On the surface, you’d think that this would be a similar list to the one a few days ago, about epic examples of foreshadowing and reveals in the film. But glancing over what I wrote there, I find that not really any of those moments could be called moments of “Shocking Surprise” (maybe The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense). So we’re talking about moments here that weren’t really foreshadowed, at least not in the obvious way. They’re strength isn’t in the film’s ability to make us feel like it prepared us for the moment, but rather in how how much they take us off guard. It’s harder, I imagine, than it looks to pull off while still allowing the film to retain some cohesion.
(Incidentally, this is #20 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.)
One thing to point out here is that if you search “shocking movie moments” online you are likely to get a lists built out of stuff that was horrifying, grotesque, or even purposely offensive to the audience. When I say “shocking”, I’m just talking about an extreme level of un-expectation. Naturally, spoilers are ahead.
Dudley shoots Jack
in LA Confidential (1997 – directed by Curtis Hanson)
The thing that makes this twist work, midway through LA Confidential, is the timing. Certainly by now, the idea that the protagonist’s ally is secretly their enemy is nothing new. And it’s not even really shocking anymore when the character who is played by the biggest movie star, who is ostensibly the lead actor of the movie, gets killed off before the end. So, when Sgt. Jack Vincennes, goes to confide in police Captain Dudley Simpson about the indications of corruption he’s discovered within the department, we all know that Simpson is possibly in on it, and that Jack is in trouble. That’s not the shock. But what takes our breath away is that it’s just as these thoughts are formulating in the audience (or in me, anyway) that Dudley suddenly spins around from his tea kettle and shoots Jack in the heart. A minute later, a second later, and it would have been obvious, but right then we can’t believe that Kevin Spacey is being killed off before our eyes. And as Jack’s life slips away before us, he does one last thing, an awesome small but final act which brilliantly turns defeat into a form of victory, and makes the whole sequence one of my favorites in all of film.
I’ll get into it if the topic of “Great moments where victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat” ever comes up in this series.
Anne Pope gets taken out of the picture by “them”
in The Forgotten (2004 – directed by Joseph Ruben)
This moment from The Forgotten is actually the third shocking moment to come up, but it’s the most dramatic. The first is simply a car crashing abruptly into another. The second involves something insane happening–someone being ripped out of a building through the ceiling–but it’s in a darkened room so the exact nature of it all is a bit confusing. But the third one comes when the level-headed Detective Anne Pope comes to realize that protagonist Telly Paretta isn’t insane, that she’s right about some strange conspiracy going on. She vows to help, but this awareness and compassion are her undoing, when Tully’s enemies, all-powerful but hidden aliens, decide to remove Anne from the equation and pull her abruptly into the sky as well. But with Anne, it’s outdoors in the broad daylight, so we see the bizarre event with absolute clarity. Even though you know something terrible is about to happen, it’s still quite shocking when you actually witness it.
The Joker does a trick
in The Dark Knight (2008 – directed by Christopher Nolan)
The opening of The Dark Knight establishes Heath’s Ledger Joker as a master & murderous strategist, but it’s this scene, which comes a bit later, which is far more memorable. The Joker breaks into a room full of mobsters and disarmingly asks them if they want to see him make a pencil disappear. He puts a pencil upright on a table, and then makes it vanish in about the most gruesome way possible. It’s completely non-gory, being largely kept off-screen, but so viciously random that it succeeds in putting the audience on edge with the character for the rest of the movie.
Danson and Highsmith aim for the bushes
in The Other Guys (2010 – directed by Adam McKay)
The Other Guys is about two cops played by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who live in the shadow of the department’s “supercops” – Danson & Highsmith – who play by their own rules and get the job done. Relatively early in the film, after some intense police action, Danson & Highsmith find themselves atop a building, just moments too late to stop some criminals from escaping via a zip line. With the zip line cut, the hero cops decide they aren’t letting the baddies get away, and opt to jump off the building. “Aim for the bushes,” says Danson. They do, but they miss. And it doesn’t matter, because the building is 20 storeys tall anyway. Both people are obviously killed, and the movie suddenly says goodbye to super-stars Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a great moment, and a genuinely startling one.
