Today’s topic is to do with those great moments where something is revealed, and it’s surprising but also satisfying, because you can immediately see that the story “played fair”. This plot twist hasn’t come completely out of the blue, but rather was set up in a way that you noticed, but didn’t quite put together.
(Incidentally, this is #16 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
It’s a tricky line to walk, because you don’t want to “telegraph” the plot point by making it too obvious, but you don’t want it to feel like a “cheat” by having no clues whatsoever as to what was going on. I mean, you can tell effective stories with really obvious foreshadowing, or with complete out-of-left-field plot swerves, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead, including films on my “don’t let yourself get spoiled about this movie” list.
One of the single best reveals of this type that I have ever seen in a movie is from the film Amelie (2001, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet), in a minor moment to do with mysterious photos of a creepy looking man that are found at passport photo booths all around the city. It’s not uncommon with reveals of this sort that we find out that someone who appeared normal is actually someone evil, but in this case the revelation is that someone who appeared sinister is actually quite innocent. We discover that the man is simply a technician (I believe, it’s been a while) who does simple work on the machines, during which they often snap photos of him. It’s such a simple and logical solution to a puzzle that seemed to have no happy answer.
However, I don’t remember how well this information is foreshadowed in the film, which was part of the request. I suppose it is at least by the tone of the movie, which is all about innocence and happiness.
As far as truly epic foreshadowing, my undisputed top pick would be Summer Time Machine Blues (2005, directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro). This is a film in which the entire first 20 minutes or so are one extended sequence of foreshadowing. We see a variety of moments in a single day of the lives of 7 university students during the summer break, but these moments start and stop abruptly, with obvious gaps in the narrative. The day ends with a strange accident involving a camera, a remote control and a bottle of soda, which leads everything into chaos while the main character looks on and speaks out the question on the audience’s mind: “What is going on?”
The answer comes over the rest of the film as the story continues onto the next day, with the characters finding a time machine and deciding to use it to visit the previous day and rescue their remote control from being destroyed. As scene after scene plays out, we get a progressively clearer understanding of just what was going on during that opening sequence. The answers fit this topic perfectly: they are surprising, but completely satisfying.
Another interesting example comes from one of the stranger films I have seen–also Japanese: it’s called Twilight of the Cockroaches (1987, directed by Hiroaki Yoshida). The story of this animation / live action blend is about a colony of cockroaches that live happily and freely in a single man’s apartment. The legend of their society is that the owners of their home used to be a family who were aggressive and unfriendly to the roaches, but that they were driven out by the current tenant, a bachelor named Seito who is considered something a hero. However, when Seito begins a relationship with the woman next door, everything changes. Waking up in the roach-infested home, the woman goes berserk and begins to kill every bug she sees. One of the roaches goes to “discuss” this situation with Seito. Later, we see Seito absent-mindedly throwing a dart.
Well, it turns out that the legend about their society is a complete lie. The truth is that Seito was part of the family that used to live in the home before, but when his wife left him, he fell into a depression that left the roaches free to flourish, unhindered. However, now that he is in a new relationship, he has the energy to once again begin cleaning up his house, which leads to the apocalypse referred to in the title (actually, this probably should have been on my list of great movie apocalypses!) And that roach that went to talk to Seito? He’s later found dead, pinned to the dart board!
In terms of more “mainstream” examples of foreshadowing, it’s hard to look past The Sixth Sense (1999, directed by M. Night Shyamalan). The movie artfully shows it’s main character, Malcolm Crowe, engaging with the world in such that avoids spoiling its big twist that Crowe is in fact the ghost of a dead man who is unaware of his condition. Lots of foreshadowing, with an effective reveal, though responses have famously varied. For many, the big secret is too obvious. For me personally, I guessed it about half way through, but only because I knew that there was a twist of some sort. Otherwise, I think it would have gotten me.
One that did completely get me, though now I kind of wonder how, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, directed by Michel Gondry), which doesn’t reveal at first that at different points in a movie we have seen two different “first meetings” between the main characters of the movie. We know we are seeing something out of order in some fashion, but most of the time we are trying to fit these things together, and we are too distracted by all the other odd imagery to worry about it too much. But toward the end it all comes together, and we realize that this couple have met each other, had several years of relationship, and had that relationship break down to the point where both chose to undergo a procedure that would allow them to remove each other from their memories. And then they met each other again. The reveal is a gradual one, so that some will get it quite quickly, and others not until later. I was one of the later ones, and in fact it would have been later still if my sister-in-law hadn’t figured it out and spoken up while we were watching it. Still, it’s a great example of this, because the foreshadowing isn’t in the form of “clues” cleverly put into the story (like in The Sixth Sense) but rather just in the fact that it’s a complex story being told in a somewhat indirect way.
