Why Twist Endings Don’t Work For Me.

Let's see what's behind... The Scary Door!
Let’s see what’s behind… The Scary Door!

Beth and I just finished the Nolan Batman Trilogy again. I have spoken about The Dark Knight Rises here before, but I’d barely walked out of the cinema when I wrote that. Back then I was more concerned with the film’s narrative weakness when compared to The Dark Knight. I’ve seen Rises twice since then, and I like it. It’s a fun film that borrows from some of my favourite Batman stories. But it’s easily the weakest of the Trilogy, hamstrung by Nolan’s desire to go out with a bang. The film has some great moments, but its weakened by contorting to fit a few feeble twists in the final act. I’m not here to talk about Batman, so I won’t go into spoilers here, but I think I can say that none of these twists knocked my socks off.

The cinema loves a good plot twist. Some are so iconic, their surprise is long forgotten. I’m sad to say I knew the ending to The Empire Strikes Back well before I saw the film. It’s a consequence of being the youngest in a large family, you’ve heard the all the best bits of all the best films long before you get to experience them for yourself. Sometimes you’re lucky. When I was eleven, I was lucky enough to see Hitchcock’s Psycho without any foreknowledge, and I was young enough to still find it scary. It was a great experience and the film is still one of my favourites, but otherwise I’m not a big fan of the plot twist.

People knock M. Night Shyamalan, but I’d say he’s one of the few film makers that gets the plot twist right. I don’t always care for his films, but the appeal of The Sixth Sense is not just that it ends with a surprise, but that the surprise is actually fundamental to a proper understanding of the film. My all time favourite twist is still Planet of the Apes, a blow that still catches a new viewer unawares since the dated B-Movie feel lulls you into a false sense of security.  Here the twist is not only integral to the plot, but in retrospect, the only logical conclusion to the story. Planet of the Apes also gets bonus points for offering a twist ending that is so much better than the novel it was based upon. 

But there are those other cinema twists, the kind that seem to be coming more and more common. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, an enjoyable film that crams the second half with twists that are neither surprising nor alter the course of the film. Where The Empire Strikes Back offered us a twist that changed the way we looked at The Hero and The Villain, Return of the Jedi offers us another familial twist that just seems confusing and without merit. One of the few things I liked about Man of Steel is that it tried to tell a clear, controlled story, but even that falls prey to the last minute attempt to jolt the audience’s expectations. In literature, Philip K Dick is still the master of the twist ending. Each of his short stories seems to terminate in an equally alarming conclusion. Funnily enough, though his work has been adapted to the big screen repeatedly, his twist endings don’t seem to survive the process quite so often.

I find the plot twist grating. I know that stories are there to entertain us, storytellers have a lot of tools at their disposal and surprise is one of them, but it is not my favourite. I read books, watch TV and go to the cinema to be entertained. For the money I pay, I usually expect to be entertained for the duration of the story. This means the narrative needs to be tight, flowing and with a sense of purpose. Take The Dark Knight as an example. The film is an enormous success because its plot construction is almost perfect. Every scene, every word of dialogue is place in the film with a clear intention. It leads to a climax that seems inevitable. Furthermore, it features only one real plot twist, about halfway through the film that naturally begins the events of the second half. Another of my favourite films recently was Dredd. This long overdue adaptation was a flop at the box office, and I still can’t believe it. It presents a small, tight story that takes place within a single building. Not a minute of screentime is wasted. It also features very little you could call a plot twist.

These are the kinds of stories I enjoy, careful and controlled. The plot twist weakens this control. The problem is that a twist relies on establishing certain expectations in the audience, and then defying them. Performed well, it can be the highlight of a story, but defying expectations is not easy. If, for example, you would like to present a character as an ally, only to reveal in the final moments that they are actually the villain, you are forced to present a very limited picture of the the character. Worse still, the temptation is to build the character up even higher to enhance the twist when it finally comes. Inevitably, plot holes develop. (e.g Why didn’t he just shoot him when they were alone together? He’s been around for months, why didn’t he just steal the Jewel etc. etc.) Even Doctor Who, my absolute favourite, has succumb to the plot twist. Swapping intelligent, well paced drama for an elaborate series of 45 minute chapters in an ever more convoluted story arc. 

Plot twists leave me feel cheated. The lengths that creators travel to conceal them leave their stories bent out of shape around them. They are almost always spotted, and do nothing but dilute their stories in favour of a bit of cheap sparkle that will be forgotten as soon as the next sparkly thing comes along. It’s time to leave this narrative device behind, and explore pacing, plotting and characterisation instead.

The Dark Knight Rises and Narrative Inevitability

New Poster for Dark Knight RisesBeth and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises last night. It didn’t finish until after ten, then we grabbed some food and waited a long time for a taxi that picked a very expensive route home. Fortunately, only one of us had to work in the morning and it wasn’t me. My non-spoilery thoughts on the film can probably be summed up pretty quickly. I shall resist the temptation to say it was the sequel The Dark Night needed, but not the one it deserved.

Basically, I liked it. At no point during the 2:44 runtime did I feel bored and I enjoyed the whole thing. There were, however, parts I enjoyed more than others. It is the only entry in the series that I would say had plotting and pacing problems, but they weren’t hugely intrusive. I thought the first and last 30 minutes were a little weak, but that the 1:45 sat in the middle was a really great film.

