Another look at 5 movies with mind-boggling plot twists.
Among the suggested searches that pop up when you type their names into Google, every single one of these movies pulls up something like “explained” or “plot twist true meaning” beside them. From Richard Kelly’s cult classic (and every millennial’s go-to angsty teen movie) Donnie Darko (2001) to Stanley Kubrick’s reticent sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), some movies continue to baffle and confound us.
By no means exhaustive, the following list brings together some of the explanations and excavations I’ve stumbled upon over the years and after many hours of trawling through forums. Of course, often it’s precisely a movie’s ambiguity that keeps our interest intact. However, that isn’t to say we should write them off as inherently “without meaning” or something. If anything, twist endings and elusiveness can be all the more reason to ponder a movie’s various potential messages and underlying structures.
Sometimes to make sense of this vast and interconnected experience we call life (and to hear the faint pulse that these artworks seemed to have tapped into), you just gotta get deep into those Reddit wormholes…
So, that I did. Oh, and obviously, I will ruin the plot twist for a lot of these, so…
1. Donnie Darko (2001), Directed by Richard Kelly
Time travel, tangent universes, hallucinations, etc. — Donnie Darko is jam-packed with your staple tricky plot points. A kid wakes up in his quiet, suburban neighborhood to find a dude in a bunny suit standing on his lawn who tells him the world is about to end, and that only he, Donnie, can save it. I’ve read multiple attempts at pinning down a fixed logic to its confusing conclusion, and the best I can come up with is that Donnie Darko begins from the premise that there’s been a tear in the fabric of space-time, collapsing our “present universe” (the one in which Donnie dies) with a “tangent universe” (in which Frank the bunny wakes him, and Donnie therefore dodges the engine). The whole of the rest of the story leads from this point, the idea being that, in order to close the time loop of the tangent universe and to prevent it from subsuming our universe into a black hole, Donnie must go through the motions of falling in love and seeing “the bigger picture” of his death so that he accepts and embraces it, choosing to get squashed, and thereby foreclosing the possibility of the universe in which Gretchen, Frank, and his family on the plane are killed. So yeah: a headache, but the fun kind.
2. The Prestige (2006), Directed by Christopher Nolan
Set in London during the early 20th century, The Prestige follows the rivalry of two magicians who obsess over one another’s secret to an illusion known as the “transported man.” As others have noted, the movie is kind of a magic trick in its own right. The narrative begins at the chronological ending, so we know the conclusion but, even with a vision of the movie’s own “prestige,” we’re nonetheless caught out. As Michael Caine’s character observes, “You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” The next couple of hours lead us through a series of sleights of hand. For the movie’s momentum, we are suspended in disbelief until the grand reveal of the plot twist: Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale both use doubles (or multiples, in Jackman’s case). This is not so hard to grasp: Bale has a twin and Jackman copies himself with Tesla’s machine (though this means drowning one version of himself every night). However, one YouTuber asked whether we can trust the (at best) questionable science of the duplication thingamajig, seeing as everything until that point which had seemed like magic was in fact proven to have a reasonable, if extraordinary, explanation (the goldfish bowl, the dead birds and even the twins). Perhaps the key point is, by distracting us with David Bowie’s (that is, Tesla’s) zapper, the movie “smuggles in” a much deeper set of questions about the nature of obsession, sacrifice and the extreme lengths to which we go to secure our legacies.
