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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