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Bad Twist

I just finished a script with one of the stupider twist endings I’ve seen. Leading up to the twist, the script told a serviceable but unexceptional story of a clever high school student tracking down an unusual serial killer. Also on the case is her father, the local sheriff. The killer has a strange M.O.: he goes to his victims and gives them a torturous choice, with either option generally resulting in the victim’s death. For instance, he offers a struggling pianist this choice: he can either never play music again (meaning he’ll chop off the pianist’s hands), or he can never hear music again (meaning he’ll deafen the pianist in some way).

I want to ridicule the script’s twist ending for undoing the goodness coming before it, but first of all, it wasn’t that good. Secondly, this M.O., and the father-daughter relationship that drives the rest of the script, both come into play in this twist. Here’s what it is: the killer turns out to be the protagonist’s BAD TWIN. No, really. The classic schlocky soap-opera twist becomes the stuff of 2009 horror-thriller denouements.

Surprisingly, that’s not even where the story goes wrong. The twist itself sort of works — the backstory revolves around the father, whose wife died during childbirth. They didn’t know she was pregnant with twins, and he was a newly single father who had no clue about raising one kid, much less two, so he had to choose one to give up to the foster-care system. The son was tortured and abused to the point of insanity, and now he’s out for revenge. It’s about in line with the script’s overall just-above-mediocrity quality.

No, it actually goes wrong when the killer tries to “prove” to the daughter that he’s a twin. Because the explanation needs to happen quickly, we can’t exactly have a DNA test to solve the problem. They’re standing in the middle of a cemetery (don’t ask), and she has to make a bunch of snap decisions after her newfound brother “proves” the truth. Except… He uses as his proof a peanut allergy and a birthmark they both share.

Is it not common knowledge that male/female twins are fraternal and, therefore, don’t usually share traits like allergies and pretty much never share the same birthmarks? The script goes off the rails into Stupidtown, never to return. The daughter is surprised by the reveal, then reacts with thundering indifference, electing to kill the killer to save her father. It’s not unreasonable, considering he is a killer and she shares no bond of any sort with him (other than genetics), and the adrenaline fueling the situation, but what about the emotional rollercoaster after this happens? She (a) kills a man, (b) finds out her father gave up a kid and lied to her for decades about how her mother died, and (c) her BAD TWIN brother turns out to be a deranged serial killer. This has no impact on her at all?

You might think, “It doesn’t matter, because the story ends, right?” Wrong. It keeps going, flashing forward three months, where things with the daughter are not only fine — they’re even better than they were before. Then, there’s a second twist, the old “the killer’s still alive” thing, which doesn’t so much set up a sequel as suggest no sequel possibilities (it’s implied that the killer has already gotten the dad, so who would he have to terrorize in the sequel?).

This script led me to ponder one of the many problems plaguing the movies: twists for the sake of twisting. The kind of twist where you get to the end of the movie and you wonder why you just wasted your time watching it. It changes everything (in a bad way) or it causes the story to not resolve or it’s just plain stupid.

Actually, plenty of these twists mix and match from the bargain bin of problems associated with twist endings. Probably the worst twist-ending I’ve ever read occurs in another just-above-mediocre script, an action story culled from the age-old “let’s throw a bunch of guys in a pit and make them fight to the death, against their wills.” You’ve seen it in gladiator movies, you’ve seen it in at least one episode of every sci-fi television series in history — soon, you’ll see it on the big screen.

The script is light on sci-fi — it has some “technogeek” crap involving a pseudo-pirate Internet pay-per-view structuring so these battles can be streamed worldwide, and it has these boots that, when “activated,” lock the fighter’s feet in place — but heavy on action and, to my surprise, character development. The villains are all aimless morons, but three of the main characters had surprisingly decent dimensionality…

…or so I thought. Here’s the problem with the twist: it’s both mind-numbingly stupid and it changes everything. Toward the end, convinced he’s going to die, the protagonist begs his shifty-eyed love interest to call his brother. Turns out, his “brother” is a CIA handler, and her call alerts the agency to the protagonist’s exact location. Before he can get killed in the ring, a bunch of well-armed agents burst into the secret compound and take down the whole operation, all because the protagonist was an undercover agent the whole time. Pretty cool, right? Wrong again!

In one way, this script has a clever conceit — we learn, in flashbacks, that the protagonist is haunted by the murder of his wife and daughter. We’re led to think, at first, that the protagonist is a disgraced doctor who accidentally killed several patients, and that his family was killed as revenge for his medical misdeeds. The cleverly ambiguous flashbacks hold up just as well when it turns out he’s an undercover CIA agent. The whole doctor thing was his cover, but his family really did die, they really were revenge killings (for his CIA good deeds), and the protagonist really does suffer.

However, in the present timeline, the protagonist does a wide variety of stupid things that the twist completely undermines. See, he’s “kidnapped” by this group, imprisoned, and forced to fight for his life. On one occasion, he nearly gets both himself and another man killed by screaming that he’s been kidnapped and is not a willing participant (in the middle of a match streaming live across the world). A perfectly (in)sane action from a man with nothing to lose — it makes no sense from a CIA agent infiltrating the organization. In general, the story would have us believe that no man — until the protagonist showed up! — has survived more than three fights. The protagonist kills 11 men. Eleven. All of them innocent kidnapping victims, not bloodthirsty animals. The love interest is shown as taking a shine to the protagonist immediately, so it would not have been unreasonable in any way for him to beg her to call the brother before, say, his third match — the one where he’s destined to die. Of course, then the movie would be about 20 minutes long. Without the twist, though, none of that narrative doubling back is necessary. I bought the pain, the nothing to lose, the idea that he fights these men because he wants to punish himself. It all goes away when the writer introduces the twist.

