Spoiler alert: This article is filled with spoilers and might ruin the endings of films you have yet to watch, so proceed with caution.
People love watching films, and for good reason. Movies allow us to escape our own realities and our day-to-day problems, as we turn our focus to other people’s stories. For a couple of hours, we can sit in the theater or at home and not have a care in the world, besides the adventures of the characters on our screens.
Getting sucked into a whole other reality is fun, but it’s even more fun when movies manage to outsmart us as viewers. When a film has a huge twist or a surprising ending, it can change the whole premise of the movie. This makes us stop in our tracks and rethink the entirety of what we just saw. Sometimes we even need to watch it again just to figure out what happened! And we love these movies, because as viewers we like to be challenged.
Some of the best films in history had surprising twists to the plot, and they’re still talked about to this very day. How many references have you heard of Darth Vader telling Luke he’s actually his father? Or about that time we found out Bruce Willis was a ghost at the end of The Sixth Sense?
These films made us stare blankly at the screen and ask ourselves what just happened, and we love them for it. Keep reading to see which brilliant plot twists kept us on our toes and made our jaws drop.
Gone Girl (2014)
The mystery drama, based on a Gillian Flynn novel, begin with the search for Amy (Rosamund Pike) who’s gone missing. Like in many of these cases, the suspicion falls on her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). Viewers were so busy trying to figure out whether he had killed his wife or not, they were completely blindsided by the big plot twist coming. We were left in awe to find out Amy had actually staged her own kidnapping to take revenge on her husband. And not only that, but she then came back and inseminated herself with his baby so Nick will be forced to stay with her. That’s cold – and also very unexpected.
Secret Window (2004)
Just like any other Stephen King story, this film is full of surprises. The thriller, starring Johnny Depp, Maria Bello, and John Turturro, tells the story of Mort Rainey. Mort is a writer, who gets harassed by an unknown man who accuses him of plagiarism, claiming he stole his story and published it. Mort’s sanity is called to question throughout the movie, but since we’re busy trying to figure out whether or not he committed plagiarism, we aren’t paying attention to what’s really going on – Mort is revealed to be dissociative, so his harasser is actually him. He ends up getting revenge on his unfaithful ex-wife, just like the protagonist of the story he wrote did.
Primal Fear (1996)
When a timid altar boy named Aaron is accused of killing a priest, it seems almost unbelievable that he could’ve done it. Edward Norton delivers an incredible performance as the young man, and throughout the film we sympathize with Aaron for being wrongfully accused. But as this story unfolds, we end up having to pick up our jaws from the floor. Aaron was just a brilliant sociopath, who managed to fool both his lawyer (played by Richard Gere), as well as the unsuspecting viewers.
Se7en is an incredibly dark and twisty crime thriller, following two police detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) as they try to find a serial killer. This killer chooses victims who represent the seven deadly sins in his eyes. But it’s those last victims that really threw us off. The killer turns himself in and offers to lead them to the final two victims. When the first victim turns out to be the detective’s pregnant wife, he offers himself as the last victim, to represent the detective’s wrath – and he complies.
Return to Sender (2015)
Return to Sender is another thriller starring Rosamund Pike, which had a big plot twist we didn’t see coming. After being intimately assaulted on a blind date, a nurse named Miranda begins visiting her attacker in prison and getting close to him. While we suspect she may have an ulterior motive here, besides getting closure, the ending is far more shocking than we could imagine. She exacts such cruel revenge on her attacker, it quickly turns from cathartic to horrifying!
Fight Club (1999)
Edward Norton stars in this iconic film, about an insomniac man, who’s tired of his conventional and tiresome routine, and addicted to support groups. He breaks free of the conventional when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an anti-establishment rebel, and the two start a fight club together, becoming legendary leaders of an underground anarchistic organization. We never saw it coming when he found out Edward Norton’s dissociative character is actually also Tyler Durden. We had to watch the entire movie again just to understand that ending!
The Sixth Sense (1999)
This M. Night Shyamalan film is practically famous for its shocking ending. The Sixth Sense is about a little boy (Haley Joel Osment) who tells his psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), that he can communicate with ghosts. The line “I see dead people” has become iconic, and so has this movie’s plot twist. No one quite expected to find out that Crowe has actually been dead the whole entire movie. And for the year 1999, it was a pretty sophisticated twist.
The Boy (2016)
The Boy is a horror thriller about a young woman who arrives at a secluded mansion, thinking she’s hired to take care of a little boy. Once she arrives, she realizes she’s been hired to take care of a creepy doll, and as you may have guessed, strange things happen while she’s alone in the house. But what seems to be just another doll-comes-to-life movie, turns out to be much better when it’s revealed there’s a real-life person in the walls of the house, with very sinister intentions.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The story of The Usual Suspects is shown by flashbacks, as told to the police by a man named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who suffers from cerebral palsy. Kint was part of a group of criminals who worked for a never-seen crime lord called Keyser Söze, until one heist went wrong and only Kint survived. His interrogator leads him to believe one of his comrades was Keyser Söze, but when Kint walks out, we discover the brilliant twist – he was Keyser Söze all along, only pretending to be disabled.
