Sunday, January 15, 2006

Spoiler-laden Sunday: Let's Do the Twist

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I wanted to do a more in-depth discussion of a couple of movies that I had watched since I couldn't do justice to my feelings towards them without some spoilers. Sorry it's taken me so long to get around to it, but as usual, I am at the mercy of my muse.

Both of the following films rely pretty heavily on a "twist" ending, so, if you don't mind having the twists of Cry_Wolf and November spoiled for you, read on.

Before I dive into talking about the films themselves, a little word about my thoughts on twist endings. For me, a twist ending should evolve naturally from the plot, and should not be done as a twist for twist's sake; a film that relies on the strength of its twist to carry it is more than likely doomed to failure for me. While the twist of the true connection between Brad Pitt and Ed Norton in Fight Club was a very unexpected and engaging one, I was in love with the movie long before that ever happened; the twist was just the icing on the cake, and something that made repeat viewings of the film more interesting as I went back to pick up on what I'd missed before. Of course, there are times where the shock ending does add some spice to the film. The Kevin Costner film No Way Out comes to mind; about the only two things I remember about that movie are (a) the seemingly never-ending limo scene and (b) the final big reveal which many critics pointed to as pointless and distracting, but which made me go "ooo, cool!"

Of course, I was 12 years old at the time, so maybe my judgment of what was and wasn't cool was a bit underdeveloped.

Ideally a twist should come as a complete surprise to the audience, although being able to guess a twist does not necessarily make a film worthless; I guessed the twist to The Sixth Sense almost immediately (but only because I had heard so much about the twist that I was looking for it) and did not feel the movie was lessened because of it. But while an obvious twist doesn't always wreck a movie, it does often weaken it; both of the films I'm going to talk about telegraphed their twists pretty badly, and my opinion of each suffered for it.

Cry_Wolf: This movie was billed as a horror movie about a group of teens whose practical joke involving a spam email describing a serial killer goes horribly wrong when someone starts imitating the murders from the email. At first I was enjoying the film; likeable actors, moderately engaging dialogue, couple of interesting characters. But as the film progressed, I started to feel that something was off. I'm not going to say that I had it all figured out before it ended, because I didn't have a 100% "This is exactly what's going on here!" moment, but I will say that from pretty early on in the movie I knew that it was a variation on one of my favorite 80s "slasher" films, April Fools' Day. And what does that mean? Why, that nobody actually gets killed, of course. Except, that's not exactly true here; there are two murders in the film, but they bookend the movie; the first is the event the precipitates the email, and the second turns out to be the real reason for the email scam in the first place, as the second dead body was being set-up to take the fall for the first killing.

So, how did I figure out that nobody was really dying? Easy; there were no actual on-screen deaths. Oh, you'd see people being dragged off, or find bloody items of clothing, or stumble across a corpse, but the actual violent act was always off-camera, which is unheard of in modern slasher films. Missing out on the moment of death of one or two characters doesn't arouse much suspicion, as it could just be a building of suspense, but by the time the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth "death" occurs without a detailed on-screen blow-by-blow, the "oh, great, it's all a hoax" alarm goes off.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that I give the movie a "thumbs down"; there was still enough enjoyable character stuff going on to keep both my dad and me entertained throughout. Plus, it's not like the "it's all a hoax" thing has become that big of a cliché; yes, I've seen it used before, but not enough for me to just roll my eyes and write a movie off because the writers have gone to that well one too many times. If only I could say the same about the "twist" of the next movie . . .

November: Indie flick billed as a psychological thriller about a photographer (Courtney Cox) whose boyfriend (James LeGros) gets killed in a convenience store hold-up and who begins to have questions about just what happened that night. This film was split up into three or four segments; during the first segment it seemed like a pretty straight-forward movie about a woman trying to make peace with the death of the man she loved, while simultaneously trying to discover the truth behind it. But then there's suddenly a weird shift following a migraine-induced hallucination, and the second segment begins, and we see the hold-up/murder happen again, only there are a ton of different details this time around, and the aftermath is completely different as well. At first you might think "well, maybe she's just crazy, and this is her mind unraveling." But, careful viewers will have already noticed the clues in the hallucination sequence, and will have already deduced the truth before the shift to the next totally-different segment. What is the truth? That Courtney Cox's character was present at the hold-up, was also shot along with James LeGros, and that all that we have just witnessed has been the hallucinations she's been experiencing during her dying moments.


I'd like to take this moment to make a plea to all of the burgeoning filmmakers out there: please, if you suddenly feel yourself overcome with an idea to make a strange, non-linear, surreal film where nothing makes sense, and characters find themselves trapped in loops or confronted with huge logical inconsistencies in their surroundings which build and build until the final reveal that the central character is either (a) dead or (b) dying . . . if you feel yourself driven to make such a film, then please, I beg of you, for the sake of my sanity, please reconsider. It's been done before, multiple times; I'm not generally one to wave people away from certain plot structures because they've been used before (would I be such a fan of horror movies or quest-based fantasy novels if I was?), but in this case, I'll make a huge exception.

I suppose there could be a situation where such a film doesn't make me miserable; I'm sure that if there's enough clever dialogue or innovative cinematography or likeable enough actors that the big reveal at the end won't do more than make me roll my eyes in a "not again" fashion. Unfortunately, this really wasn't the case with November. Yes, there was some really good acting done by both Cox and LeGros (who I feel is a terribly underappreciated actor), but even their performances weren't enough to make me like this mess. I guess my biggest quibble with most of these "look, he/she's really dead/dying, isn't that clever and unexpected?" films is that all too often it feels like the screenwriter and/or director are banking on the shock of the "ooo, isn't this a cool twist!" factor to win the audience over.