Thursday, February 25, 2010

Can a Movie Be More Than Its Twist?

Can a movie be more than its twist? In our modern cinematic landscape, it seems almost every thriller or horror or romantic weepfest (see: Valentine’s Day) comes with a citrusy twist at the end, a final kick in the brain meant to wow audiences and define the movie’s quality. Except each kick is only good for one “wow”, and every time we get hit with that same twist, or something similar to what we’ve already seen, it becomes less and less a shock and more of an expectation. As a result, the bar is raised higher and higher. Hollywood is consistently trying to up the ante, its young writers digging deep into the wells for that one great, concept pitch, the one with the twist that will blow your brains right out of your skulls… and it’s becoming damn near impossible to do so.

Of course a twist isn’t a twist if it’s spoiled, so – SPOILER ALERT!!! – don’t read anymore if you’re still hoping for that kick when you watch Saw (2004) or Shutter Island (2010). If you’ve seen these already then please, proceed forward.

And if you have seen these already, then you’re most likely part of the problem. After digesting film upon film of twisty turns and spills, today’s audience has become more clinical, more cognitive and more demanding in their approach to movie watching. It’s hard to say specifically where to pinpoint the blame – perhaps on Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense (1999)? Or Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) – but at some point the “twist flick” became a cultural phenomenon, and changed the cinemascape forever. Similar to Avatar (2009) and its groundbreaking technological advancements, the twist flick is an event. If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense, you’re missing out, and with that in mind, millions upon millions have tuned in, bringing Hollywood billions of dollars.

The twist, then, has become the sword, and as much as the studios live by its cuts into your minds and wallets, the entertainment industry suffers the sharp backlash of a twist that doesn’t live up. The most recent victim is Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), a fine thriller with a time-told twist that some audiences claim to have been told a few times too many. But does that make the film less effective? Does it reduce the quality of its art, or the effectiveness of its storytelling? In Shutter Island’s case, I’d argue it doesn’t. The fact that Leo’s character (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is a patient in the island facility he’s investigating is easy enough to figure from the trailers, even if your theory doesn’t hit the nail right on the head. And heck, its easy enough in this day and age to OVERthink it, considering that option and then tossing it aside in the hunt for a deeper, better option. TV’s Lost has built a whole fan cult around that.

But this twist – his participation in a staged investigation – isn’t the point of the film. This is the journey into the depths of the mind, of the soul – an attempt to identify crisis, to tackle our deepest and darkest fears and damages, to MANIFEST them, and to overcome them – all wrapped up in a scene-by-scene attempt to thrill and entertain. If the one thing you’re trying to take away from a movie is the knowledge of the twist, then we should waste no time and I can just tell you the setup and give you the spin, knock-knock style. You sit through a MOVIE to experience the story, the pace, the visuals, the characters, etc. You watch it to be entertained for 120 minutes, not 2.

There are some instances when the twist pretty much IS the movie. You could probably make that case for Saw, an otherwise abysmal flick revived by an ending that’s managed to inspire one of the most useless and disposable franchises in history. But then fans of that film might also have tuned in just to see a leg sawed off.

The best twisty films are the ones that rise above, the films for which the twist is just the cherry on top. David Fincher’s Seven (1995) is one of those films. Shutter Island is too.

These are dangerous waters we’re wading into, in a lake that we’ve created. If we refuse to give in, to let ourselves be taken along for the ride, then these waters may become less fun and more pissed in by people who love to say they knew it first.
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