Based on the Ian McEwan novel, Atonement tells the story of a young girl of a rich family, Briony, who develops a crush on the family’s housekeeper. After catching him in the act with her sister Cecilia, she falsely accuses him of assault and sends him to prison, from which he gets sent to the army. While we’re led to believe Robbie and Cecilia were later reunited, we find out it never really happened. Both Robbie and Cecilia actually die during the war, and never get to be together.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
In the first Star Wars sequel (episode V), The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker learns to become a Jedi Knight. Up until then, he knows that the villain Sith Lord named Darth Vader is the one who killed his father, but once he takes him up in a battle, he finds out a whole other truth – one that shook Star Wars fans everywhere. In a line that’s often misquoted, the Sith Lord tells Luke, “No, I am your father” (as opposed to “Luke, I am your father”).
The Game (1997)
It all begins when financier Nicholas Van Orton Michael (Douglas) receives a birthday gift from his brother, Conrad (Sean Penn). He hands him a ticket to a game, a realistic experience that’s meant to change his life. But this game seems far too realistic. As he loses his money and believe he’s hunted by the company that runs the game, he accidentally shoots his brother and then throws himself off the roof. But it turns out, the whole game is… well, a game, and the two are alive and well.
The protagonist of the film, Leonard, suffers from the loss of his short-term memory, after a home invasion that left him a widow. Trying to find his wife’s killers, he leaves himself notes, tattoos, and photos, never trusting anyone but those. But as it turns out, his wife never died in that home invasion – only later when he accidentally killed her. Ever since, he’s been looking for the perpetrator and starts over every time he finds out the terrible truth.
The Others (2001)
This Nicole Kidman starring thriller tells the story of a mother of two, living with her two photosensitive children and a few servants in a secluded, large house. Soon she starts noticing strange things, and comes to believe there are ghosts haunting the house. But eventually – to our great surprise – she learns her children and herself are actually the ghosts, while “the others” are real people. After losing her husband in the war, she lost her mind and took the lives of her own children – and then herself.
Shutter Island (2010)
How does a woman escape a locked room inside an insane asylum? That’s exactly what U.S. Marshal Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner (played by Mark Ruffalo), come to investigate. But as the plot unfolds, we end up discovering Teddy is actually a patient in the asylum. He’s regressed to a state of having delusions upon killing his manic depressive wife, after she had drowned their children. The staff was playing along the whole time, hoping it’ll help him finally get over his delusional state.
Ex Machina (2014)
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for an internet firm, who wins an opportunity to travel to the private estate of his company’s rich and brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s been chosen to perform a Turing test on a beautiful humanoid robot Nathan designed, called Ava (Alicia Vikander). As Caleb converses with her, it seems that the two are falling in love, but there’s a twist. Not only does Ava pass the Turing test, she turns out to be quite deceptive, and ends up tricking them both to leave.
Now You See Me (2013)
Now You See Me is a fun crime thriller about four magicians, who are recruited by a mysterious organization called The Eye, to commit crimes using magic. They masterly pull off these altruistic, Robin Hood style crimes on their spectacular magic shows, while being pursued by FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). But in the end, when they come to meet their mysterious recruiter, they find out he’s none other than the FBI agent who’s been after them all along.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
This film, adapted from the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, revolves around David Aames (Tom Cruise), a rich playboy who meets the woman of his dreams, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), at a party. Thanks to a jealous ex-girlfriend, he goes through a terrible accident that disfigures his face, and is forced to wear a mask. From that moment on, we’re led to believe David and Sofia get back together, and that he kills her in a psychotic episode – but the truth is was actually put in a lucid dream state.
Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is the award-winning psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman, about a timid and perfectionist ballet dancer named Nina, who lands the lead role in Swan Lake. For that, she has to perfectly play both the pure white swan, and the seductive black swan. At the end of the film, we’re led to believe Nina had stabbed her ballet competitor Lily, it turns out she actually stabbed herself. After delivering a flawless performance of the black swan, while wounded, she passes away happy of accomplishing what she had long wanted.
Terminal is a brilliant noir thriller starring Margot Robbie and Simon Pegg. This twist-filled movie seems like it’s telling one story, of a diner waitress and the different characters she comes to interact with – a teacher with a terminal illness, two hit-men, and a train station janitor. But we come to realize it’s much more than that, when it turns out to be a tale of perfectly executed revenge of the waitress (and her twin sister!) on her past abusers.