plot twists

My love of plot has been established, certainly, but permit me to say a few words about the intellectual delights of the plot that twists. I’m going to talk about film here for just a minute.

The trick to making a convoluted or complex plot work is (I think) pacing. You’ve got to keep things moving quickly enough to keep the viewer (or reader) running at an easy jog, too intrigued to give up, but breathless. I have been thinking about this since we watched Identity on DVD yesterday (John Cusack leads a great cast, well worth seeing), and trying to put together a short list of movies that have (for lack of a better term) a corkscrew plot that ends up someplace you don’t see coming.

The obvious film in this category is The Sixth Sense. I have never run into anyone who went into the movie unprepared, and guessed the twist (at least, nobody I believed). The same is true of M. Night Shyamalan’s next movie, Unbreakable (which I liked better than The Sixth Sense, but I’m pretty much alone in that camp.) Other movies which raised the confounding of expectations to an art form include Arlington Road, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, and The Usual Suspects (although TUS is flawed by an shift in POV toward the end that is, really, a cheat). Having said this, I realize that the twists in all these movies all have something in common, in that not one of them has what you’d call an uplifting or happy ending. I expect some people might disagree with me about Unbreakable, but I do find that ending rather dark. Running around Philadelphia wearing a rain slicker while you’re being pelted with humanity’s worst thoughts, well. It just doesn’t strike me as a happy career choice.

[digression] It’s no coincidence that the Mathematician loves these movies, as he always roots for the Dark Forces. In fact, we’ve had an argument going for years about Brazil, in which he says the ending is a happy one and I insist it is absolutely the opposite of happy: a man driven insane by torture is not my idea of a good time. But, sez the Mathematician, he’s finally where he wants to be. I don’t know, maybe this is a mathematician vs non-mathematician view of things. [/digression]

Writing this I come to a realization: for me, the test of a really well done corkscrew plot is the fact that I am forced not only to accept the inevitability, but to embrace a Bad Ending as the only possible and true resolution. And more than that: I kinda like it.