However, it did get me thinking about the series as a whole, and just how well made they have been. I should probably post a big SPOILER WARNING about here, as I’m going to be talking about details from all three of Nolan’s Batman films (And a couple of other films too, but mostly older ones). Mainly, I started thinking about one of my favourite elements of storytelling: Narrative Inevitability. When a story’s conclusion feels perfect, as though it could have ended no other way. Inevitability, however, is not the same as predictability. Often the great inevitable conclusions only come to the surface after the audience has experienced the story a few times. A great example of this is Ellen Burstyn getting the shock treatment at the end of Requiem for a Dream; it’s a sequence of a events set into motion from the moment she is asked the be on television. It is unpredictable, and yet the story could end no other way. This is an element of narrative that isn’t just confined to art films and serious drama either. Probably the most famous example of all is Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star in his X-Wing; George Lucas lays the foundations of Star Wars so effectively that this is the inevitable conclusion. He also manages to pull off the same trick again in The Empire Strikes Back, (Jedi, not so much.)

This was something that I felt The Dark Knight Rises lacked in comparison to its predecessors.

Bruce Wayne with the league of shadowsLet’s go all the way back to Batman Begins. I remember seeing this film in the cinema and being really impressed; though the series really took off with The Dark Knight, this is still a really well constructed film. The ending, in its most literal interpretation, has Batman save the city by crashing a train that happens to be carrying a doomsday weapon. However, this event is the conclusion to many different narrative threads that have been established from the earliest scenes in the film. Batman Begins ends the only way it could; Bruce Wayne finally surpasses his mentor and saves Gotham on the train that his father built. Throughout the film this is foreshadowed nicely; the train is the film’s focal point, unifying the rich and the poor while travelling through the heart of the city. Which, of course, is where Ra’s al Ghul aims his doomsday device. It takes more than a good ending to make a film, and Batman Begins has some problems with pacing and characterisation along the way, but being so coherently plotted is a major plus for a comic book movie in this day and age.

Nolan would take this to the next level in The Dark Knight, which manages to be inevitable and yet surprising from start to finish. What works in The Dark Knight’s favour is that the film is marketed as a movie about Batman versus the Joker, but in reality the film is about the character arc of Harvey Dent. The film’s inevitable conclusion, as the Joker points out, is not a fist fight between hero and villain, but one of the heroes putting a gun to the head of a child. The scene is tense and shocking, but completely believable because all other exits were blocked. By the end of the film, Dent’s downfall was the only possible outcome.

With The Dark Knight Rises, I didn’t come away with that sense of inevitability. I might in the future; I probably need to see it again, but right now here’s where my head is. The Dark Knight Rises suffers in two areas. Firstly, the idea that eight years has passed since The Dark Knight is a good one, but it creates a lot of gaps that need filling. The first act of the film essentially introduces a lot of new elements to the series that take some time to process. This wouldn’t be too bad, but the main section of the film is huge and a little complex, which means the film feels on slightly shaky foundations from the get go. It never collapses like a lot of films do, but it never feels sturdy enough to carry all the weighty issues it keeps piling on. Secondly, it ends with something of a plot twist. The problem with plot twists is that they need to be surprising, that means they can’t be established too openly or they don’t work.

BIG SPECIFIC SPOILERS AGAIN: So, when Miranda reveals herself to be Talia, it needs to feel to the audience almost as if it came out of nowhere. It’s a massive new element to the narrative that is introduced too late in the film. This is unlike Batman Begins and the Dark Knight where more of the players, and their motivations, are clearly established in the first hour. There are benefits to a film that plays on “surprise,” but the pleasure in watching The Dark Knight came from watching all the pieces slowly fall into place over nearly three hours. The Dark Knight Rises lasts three hours and is a very enjoyable film, but it never quite communicates that feeling of a mess that becomes a shape. Perhaps it wasn’t trying to, it would certainly be in keeping with the theme of anarchy, but I doubt it because when the ending came I got the feeling I was supposed to be thrilled at the joining of the dots. Entertained, yes. Thrilled, no.

So, some of you are probably thinking that The Dark Knight Rises did have that sort of ending? After all, it was forshadowed and hinted at over the course, and maybe you’re right. As I’ve said, I need to see it again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film was trying too hard to close the book on the trilogy that, in the words of Ra’s al Ghul, “it sacrificed sure footing for a killing blow.” This is a series of films about one man’s fight against apathy, and it ends with a giant helicopter carrying a nuclear bomb into the ocean. That Bruce fakes his own death ties up nicely with one narrative thread, but it’s an unsatisfying end to a whole heap of others. Perhaps the problem is that the film indulges in the usual folly of Comic book movies and tries to squeeze in a few too many characters. That Catwoman made it to a Nolan film is nice, but her contribution to the overall narrative is shoehorned it at best.

This all got me thinking about storytelling and, specifically, the kind of storyteller that I want to be. I think “blocking off the exits” is a storytelling concept I’d like to master. I’ve never been a fan of plot twists and surprise reveals, but I relish in a film that shows characters you know and understand, forced into remarkable situations. Stories like these tend to be so satisfying, not only because they are so well constructed, but because they resonate with that part of us which understands how little control we have over our future. I’m certainly not a fatalist, but we are all very aware that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Watching people we understand, forced into situations we don’t, brings out prejudices and empathies we never knew we had. I think that’s what art is all about.

So, what did I like about the film? Blake. His character arc is one of the most interesting in the whole film, and his story ends with inevitability. The end of his story was always to lose his faith in the police, after failing to get those children across the bridge. Not only that, but the inclusion of his character is the bright spot, the hope you can latch on to that was missing from The Dark Knight. It stops the film from descending into an unrelenting tragedy and is, in my opinion, one of the best decisions made in the creation of this film. I found Bane to be totally compelling villain, and I was very impressed with the way they avoided falling into the trap of giving the audience everything they’d asked for since The Dark Knight. That way lies madness. It is the third film in a trilogy, and those are always the hardest to land, but I think it was one of the best I’ve seen.

I look forward to grabbing the blu-ray and watching all three again soon.