Roger walks off the screen
in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988 – directed by Robert Zemekis)
I can’t remember if I saw this one “clean” or not (eg. without knowing about it beforehand), but it’s a brilliant moment that absolutely sets up the world of the film. Who Framed Roger Rabbit begins with an animated sequence of extreme mayhem – like a Daffy Duck cartoon on drugs – where the titular rabbit finds himself smashed, smooshed, pounded, and basically physically abused in his attempts to keep a baby from hurting himself in the kitchen. It’s a sequence of rampant chaos that abruptly comes to an end when the director calls “Cut!” Turns out it’s actually an animated cartoon in production. Roger and his animated co-star then proceed to walk out of the animated kitchen and onto a live-action movie set, where they interact with live action directors, crew members, production assistants and the like. Meanwhile, the audience’s collective jaws drop to the ground, and the film continues to tell the story of what it’s like to be an animated character in the world of golden-age Hollywood. This wasn’t the first time that live action and animation were put into the same frame, but it was at that point the most technically advanced, and to this day the cleverest.
Nicholas van Orton kills his brother
in The Game (1997 – directed by David Fincher)
All the way through The Game, the viewer is being challenged: is what’s happening to Michael Douglas’ Nicholas van Orton for real? Or is it part of the immersive and interactive game that he has actually hired a company to create for him. When his life is threatened multiple times, and his fortune stolen, he becomes convinced that things are for real. Arming himself and finding his way back to the “game” headquarters, he confronts his tormentors on a rooftop. A crowd pounds on a locked door, trying to get onto the roof, as van Orton prepares to shoot whoever comes through. When they see that he has brought a real gun with him from his home, the various people he is confronting begin to plead with him–he’s wrong, it really is all a game, and it’s his own brother (Sean Penn) who is about to come through the door with all his friends to celebrate the game’s conclusion. But van Orton won’t listen, and when the door opens he fires…right into the chest of his brother, Conrad, holding a champagne bottle. As Conrad collapses to the ground and the various “actors” who helped to create the game panic about what to do, van Orton turns into the despair and throw himself off the roof. And the audience sits, astounded that the movie could have such a bleak ending.
Of course, the movie isn’t over, and it may also belong on a hypothetical future list of movies featuring amazing victories snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Dave plays a pinball game
in Roadside Prophets (1992 – directed by Abbe Wool)
Roadside Prophets is an oddball of a film about a biker named Joe who meets a dude named Dave. The two talk for a bit, and Dave tells Joe about some cool stuff. Hanging out at a roadhouse, Dave decides to play a game of pinball, but then in one of the strangest and most abrupt death scenes I’ve ever seen, he’s electrocuted in a freak accident. His unexpected demise catalyzes Joe into fulfilling Dave’s last wish, which becomes the framework for the unusual, episodic film that follows, which includes brief encounters with strange characters played by the likes of David Carradine, John Cusack, Arlo Guthrie and more. I don’t remember much about the movie, but I remember Dave’s death.
Considered by Rejected: A lot of shocking moments that simply weren’t shocking for me because I knew about them beforehand, or was able to guess them: the death of Bambi’s mother in Bambi, the revelation about various characters in A Beautiful Mind, various shark appearances in Jaws, the death of Drew Barrymore from Scream (or similar scenes with less well known performers from whatever horror movies I’ve had the misfortune of seeing), the death of every authority figure in any Alien movie, or the “big twists” of The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. Also, rejected for not being quite shocking enough were the death of Marie in The Bourne Supremacy, the revelation of who Emma Stone’s character was in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the truth about Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable, even though none of them were things I expected. Also, I nearly included Angels and Demons for the fact that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks could make such an achingly bad movie, and also Dumb and Dumber for the bit where the highway patrolman drinks the beer bottle full of urine.
Full Disclosure: I have not, nor am I likely to, ever seen Psycho, but if I had I assume it’d fit in the paragraph above about twists that I was aware of. Also, The Fight Club. Or a lot of other more gruesome or brutal movies.