Worse than that, the protagonist “honorably” kills one of his cell buddies. He wants to spare the buddy from suffering the indignity of this hell. Except the protagonist knows he’s an undercover CIA agent, and he knows the guy only has a few more days to suffer. But he kills him anyway. Again, it’s sort of a reasonable action if this guy wasn’t a CIA operative all along, but he was.

So why have the twist? The whole script builds to this fight against the über-badass villain — the one man who is there to fight willingly — and the deal is, if the protagonist wins, he gets to go free. Why not just let him fight, win, and go free? Why have this twist that undermines some decent stuff earlier in the script? What’s the point? The audience will react with five seconds of “mind blown” wonder, followed by an eternity of rage and disappointment upon realizing they’ve been had. A straightforward ending would work better. Despite the cleverly devised flashbacks, the twist doesn’t work at all. The only way to make it work sacrifices better material.

A few weeks ago, I ranted about a horrible action/sci-fi script. I kept its big twist a secret because I knew I would eventually get around to writing this entry. So here it goes: the script is overloaded with voiceover narration and characters. If you’re too lazy to click the link, it also has this body-swapping conceit where people can swap their minds using a machine. I’m going to use the actual character names here, because it’s too confusing to give them generic descriptors:

You have Cray, a supposed master criminal who’s hired to lead a diamond heist. The script opens with Cray sitting at a diner with another guy (unidentified in the script) in a tense face-off. In voiceover, Cray gives a long Fight Club*-style monologue overloaded with pseudo-philosophical bullshit, and then it flashes back to the overly complicated story. Eventually, we come to find out that a man named Usagi was hired to retrieve a kidnapped little girl, and the diamond heist was just a cover to distract her kidnappers. In order to pull off the heist, Usagi and the little girl’s mother paid off Cray — who is famous in the criminal underworld — to swap bodies well in advance of the story. So basically, it’s been Usagi’s mind in Cray’s body since the beginning of the script. Meaning the thoughts in the narration are actually Usagi’s, not Cray’s.

It would spoil the twist to have Usagi narrating from the start, obviously, but shouldn’t that just be a sign that the twist doesn’t work? Or maybe that the framing device doesn’t work? Or the voiceover (really, really, for the love of all that’s holy) doesn’t work? I would even cut it some slack if Cray were the only narrator, but he isn’t. Several of the other characters narrate, and when they switch bodies, the narration still comes from their original characters’ voices. Ipso facto, Usagi should narrate. Or nobody should. Yeah, let’s stick with nobody.

Why can’t a story just be a story anymore? Why can’t it go from Point A to Point B, instead of a zigzag from Point A to Point Z, hitting all intermediate stops? How many of these twists actually work? One of the biggest — the one that arguably relaunched the “twist ending” craze — The Sixth Sense, doesn’t work at all if you bother to watch a second time. Once you know the ending, you’re like, “Wait, he’s been hanging around for six months and hasn’t figured out nobody talks to him, nobody sees him?” I could only buy that twist if Shyamalan explicitly stated that Willis’ character somehow fades in and out of existence without realizing it and only appears in the scenes dramatized within the movie. If you think about anything else — going grocery shopping or making a phone call or any of the things he’d have to do offscreen that involves interacting with people or objects — it doesn’t hold up at all. At least The Usual Suspects’ ending was gleefully nonsensical. It’s not a great movie, but they didn’t even try to make sense. (And for those of you thinking I’ve just hoisted myself on my own petard, after griping about people who think The Big Sleep makes no sense because they haven’t paid enough attention — trust me, I’ve seen The Usual Suspects more than once, I’ve paid careful attention, and it’s ending is just a twist for the sake of twisting. It makes no goddamn sense, and it’s only slightly different because nobody involved seems to care whether or not it makes sense. It’s almost a spoof of arbitrary twist endings.)

So why is Hollywood still twistin’? Well, aside from the fact that these movies still make money, I have to imagine it goes back to the belief that all stories have been told. The only way to keep going is to tell a familiar story with an unfamiliar ending. According to Hollywood.

According to me, applying a twist ending to a mediocre (or flat-out shitty) script just to give it a “gee-whiz” effect is as lazy as stealing jokes or masking your weaknesses with florid, hilarious-for-all-the-wrong reasons dialogue.

*Don’t even get me started on that movie’s twist. [Back]

Tags: bad, Bad Twin, battle, choice, clever, daughter, ending, evil twin, father, fight, horror, incoherence, kidnapping, M. Night Shyamalan, sci-fi, screenplays, serial killer, Shyamalan twist, The Big Sleep, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, thriller, tournament, twins, twist, undercover

Posted by D. B. Bates on January 5, 2009 3:16 PM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Screenwriting Articles

Comments (1)

On January 5, 2009 at 8:30 PM, SAM wrote...

Shit. I never really thought about how the Usual Suspects didn’t make sense.

Actually, looking back, I think I did. I just chose not to concentrate on it too much becasue I wanted to beleive it so badly.

I needed to to believe that Kevin Spacey’s character wasn’t this pathetic cripple destined to be killed as soon as he left the police station. I was already upset by Gabriel Byrne’s character’s death.

In that sense the writer did a great job because he made me care about the characters and mourn their deaths. I empathised with Spacey so much that my reaction at the end was ‘oh thank God, he’s going to be ok.’

Not sure how I feel about this…

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