*Spoiler alert: Shutter Island (both the movie and the book), The Club Dumas, The Ninth Gate, The Illusionist, and The Prestige.
"I hate twist endings," most of my friends have told me at least once. So do I, actually, except when I don't. Recently I had the displeasure of watching Shutter Island and then reading The Club Dumas by Aturo Perez-Reverte. Upon closer examination I realized why they both piss me off and, in my mind, represent one aspect of why twist endings don't always work.
Last summer I read Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and hated it. The atmosphere was fantastic, but that wasn't enough to make me overlook what Serious Flaws with the story and the themes with which it dealt. So far, I haven't found anyone who agrees with my particular, philosophical grievances, so I'll just leave those for now. After watching the movie, which is basically the book with actors, I realized a more technical flaw that bothered me about as much as the cheap, side-stepping conclusion. The twist is that the protagonist -- Teddy, or Andrew -- is crazy. This Revelation adds nothing to a second viewing and, in fact, robs the story of all dramatic tension. The first time I read the book, it was a compelling story an investigator with a tortured past working to uncover a government conspiracy to perform human experimentation. The second time through, it's just a story about a grand charade. Watching the movie and knowing the ending I found nothing new or interesting, just all the ways that the writer and director cleverly tricked me the first time around.
This is how I felt about The Club Dumas. I love the Ninth Gate, the movie based on the book, and I like it better now having read the source material precisely because it cut out the title storyline. The movie is about a hard drinking, chain smoking, book antiquarian, Lucas Corso, commissioned to authenticate a book supposedly written by the devil and accidentally gets caught up with a satanic cult. This storyline is taken more or less from the book, though simplified and partially amalgamated with the Other Subplot.
In the Other Subplot, the on in the book, Corso accidentally acquires an original manuscript chapter of The Three Musketeers and then is chased around central Europe by some Shadowy Types he assumes are trying to get the satanic book and the chapter from him. He comes up with an elaborate web of connections between Dumas and the occult and eventually has a showdown with the mysterious Club Dumas... which, it turns out, is a fan club whose members have essentially dragged Corso into their elaborate LARP. The criminal activity was not their doing (most of it, anyway) and was actually the doings of Coros' original client, the sadistic, billionaire, hobbyist satanist (who would've thought?).
Rereading that paragraph, I realize that these are pretty standard ingredients for a Good Mystery: Crushing Disappointment followed by the Horrible Realization. And there are elements of the individual storylines I adore. Corso develops a personal relationship with a character he later discovers to be the Devil -- see earlier post for relevance -- and she is one of the best portrayals of Lucifer I've ever read. The book is also filled with book facts that make my little, bibliophile heart go pitter patter. Lastly, I thought the whole storyline about the Club Dumas and the history of popular literature to be quite compelling. Actually, I think I would've loved the latter, title storyline if it had been it's own damn book.
All the individual plotlines and the themes with which they are concerned are interesting in and of themselves, but not taken as a whole. The book feels like Frankenstein's Monster at the end. We've got satanism, the origins of Free Will, romantic trauma, popular literature, Disappointment, and post modern literary self-awareness all shoved together between the same two covers and no one seems to directly compliment the other.
This, ultimately, is why I believed that the twist is unsatisfying: it tears everything apart at the end rather than puts it all together. For a post modern meditation on the absurdity of ascribing meaning to events around you that's perfectly fine (and you know I love me my absurdity), but that's not what the Club Dumas is. I have no desire to reread this book (which is the True Test of the Twist) because I know exactly what I'd find: two storylines having nothing to do with each other and Perez-Reverte sitting on the last page smirking at me.
A better example you're probably all familiar with is The Illusionist and The Prestige. Two movies that came out at about the same time concerning the same subject (19th century stage magic) that probably shouldn't be compared but often are anyway. I feel The Prestige is vastly superior to The Illusionist and it can be best explained with the twists.
First, The Illusionist's twist changes everything in the story so that the antagonist is not in fact guilty of the crime he supposedly committed and the second half of the movie is revealed to be one big hoax. Also, if you watch the montage at the end, where the camera circles around Paul Giamatti a couple times, you'll realize that it in fact Makes No Fucking Sense. The director shamelessly pulls a fast one on the audience. The scenes in the montage change pivotal clues in the movie so that on the first viewing it is impossible to divine the ending. I don't really judge a mystery or thriller by its kindness to the audience (well, I do, but for this entry we'll say I don't), but changing key scenes in the movie to make the Happy Ending a surprise is sloppy storytelling on par with knocking down a foundational wall of a house so you can add on that pretty porch that will look so nice until the whole structure collapses.
Anyway, what makes The Prestige a far better movie, by contrast, is that the revelation does far more than change the way one sees the action playing out and the character motivations behind them. The twist in The Prestige fits in perfectly with the complex web of themes that were developed throughout the movie. Borden had a twin brother; this explains how he was able to pull off the Disappearing Man trick, but it also links the story to a 19th century preoccupation with dopplegangers and Gothic aesthetics. More importantly, though, when you rewatch the movie you're not just thinking, "Oh, that's how they did it," but, "Oh, that's what it means." Knowing the twist allows for a rich second viewing, when one can pick up on the nuances about duality, revenge, sacrifice, surrendering to obsession, and losing one's self that the first viewing won't provide.
Other examples of Good Twists are Donnie Darko, The Conversation (also one of the most frustrating movies ever made), The Sandman, and Fight Club. For some reason I'm having a hard time coming up with examples in books because I haven't read much mystery, but also because I think novels rely less on this device. There is simply too much material in novels so twists don't work as well, or at least a twist is less likely to define the whole work. I mean, Ender's Game had a twist too, and a damn good one, but I wouldn't say it had a twist ending. There's a twist in one of my favorite books, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but there again I'd argue that the twist permits a deeper meditation on the themes in the individual storylines rather than giving you one briefly satisfying "Aha!" moment.
And I lied. I love twists.