Ever since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have been trying to blow our minds with crazy plot twists and surprise endings. These shocking scenes are hard to get right, and if they don’t stick the they can completely ruin a film (we’re looking at you, Spectre). But if they’re done well, they can take a movie from "good" to "legendary." Plot twists can shed new light on everything that came before, send a movie in a new direction, and make moviegoers gasp in astonishment.
Maybe that mild-mannered dude in the corner was really the big bad guy. Perhaps the hero was dead the whole time. Or maybe everything we’ve seen is somebody’s hallucination. Whatever the reveal, these memorable moments catch us off guard and leave us talking for years to come. From time-traveling aliens to disappearing devils, these are the greatest movie plot twists of all-time. As you can probably guess from the title, everything here is a major spoiler.
With few exceptions, movies are told in chronological order. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. But Arrival is unmoored by time, much like its protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). In the movie’s opening, we watch Louise lose her beloved daughter to disease. Naturally, we assume this is happening early in her life, before the renowned linguist is asked by the military to communicate with the heptapods — mysterious aliens who’ve landed on Earth. Her job is to translate their complex language so humans can talk with these otherworldly visitors.
But as she delves deeper into their circular alphabet, the heptapod language changes her perspective of time, literally allowing her to experience the past, present, and future at once. And as we soon discover, Louise actually hasn’t had her child yet. Those flashbacks are visions of what’s to come, courtesy of the alien language. Louise now exists outside of time, or more accurately, throughout every moment all at once. As a result, Louise’s perspective on concepts like love are radically altered by the heptapods’ gift. Sure, she now knows that heartbreak is coming, but she heads into the future anyway, because she knows there’s a lot of joy waiting there too. It’s maybe the most emotional twist in all of science fiction, and one that will leave you both thinking and wiping away a few tears.
A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind finds an Oscar-nominated Russell Crowe playing John Nash, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who lived a rather unusual life. Early in the film, Nash is drafted by Department of Defense Agent William Parcher (Ed Harris) to analyze magazines and newspapers for hidden Russian codes. It’s an intense assignment, but when he’s not engaged in high-stakes espionage, John seems to lead a normal life. He’s got a supportive wife (Jennifer Connelly) and an incredibly close BFF, Charles (Paul Bettany). And whenever Charles shows up to visit, he brings along his adorable niece, Marcee (Vivien Cardone), who always brings a smile to John’s face.
Unfortunately, of the four most important people in John’s life, only one of them is actually a living, breathing human being. As it turns out, John is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and the incredibly creepy Parcher is just a hallucination. There are no secret messages, no Soviet spies lurking in the shadows, and no radium diode implanted in his arm (something John learns the hard way). But the real blow is that Charles and Marcee are also products of his imagination. All those memories of Charles and John palling around Princeton? None of it’s real. And unless you know the true story — or noticed those unflappable birds — the twist comes as a devastating surprise and sends this Oscar-winning film in a disturbing direction.
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal is one of the wackiest movies ever made. This fantasy flick finds the alcoholic Gloria (Anne Hathaway) recently single and moving back to her hometown. But as the self-destructive drunk soon discovers, her problems are a lot bigger than just the bottle. Gloria is psychically linked to a Godzilla-like monster, and whenever she stumbles across a particular playground at a specific time, the kaiju mysteriously appears in the city of Seoul.
Fortunately, Gloria has a good friend to help with all the booze and oversized beasts. He’s a nice guy named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and the two were childhood friends. The moment Gloria comes back to town, Oscar does everything he can to help her feel at home. He gives her furniture for her empty house, builds her up with all sorts of compliments, and even gives her a job working at his bar (admittedly, not the best place for an alcoholic to work).
But Gloria soon realizes there’s a lot of darkness behind Oscar’s winning smile. For one, he’s also linked to a giant creature that appears in the South Korean capital. And while he pretends to be a good dude, we quickly learn he’s a violent, manipulative control freak, more monstrous than any kaiju. And when Gloria tries to get away from this creep, he threatens to murder countless Koreans with his robot avatar. This turn from best friend to abuser is pretty shocking, largely thanks to Sudeikis’ affable persona… although there are probably a lot of women who saw this coming, well aware that the real world is full of Oscars.
One of the most unsettling sci-fi movies ever made, Ex Machina finds mild-mannered computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning the contest of a lifetime. He’s been picked to spend a week conducting a bizarre Turing test with his billionaire boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). A brilliant inventor, Nathan has created an artificial intelligence named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants to see if his creation can convince Caleb she’s a sentient being.
Caleb quickly falls under Ava’s spell, and soon, the programmer plans to free his crush from Nathan’s grasp. After all, the tech tycoon has her locked up and plans on essentially killing her. Plus, Nathan’s interest in Ava isn’t just scientific — this guy has a thing for building female robots that he can imprison and control. Using his own tech savvy, Caleb sets Ava free, and seconds later, the liberated android slices through Nathan like he’s a pat of hot butter.
If this were your typical sci-fi flick, Ava and Caleb would probably run off together, but in Ex Machina, things take a hard left turn when Ava locks up Caleb and leaves the screaming programmer to die of starvation. It’s a gut punch of an ending, especially since Caleb seems so sympathetic. But really, he only decided to help Ava once he found her worthy of his affections, and chances are good he would’ve jeopardized her shot at freedom in the outside world. So when it comes to dealing with a "nicer" version of Nathan or leaving the dude to die, well, there’s nothing stopping Ava from finally getting her freedom.
