People love twist endings. Anyone who says otherwise is full of crap. But there are good twist endings and there are bad twist endings, and sometimes it’s a fine line between the two. Having looked at other “Best Twist Ending” lists and pulling from my own memory, I have compiled this list of the best twist endings in movie history – and the worst. Of course, there are some movies I haven’t seen and others I just plain forgot about, but these are the ones you have to see – or avoid.
NOTE: Major spoiler alerts.
The Best Twist Endings
- The Sixth Sense
These top several twists are hard to rank in any clean order, but I still remember the day I sat in theaters watching M. Night Shyalaman’s masterpiece. The movie was pretty decent but didn’t have much of a plot, and I was wondering where the movie was going to go. And then – bam! Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time. Not only is it an amazingly good twist ending, but it also saves the movie from being just a decent ghost story – and, on a second viewing, Shyalaman throws the truth in your face repeatedly.
- Primal Fear
Ed Norton jumped into his career in a big way with this courtroom thriller, where Richard Gere comes to the defense of a seemingly innocent and kind altar boy accused of brutally murdering a priest. Not only is the movie extremely good and offers a first glimpse at the exceptional acting talent stored within Norton, but as it turns out, Norton’s character was faking split personality the entire time.
- The Usual Suspects
Considered the best twist ending by many people, it was hard to put this so far down at #3. I’ve seen a couple people put this crime thriller starring Kevin Spacey on “Worst Twist Endings” lists, but those people are just idiots wanting to sound smarter and more sophisticated than everyone else.
Probably the best f-ed up twist ending on the list, this film starts out with a guy waking up in a suitcase on a rooftop after years of mysterious captivity. As he seeks out the truth, he teams up and falls in love with a younger woman. He has sex with her. Then, as we learn, he’s been hypnotized to fall in love with his own daughter – and thus he has unwillingly had sex with her. A second twist comes when the guy decides to erase his memories so he can continue to love and have sex with his daughter.
This exciting and intriguing thriller has a great cast and a creepy villain, who remains elusive through most of the movie until he conveniently decides to show up for one of the most disturbing twist endings ever. Spacey, the killer, leads the detectives (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) out into the middle of nowhere to find the final victim, only to reveal that he is the one who will be killed by Pitt. Why? Because Spacey killed Pitt’s wife, played by Gwenyth Paltrow, to drive him over the deep end. Nice!
- Angel Heart
OK, Oldboy is pretty screwed up, but this one isn’t exactly innocent, either. In this movie, a much younger Mickey Rourke starts investigating murders in New Orleans, only to discover that he himself made a deal with the Devil himself and is responsible for much of what has happened. Wow. [this entry has been edited since the original post]
- The Prestige
The inspiration for writing this post, the Christopher Nolan drama about magicians has several small twist endings that aren’t fully appreciated until repeated viewings. For one, Christian Bale’s character tricks Hugh Jackman into thinking that he got a hold of his journal full of secrets – until Jackman reads that it was all planned. Jackman pulls a similar trick on Bale, revealing to his adversary that he intended to frame him. Then, it is revealed that Jackman’s character is still alive, a result of cloning himself and murdering himself every night. If that’s not f-ed up enough, Bale actually has a twin brother and the two having been living a single life, sharing both a wife and a mistress.
- Les Diaboliques [this film was added after the original post]
In this 1955 French thriller, a wife conspires with her husband’s mistress to murder the husband. They devise an intelligent plan to make the murder look like an accident, but then the body disappears. The wife begins to freak out as more and more clues seem to suggest that either the husband is alive or that someone else knows and is toying with them, to the point where she starts having panic attacks. Ultimately, she ends up dying of a heart attack when the truth is revealed… but since the director actually asks us before the credits to not reveal the ending, I won’t say what the cause is.
- The Others
An elegantly simple and creepy ghost story turns out to be a lot more when it is revealed that Nicole Kidman and her two children, who are allergic to sunlight, have in fact been dead the entire movie, and the ghosts they’ve been seeing are living people attempting to drive them out of the house.
This is a love-it-or-hate-it film, but M. Night Shyalaman’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, which also stars Bruce Willis, is one of my favorite movies. There’s not a lot of plot to the film, but once again Shyalaman throws a zinger at us by revealing that Samuel L. Jackson, who has befriended Willis and helped him realize his potential, is in fact a psychopathic killer who has been committing mass murder just to find someone who is “unbreakable.”
- Arlington Road
This fast-paced suburban thriller has Jeffrey Bridges suspecting that his neighbor (Tim Robbins) is a domestic terrorist. As it turns out, he’s right, but he unfortunately drives the bomb into the federal building himself, and is ultimately blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people.