3. Fight Club (1999), Directed by David Lynch
Dissociative personality disorder (“it’s all in your head”) plot twists are kind of a cheap and easy route to a “where is my mind?” ending, but as they go Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, really owned this one. It’s not that it was super difficult to pin down. As far as ambiguity is concerned, Fincher’s cult classic is debatably a little lacking. (Everyone pretty much gets the idea that Tyler was a figure of the narrator’s imagination.) It’s that, within the confines of a Hollywood blockbuster hopeful, it did manage to offer up quite a creative critique of advertising culture and consumerism. This is what warrants unpacking. Tyler and the narrator’s boys’ club starts out as a little get-together for the guys but quickly transcends into a glimpse of all-out revolution, rallying against the system and the emasculation of the “Gen-X” man. So maybe it’s a bit half-baked, but you could almost say Fight Club foreshadowed the collapse of the “dotcom boom,” as a kind of pre-2008 Occupy Wall Street movie. It literally acts out the collapse of finance (in the blowing-up of the credit companies) and playfully probes the blindsided optimism of the new millennium, with its life-by-numbers Ikea junkies and (dis)enfranchised insurance salesmen. Indeed, wiping the debt is actually a serious proposal made by world-renowned economists and anthropologists, so maybe we can forgive our idealistic selves a little with the knowledge that (minus the explosions, I guess), Tyler wasn’t so nuts after all.
4. Mulholland Drive (2001), Directed by David Lynch
This Lynchian “American nightmare” is the kind of movie that, until you’ve seen it through to the last third, you could think you clicked on the wrong title. Described by the critic J. Hoberman as “a poisonous valentine to Hollywood,” it’s situated between a coming-of-fame, wide-eyed-actor-in-LA story, and a surreal neo-noir thriller. Eventually all you’re left with is a collection of paradoxical plot points that don’t comfortably resolve into one another. What we do know, however, is that Lynch likes to play with doppelgängers, dream sequences and nonlinear narratives. What’s not entirely clear, but about as close as one can get, is that there’s a character named Diane who takes out a botched hit on her love interest. Delirious with guilt and believing it to have been successful, she retreats into a fantasy of a reimagined life where an idealized version of herself (Betty) arrives in LA with the red carpet, so to speak, laid out beneath her feet. It is this fantasy that makes up the first half of the movie and in it, in stark contrast to the neglect and dejection of her real life which makes up the second, the dream of Hollywood unfolds: perfect auditions, idyllic apartments on the Westside with maternal landladies, and sex scenes with the lover that (in reality) she never had. Only, the real world seeps in and eventually the movie capitulates into the unsettling reality beneath the facade: shady studio bosses, creepy cowboys, death threats, possession, obsession and suicide. But that’s Lynch for you.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Directed by Stanley Kubrick
When you consider that this movie was pre–moon landing, pre–commercial CGI, and pre–Star Wars, it’s clear why it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece. The story’s thematic arc traces the development of the relationship between humans and our technologies — how we’ve co-evolved and what distinguishes us. However, opting to harness sound design and imagery to communicate the narrative rather than expositional dialogue, 2001 leaves much room for speculation. The main “Whaa?” moments extend from the movie’s tendency to forego drama for “the dramatic.” Rather than specific bits of the story (though these include murder plots by HAL, the rebel robot), most memorable are the surreal montages, the atmosphere of the shuttle, and the final scenes in the lit, white room. The most enigmatic object in the movie is the black, cuboid monolith that first appears at the beginning to a “shrewdness” (yes, apparently this is what you call a group) of apes. Going off C. E. Clarke’s short story, upon which the movie is based, we can assume the monolith is some kind of extraterrestrial “observer,” monitoring mankind’s development through various technological revolutions — kind of like a really conspicuous, modern art CCTV camera from some alien NSA program, just with li’l green dudes on the other end instead of some random guy in Maryland. Some argue that the finale presents Bowman, the surviving scientist, having crossed over to this alien zone, watching himself age before being reincarnated as an extraterrestrial, theistic life-form. Personally, I’m more taken with reading the ending as symbolic, perhaps illustrating how we become alien to ourselves, displaced and/or replaced by the technologies we produce. Either way, it’s pretty freaky stuff.
Anyway, that’s it for now. As you can see, there’s quite a range of ways to confuse the hell out of people if you need to. I’m always on the lookout for more mind-boggling plot twists, so if you come across any, leave a comment!