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'Shutter Island': Can a surprise ending eventually hurt a film at the box office?

February 23, 2010 |  6:02 pm

The big reveal has been a staple of the Hollywood film pretty much since Charlton Heston found out, to his great shock, that the apes lived on his own planet.

Sh When the maneuver is handled well, the surprise finale can provide more viewing pleasure than almost any other device. But it's also trickier to pull off than the Double McTwist 1260. Offer too many clues along the way and it's hardly a surprise; point the arrows too far in the other direction and the audience will feel cheated.

M. Night Shyamalan executed the reveal to perfection in "The Sixth Sense" -- in which the conclusion was both an utter surprise and impeccably logical -- before botching it with the left-field contrivances of "Unbreakable." Alejandro Amenabar offered a similar, and similarly pleasurable, twist to "Sixth Sense" in "The Others" (a particular feat since it came just two years after the M. Night film came out, when the audience was primed for a maybe-they're-dead-the-whole time surprise). And the list continues: "The Usual Suspects," "No Way Out," "The Crying Game" (and, as horror fans may remember, the gender-bending twist of kitsch-horror classic "Sleepaway Camp" -- see our poll below to weigh in with your favorite).

Martin Scorsese tries a version of the trick in his just-released "Shutter Island" (warning: major spoiler alert ahead -- skip to the next paragraph if you've yet to see the film). In the Paramount release, Leonardo DiCaprio, having spent hour after furious hour as a detective investigating a crime at an insane asylum, is revealed (probably) to be a patient suffering delusions who's simply engaging in a role-playing game initiated by his doctors. While that twist has the effect of making too many of the scenes that preceded it feel irrelevant, it certainly packs a wallop. And it's likely to make you both talk about the ending and revisit many of the earlier scenes, as all good whoppers aim to do.

The question is how much a reveal can help or hurt a film after word begins to spread. On the one hand, a twist ending can turn a movie into a conversation piece since it is, quite literally, the last thing seen before leaving the theater. And because it often makes us go back and reinterpret the entire film, it can keep the movie both in our individual and public consciousness long after the credits end. In other words, it becomes water-cooler conversation. And in box-office terms, it gives a movie legs.

Paramount executives believe that that's pretty much what will happen here. "There's nothing that keeps box office going like people's desire not to hear how a movie ends before they see it," says Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "That sense of 'Don't tell me; I haven't seen it' has historically added more interest."

Cryinggame Fair enough -- if you can avoid finding out. But there's undoubtedly a risk for a movie that relies on a surprise ending these days.

As recently as a few years ago you could get away with much of the moviegoing population not hearing about a surprise ending for a long time. Several months after "The Crying Game" came out, Harvey Weinstein was still begging journalists not to give away the ending. It's hard to see him making that request today, or hoping that it would have any effect. Twitter, fan sites and every other medium known to man are a minefield of information; avoiding a big reveal can feel like Tivo-ing a sports game and trying not to finding out the result until days later. And once you know how a film ends, do you still want to see it?

"Shutter Island" had a big opening last weekend. Now that everyone's talking about the ending, we'll see if audiences continue to flock to it -- or feel like they already know too much.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in "Shutter Island." Credit: Paramount Pictures

Comments () | Archives (14)

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Why doesn't the poll include "The Sixth Sense"? I mean the author of the article already stated its surprise ending was executed to perfection, so how is it that in a poll for best surprise movie ever, this title is left off?

One time I was talking to a director about twist endings, and he had a good point that audiences are good about keeping the secret, including The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense as examples. If you play fair with audiences, they won't feel burned if you pull the rug out from under them and will definitely keep the secret. It's kind of an unspoken trust between the filmmaker and the audience, and many times people don't want to know before they see it. Before the last Harry Potter came out, a friend of mine said to me, "If anyone tells me the end of Harry Potter, I'm gonna punch 'em in the face."

Scorcese cheats the audience with the woman in the cave scene. It makes no sense given the ending. It's only purpose is to screw with the audience.

Angel Heart.

I haven't seen the movie (yet) but I read the book. Very creepy but astoundingly punchy with the reveal.

"City of Angels," starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage, wasd destroyed by it's horrible ending.

I have not seen the movie, but I was thinking to myself before I read this article, well..if there's a twist, it would have to have something to do with the fact that it takes place in a mental institution, and I pretty much figured it out before reading the "spoiler alert". Not sure how the reveal is done, but it doesn't sound like a huge leap. Another movie with a twist not mentioned in the article is "Identity" which also has to do with a mental patient and I thought the reveal was excellent and not at all obvious before hand. Other movies with good "reveals" that change everything once the audience is in the know are
"Matchstick Men", "Jacobs Ladder", and a french film "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not". All are worth renting.

The best twist I have ever seen is in PRIMER. Not only is the ending a surprise, but the entire movie is a puzzle you can keep going back to.


The first Saw film has the best post-Sixth Sense ending.

Agree with John 100%. Cave scene makes no sense at all!

THE CRYING GAME's twist does not occur at the end....or anywhere near it. It's in the middle of the movie. Which is what makes it brilliant. It actually deals with the emotional fallout of the discovery rather than shocks you and stops.

I agree that the movie is too long. Of course, cutting it means cutting a lot of very interesting and colorful dream sequences and special effects scenes that I'm sure Scorsese sweated over. I also think that the movie is emotionally flat. DiCaprio, who was very good in Revolutionary Road, can act. But, his humorless marshal in this movie makes it hard to like him. However, let me get to the ending. I totally disagree with anyone who says the ending is not thought-provoking. Since I'm talking to people who have seen it, I will point out that by the end, the marshal is faced with a choice: to live as a "monster" -- the man who killed his wife -- or to "die" as a good man (the heroic marshal investigating a conspiracy that he now knows is a delusion). All he had to say to avoid the labotomy needle was "No, there is no conspiracy." But he wouldn't do that. He walked off at the end to be labotomized as Teddy, the marshal, not as his "real" self who shot his wife. It reminded me of the ending of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It wasn't as sad as that ending, but it definitely saved the film for me.

Haunted WWII vet, trying to solve a case in the 1950s. After a series of visually striking dead ends he finds out he is looking for himself. Sound like a reworking of 1987's Angel Heart? Check out the original, way better.


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