- The Devil’s Advocate
The title isn’t as metaphorical as one would suspect: Al Pacino really is the Devil, and he wants Keanu Reeves to have sex with what turns out to be his sister to have a Devil grandbaby. When Reeves refuses, the Devil just starts trying all over again.
- The Game
This movie is full of coincidences and conveniences, but there are so many little twists in the film that it’s hard not to be entertained. Is everything a game, or is it reality? Sure, it’s pretty unbelievable that Michael Douglas would choose to commit suicide through the exact window (and avoid all of the rafters) where a big balloon is waiting to catch him for his birthday party, but you didn’t see it coming, did you?
A lot of slasher films have “twists” in regards to who the villains are, but few have pulled it off as well as Wes Craven’s classic. I remember sitting in the theater (sadly, with my mom) when Skeet Ulrich – who had been sliced up quite heavily a few minutes before, hence proving his innocence – licks his fingers and declares that his blood is in fact corn syrup. And there’s not one killer, but two.
- Psycho (1960)
I knew the ending before I ever saw the film, so the impact of the big twist was rather lessened, but you still have to respect the fact that Norman Bates dresses up like his mother to kill unsuspecting innocents. That’s just disturbing. Oh, and the “star” of the movie, Janet Leigh, gets killed off early on in the infamous shower scene. [this entry has been edited since the original post]
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
Another movie where I had seen shots of the ending before I actually saw the movie, the realization that Charlton Heston was never going to make it back home because… he’s already on Earth!
- American Psycho
I still don’t fully understand the ending, but I believe Christian Bale’s psychopathic tendencies are all, actually, in his mind. The great thing about this movie is that even if the entire film may “be a lie,” the actual events are up for debate. Did he or didn’t he? Everyone has their own opinion. [this entry has been edited since the original post]
- Donnie Darko
With more of a strange ending than a twist one, it turns out that Donnie’s sleepwalking – which saved him from being crushed by a jet engine at the beginning of the film – has put his mother and sister in peril, as a month later, they are on the plane that will eventually crash into their home a month earlier. Donnie decides to sacrifice himself and die so that his family wouldn’t a month later. Or something like that.
- Stephen’s King The Mist
I just watched this movie the other night, and wow, what an ending. This movie shouldn’t have been that good, with mediocre special effects and overblown acting (not to mention it’s a film about random monsters from another dimension), but it is. And the capper: an utterly depressing ending. Thomas Jane’s truck runs out of gas, leaving the five survivors, including his son, stranded in the middle of the mist, which has apparently taken over the entire world. With no chance of survivor, he turns to his gun, which only has four bullets left. He kills the other four people, including his own son, and then steps outside. A minute later, the army shows up and the mist begins to clear. Had he waited a minute longer, he wouldn’t have had to murder his only child! Ouch!
- Soylent Green
They’re people! They’re people! The movie is a bit dated now, but if I hadn’t known the ending ahead of time, this would have been a pretty damn good twist ending.
Pretty common nowadays (just watch an episode of Law and Order: SVU), this Jack Nicholson film featured a twist that revealed that 1) Faye Dunaway was not who she first appeared to be and 2) that she had an incestuous relationship with her own father.
- Night of the Living Dead
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a twist ending, but it’s still a shocking one. Zombies are everywhere, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Militias have moved in to clean out the walking dead, and it looks like our hero (an African American) is safe. But, then, one shooter takes him to be one of the bad guys and shoots him in the head. Not a cheerful ending, but a memorable one.
- The Ring
The Naomi Watts horror-thriller that took cinema by storm has a couple twist endings, even if you don’t recognize them as such. In most horror movies, once the protagonist discovers the dead body of the mean ghost, the spirit is usually set free and the movie ends. In The Ring, after Watts saves herself and her son by pulling Tamara’s body from the well, she things all are good. Wrong! Tamara is evil, and she’s just released her spirit to kill at will. And, to ultimately save themselves, Watts decides that she and her son will pass the video onto someone else (I believe a relative).
Guy Pearce, suffering from severe short term memory, goes through life searching for his wife’s killer and not trusting people. Since the film works in backwards order, we slowly discover that his wife killed herself by tricking Pearce into giving her multiple insulin shots; furthermore, Pearce tricks himself by writing notes about people that aren’t true, so that in the future he won’t listen to their “lies,” which are actually truths.
- The Descent
If you’ve seen the original, European version, you’ll know what I mean; if you’ve only seen the American version, where the main character escapes from the monster-filled caves, you won’t. While we get to see the woman escape from the cave, drive away and so on and so forth, that escape is actually in her head – she’s still miles underground, surrounded by the creatures that are going to kill her.