Another one of my favorites is The Hudsucker Proxy (1994, directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen). In this movie (which I just wrote about in my previous post about recurring visual motifs), small-town simple-minded Norville Barnes arrives in the big city and gets a job in the mailroom of a major company, Hudsucker Industries. He keeps a piece of paper folded up in his pocket of the “big idea” that he hopes will eventually be the key to his business success. The paper, however, is blank, with only a plain circle drawn in the middle. It all seems like nonsense, even with Barnes’ typical comment that he shares with whomever he is showing the drawing to: “You know, for kids.”
Turns out, though, that Norville Barnes does have an idea or two in his noggin, which we see when he is given a chance to turn his vision into reality, and ends up inventing…the hula hoop.
A final example that I want to spend some time on is The Player (1992, directed by Robert Altman). In this satire of Hollywood film making, Richard E. Grant is one of the supporting characters, an untested screenwriter named Tom Oakley, who is determined that his hot-property script, about a woman who dies unjustly on death row, should be made into a film that is “pure” – no big stars, no happy endings, just absolute reality. Of course, everyone else in the Hollywood filmmaking machine disagrees – producers, studio executives, even his own agent. They want a big name actress like Julia Roberts to star in the movie, they want to turn it into a romantic action film, and so on. But Oakley is determined, he will not compromise his vision. In a world committed to the bottom line, he seems a loan hold-out for artistic integrity.
But then the ending of The Player shows us the final version of Habeus Corpus. The execution is taking place, being watched by a crowd that includes Peter Falk and Susan Sarandon. Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian, anyone?) is there as the priest. And the intended victim, of course, is Julia Roberts. She’s led into the gas chamber, pellets are dropped, and she collapses to the ground, a phone call announcing her reprieve coming just moments too late. But then a commanding voice pushes everyone out of the way, and none other than Bruce Willis comes charging in, grabbing a shotgun and blowing a hole in the gas chamber window, rescuing Roberts at the last moment.
Tom Oakley is a purposely ridiculous character, and his movie sounds ridiculous, but you hope against hope throughout The Player that some form of the decency of humanity will prevail. Sadly, it turns out that the foreshadowing was just as obvious as it seemed, and the final state of Oakley’s principles reflect everything else that has been going on in the movie.
When he’s confronted about his commitment to reality, Oakley responds, “What about the way the old ending tested in Canoga Park? Everybody hated it. We reshot it, now everybody loves it. That’s reality.”
So that’s seven examples, here are six more quick ones to make it an even, um, thirteen:
• The Palm Beach Story (1942, directed by Preston Sturges) – A really odd, madcap opening title sequence provides odd hints about the marriage of the main characters, Gerry & Tom Jeffers. Not until the final moments of the film does it fill in the blanks revealing that both Gerry and Tom have identical twins, which is part of the (largely untold) story of how they got together. As Tom says, “Of course that’s another plot entirely.”
• The Matrix (1999, directed by the Wachowski Brothers) – I remember seeing Trinity running around the side of walls and buildings at the beginning of the movie and thinking, “That looks like she’s in a video game.” Turns out I was basically right! You eventually discover that the world as everyone knows it is actually a massive computer simulation.
• O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000, directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) – Throughout the movie there are references to a dam that’s going to be destroyed – it’s even part of the excuse that one of the characters uses to convince his fellow prison inmates that it is urgent for them to escape, as the resulting flood will make a treasure he previously buried unreachable. Turns out the treasure is a big fraud, and our three escapees are eventually pardoned. But that doesn’t help them when they fall victim to a cruel lawmen, who decides to summarily execute them for their crimes. So much has happened in the movie by this point that we’ve forgotten about the coming flood, but the film makers haven’t, as that flood comes descending upon them at all at that moment, ironically saving our heroes from death.
• The Shawshank Redemption (1994, directed by Frank Darabont) – In this second movie starring Tim Robbins to be released in 1994 whose title includes a funny name to be found on this list, we see lots of images of a prisoner putting up different posters over the years in his cell–all on the same spot. The posters are all of Hollywood starlets, but after years of imprisonment, it turns out that their real purpose was to hide the escape tunnel he’d been digging all this time. The reveal is a good one and makes sense considering various moments that we’d had with the character up until that point.
• The Usual Suspects (1995, directed by Bryan Singer) – One of the more famous examples of a twist ending, we discover in the movie’s final moments that Verbal Kint’s detached manner is not an indication mental deficiency, but rather of a highly intelligent mind racing to figure out a way to fool the police officer who is interrogating him that he was actually the dupe of another, smarter criminal. It’s the sort of reveal that makes you feel like you should have seen it coming, but somehow you didn’t, which true of all of the best of these sorts of things.
• Coherence (2013, directed by James Ward Byrkit) – Early on in this odd little low-budget thriller, there is a reference to a historical incident where after the night where a comet passed close to the earth, a woman claimed that her husband was not her real husband, since she had killed her real husband, and this wasn’t him. It’s an odd detail which serves to established the creepy atmosphere, but it also turns out to be absolutely descriptive of what is going on, which is…no, no, I can’t say. I know I said spoilers, but not for this movie. Just go and watch it.