already acknowledged as great). With one last embrace the camera deftly slips out of the room as the first gunshot penetrates the soundtrack… then, momentary wails of pain and terror from Fiennes before the last click of the trigger, explosion of the gunpowder and, finally, a slumping torso.
To say the conclusion of Maid in Manhattan is “unexpected” would be doing a disservice to a film that emotionally devastated every audience member who had yet to be informed of this horrifying twist that nevertheless deserves acclaim for its audacity. You have never… ever… seen a romantic comedy like this.
Happy April Fools from William Bibbiani and Julia Rhodes. Play a prank or drink a toast to us.