- Minority Report
Not really a twist ending, but another one that makes you think. After Tom Cruise is accused of murder, he sets out to clear his name. Since the whole criminal system is based on a predictive, psychic machine that is never wrong, his only way to do that is to prove that the system, which he has believed in for years, is wrong. How does he do it? He sets out to kill the creator of the program, thus triggering the system to alert the authorities. But, since he knows the truth about the creator, the creator wants to kill him, too. If Cruise succeeds, the system fails. If the creator succeeds, the system fails. Bam!
- Mulholland Drive
No one really knows what David Lynch’s movie is about, but that doesn’t stop me from being intrigued by the completely weird ending to Mulholland Dr., the movie that put Naomi Watts on the map. There’s something about Pandora’s box, about two leading women being the same person, Watts masturbating and making out with herself, etc.
- 12 Monkeys
I didn’t love this Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt movie, but it does have a disturbing ending. After Bruce Willis is sent back in time to stop a virus from wiping out most of mankind, you expect him to find the solution and save humanity. Instead, he fails, and his child-self gets to watch him get killed by security guards in an airport. Cheerful.
So-So or Overrated Twist Endings
The following list contains several movies with endings that I have liked, but haven’t loved. #1 on the list should evoke some emotion, but I stand by it. The twist endings in this list neither made the movies better or worse.
- Fight Club
This is the one movie that will cause people to complain about this list. Many would rank this ending as one of the best endings in cinema history, as it is revealed that Ed Norton and Brad Pitt are, in fact, the same person. While I’m sure it worked in the book, I think this is a bit of a cop-out. Fight Club is still a pretty good and imaginative movie, but the fact that everything we saw was a lie – and that it really never makes complete sense – doesn’t have me drooling over the ending like it causes some people to do.
- Swimming Pool
This great thriller starring Charlotte Rampling has an aging author staying at a French villa only to discover that a sexy younger woman has shown up to share space. Intrigued by her sexuality, a subtle erotic thriller and ultimately murder mystery ensue… but then we discover that everything is all in her head and that we simply saw her imagination at work as she developed her story. Normally I don’t like endings where it turns out everything is a dream, but Swimming Pool pulled it off. Still, some would see it as a cop-out.
- Vanilla Sky/Open Your Eyes [this film was added after the original post]
In these movies (remake and the original, both of which star Penelope Cruz – in different roles), the leading man (we’ll call him Tom Cruise) starts to go out of his mind as an ex-flame comes back from the dead, his ravaged face turns out to be not-so-ravaged and other weird things happen. As it turns out, most of the movie is a corporate-controlled dream due to the fact that he has been cryogenically frozen. The movie is weird and not for everyone, but the ending works.
I have mixed emotions about the “twist” ending here. When I first saw Signs, I liked it a lot. It was creepy, suspenseful, and had an ending that at least wrapped things up. Still, it seems like M. Night Shylaman threw a twist ending into the film for the sake of not letting his fans down, and a lot of people didn’t buy into the “Swing away” line. I don’t hate the ending, but it’s rather unnecessary.
- No Way Out
In this spy thriller, it turns out that Kevin Costner, who has been searching for a Russian mole, is, in fact, the Russian mole. It’s sort of a silly ending that seems thrown in there at the last moment, but I certainly didn’t see it coming.
- Citizen Kane
Does this movie have a twist ending? No, not really. But it has shown up on other “twist” listings so I just included it here to say so. [this entry has been edited since the original post]
- Eastern Promises
In this decent thriller from David Cronenber, it is revealed that the ruthless Russian mobster played by Viggo Mortensen, who took it upon himself to protect Naomi Watts from his own people, is actually an undercover detective. The surprise really doesn’t make the movie any better, and in many ways it takes the emotional impact of the movie out of the story. After all, Mortensen never really had to make a choice between his people and Watts; he was against them from the start.
- The Village
Another M. Night Shyalaman film, The Village is a pretty decent drama. I wasn’t crazy about the film because it was marketed as a horror movie, even though it isn’t, and maybe that distracted me from a pretty good twist ending. It’s not the direction I wanted the film to take, but the ramifications are huge: as it turns out, there are no monsters in the woods. The monsters were devised by the elders of the village to keep the younger people from venturing away, which would lead them to the wall: on the other side, a paved road and modern civilization.
John Cusack and others find themselves being picked off one by one by an unknown killer. What starts out as a reasonable thriller develops into a supernatural one, and from that somethinge entirely different: all of the characters, including Cusack, are all in the mind of a psychotic killer who is sitting in prison. No one saw this ending coming, though I can’t say it’s an amazing one: once the ending is revealed, the thriller loses any suspense it had going for it.
In this supernatural thriller, Denzel Washington hunts a killer that moves from body to body, possessing people to carry out its evil will. Denzel figures out a way to trap and kill the demon – by luring it into the woods away from bodies to transfer to. As he becomes possessed, he inhales poison to kill the demon; but doesn’t take into account that the demon can also possess animals such as cats. So, at the end of the movie, evil wins and Denzel is possessed by a demon. Not a horrible ending – and many people love it – but it just didn’t click for me. [this entry has been edited since the original post]
- High Tension
An ending that is so good it’s bad, High Tension, which could have been one of the most memorable and disturbing slasher films in recent memory, ends with a whimper when it is revealed that the sexually charged killer, played by a man, is actually the female protagonist, who, driven by jealousy, has gone insane. The twist, while shocking, really never makes sense, especially considering the fact that in the first scene the killer is shown jerking himself off with a decapitated head. I go back and forth on this one…
- Lucky Number Slevin
Josh Hartnett gets confused for someone else and winds up getting involved in a deadly plot between an assassin named The Cat and a couple mobster-type guys. He plays it innocent until it is revealed that he and The Cat are partners and that Hartnett is himself a master assassin. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t have enough space to explain everything. The twist is a shocker, and yet it takes away something from the film. Handled a bit differently, it could have really worked, but I found it a bit underwhelming.
The Worst Twist Endings
Below is a list of the worst twist endings known to man:
- The Forgotten
What could have been a really good movie turns out to be a film about aliens experimenting on people. Aliens? Come on. This movie has the worst twist ending ever, and due to some scenes shown in the previews, you actually could see it coming.
- The Number 23
This thriller was supposed to put Jim Carrey on the map as a truly serious actor, but it failed miserably. Not only was his acting terrible, but the movie features one of the most disappointing endings ever. Having been seduced and driven to obsessed madness by a book that seems to parallel his life, giving us hints at Satan and other disturbing ramifications, it is revealed that Carrey himself wrote the book while he was in a psychiatric hospital that he no longer remembers. So the twist is: he actually is crazy and he wrote the book himself. Wow. Stupid.
- Secret Window
This Johnny Depp film had potential, but it has a strangely predictable ending, and one that was not particularly good. After it is revealed that he himself is off his rocker and has killed every victim, Depp never gets punished but does decide to get braces. Huh?
- Hide and Seek
Hide and Seek features another predictable ending. In fact, it is so bad that when I realized it in the first 30 minutes of the movie, I prayed for the next hour that I was wrong. As it turns out, Dakota Fanning doesn’t have an imaginary friend who kills people, but instead it’s her father – the main character, played by Robert DeNiro – who has a split personality. The split personality twist ending is almost always a deal killer, and Hide and Seek proves it.
I only put this on the list because I’ve seen Saw mentioned on other Best Twist Ending lists. It’s not much of a twist ending, but after the protagonists do themselves in, it is revealed that the corpse in the middle of the room is in fact the killer – and that he’s just been lying still for the last two hours. It just doesn’t make much sense, nor is it very exciting.
- Perfect Stranger
This Halle Berry thriller is about as bad as it looks. I lost interest halfway through and thus was only paying attention at half staff when the twist ending is revealed, but the fact that the main character – Berry – is in fact the unknown killer she’s been hunting is just downright stupid.
- Never Talk to Strangers
Like Hide and Seek and Perfect Stranger, here’s another movie that ends with the revelation and the main protagonist is actually the bad guy.
- The Life of David Gale
Kevin Spacey is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit… or did he? As it turns out, he faked murder to get convicted and sentenced to death, so he could prove that the death sentence is inhumane. Uh… OK.
- Planet of the Apes (2001)
In this pointless remake directed by Tim Burton, Mark Wahlberg finally escapes from Ape World to land back on Earth… only to find that the Lincoln Memorial has the face of an ape. Unlike in the original, where there’s a lot less tacky and much more iconic view of the Statue of Liberty – implying that Heston is on Earth and is simply far in the future – this ending implies that there’s an alternate dimension or something like that. It’s just cheesy, and a stupid way to lead the audience into the ending credits.
- No Country for Old Men
The Oscar-winning drama-thriller really doesn’t have a twist ending, unless you allow the fact that the Coen brothers kill the protagonist off screen, never explain how he died and that the movie has switched gears to a pointless and rambling speech by Tommy Lee Jones. It’s one of the most disappointing endings to an otherwise excellent film. Should the ending be different? No. That’s how the film ends in the book by Cormac McCarthy (and no one should mess with McCarthy’s works), but the film is so suspenseful and exciting for the first 80% that it’s just a major letdown when the movie takes a pure dramatic turn. [this entry has been edited since the original post]