It’s no surprise that the Armitage family are the bad guys in Get Out. When Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) and her husband (Bradley Whitford) first meet our everyman hero, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), they’re way too friendly and far too polite. That’s never a good sign in a horror movie. Then there’s their super creepy son, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who’s oozing with menace whenever he comes slinking onto the screen. But with all these racists surrounding poor Chris, his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) seems totally on his side. She stuck by Chris when he was getting harassed by a cop, so she’ll definitely help him escape her family’s clutches… right?
Unfortunately, Rose is probably the most evil Armitage of the bunch. After finding a box of incriminating photos, Chris starts to realize he’s the victim of some really cruel catfishing. But even after he decides to run, he desperately hopes Rose is still on his side when the Armitage clan blocks his path. He begs Rose to give him the car keys so he can escape, and for a moment, it seems like she might pick her boyfriend over her own flesh and blood… but then she just smiles and says no way.
The casting here is what makes the twist work so well. According to both Allison Williams and director Jordan Peele, Williams was cast because audiences would associate her with far less evil roles, like Peter Pan or Marnie Michaels from Girls. And she does indeed seem pretty harmless, right until she starts drinking milk like a Droog and blasting at her boyfriend with a rifle.
Messing around with creepy European cults is never a good idea. That’s a lesson our murderous antihero learns the hard way in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. This disturbing horror film finds Neil Maskell as Jay, a family man whose marriage has fallen on hard times. And, oh yeah, he makes his living as a contract killer. You’ve got to put food on the table somehow, and Jay stands to make a tidy paycheck by killing three people for a mysterious client. But the targets don’t behave like typical victims. Instead of begging for their lives, they actually thank Jay when he shows up for some hammer time.
Things go from eerie to straight-up hellish when Jay tries to kill his third victim. Instead of finding his target, he stumbles into a cult right out of The Wicker Man. This whole assassination scheme was part of an elaborate occult ritual, and it comes to a bloody end when the pagans capture Jay, put a mask over his face, and force him to fight a cloaked hunchback. The assassin makes short work of his deformed foe, but after turning this guy into a shish kebab, Jay discovers a horrific truth — the hunchback is really his wife and son, kidnapped by the cult and tied together, with his son on his wife’s back. Jay’s just murdered his own family, much to the delight of the deranged cult, capping off a ghastly film with a truly gruesome ending.
On its surface, Lone Star is a dust-bitten mystery set in a small Texas town. The skeleton of a corrupt sheriff is found out in the desert, and everybody wonders if his deputy put a bullet in his brain. But the movie also works as an exploration of U.S. history, an analysis of American race-relations, and a look at multi-generational family conflicts.
It also has a whole lot of incest.
Okay, we’re not talking Game of Thrones levels of incest, but it’s a lot for a film starring Matthew McConaughey. The Lone Star star from the Lone Star State plays Sheriff Buddy Deeds, a larger-than-life lawman who disapproves of his son’s love life. His boy, Sam, is crushing hard on a girl named Pilar, but Buddy stops their relationship before it gets off first base. Years later, after Buddy’s death, grown-up Sam (Chris Cooper) and Pilar (Elizabeth Pena) finally hook up, but the two soon discover why Buddy was dead-set on keeping them apart. As it turns out, Buddy had an affair with Pilar’s mom… so yeah, Pilar is Sam’s half-sister. But despite the fact that they’re related, Sam and Pilar decide to stay together. Pilar can’t have any kids, so there’s no worries there, and while it’s obviously a controversial decision, the movie also kind of leaves you rooting for their twisted romance.
Bong Joon-ho’s Mother has a pretty standard plot for a murder mystery. A mentally challenged young man (Won Bin) is accused of murdering a teenage girl. The police don’t have any solid evidence against him, but they need to make an arrest, so they toss the handicapped man in jail and trick him into confessing. Needless to say, his devoted mother (Kim Hye-ja) knows her son is innocent, and she goes from a mild-mannered widow to South Korea’s Sherlock Holmes, chasing down leads, interrogating suspects, and putting together a case to free her son from jail. She even discovers a possible scheme involving blackmail and a mysterious old man.
Now, in your typical murder mystery, the mom would discover the killer’s true identity and clear her kid’s name. However, Mother subverts all those expectations when the titular mom makes a simple but shocking discovery: her son really did it. Yeah, he’s a sweet kid, and yes, he’s mentally handicapped, but that didn’t stop him from caving in a girl’s head. It’s a smart little twist that gets even twistier when the mom murders an eyewitness. Mother spins every thriller trope on its head, but it also goes to show that nobody loves you like your mother.
Every slasher villain has their own special skill. Freddy Krueger can control your dreams. Jason Voorhees can take anything you throw his way and just keeps on coming. And then there’s Ghostface, who’s got the uncanny ability to pop up anywhere at a moment’s notice. When the masked killer first arrives in the opening scene of Scream — terrorizing poor Drew Barrymore — he seems to be lurking around every single corner. There’s no way anyone can move this quickly, but as victim after victim learns, there’s no getting away from Ghostface. This dude is everywhere.
In the big climax of Wes Craven’s horror classic, we discover the secret behind Ghostface’s teleporting powers. Final girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is running for her life. The masked murderer has shown up at a high school party, and he’s slicing people left and right. Sidney has no clue who’s under the mask, and the movie has offered us a whole bunch of possibilities. Ghostface could be boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), weirdo Randy (Jamie Kennedy), goofball Stu (Matthew Lillard), or even Sidney’s own dad (Lawrence Hecht). There are so many suspects, and we don’t know who to trust.
And that’s when Sidney makes a horrific discovery — her boyfriend Billy is Ghostface… and so is his best bud Stu. These two psychos are working together, Columbine-style, for a maximum kill count. And with two guys running around wearing Ghostface masks, it’s no wonder this bad guy was making such good time.
The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan has a really weird filmography, but no matter where his career goes, he’ll always have one thing to fall back on — he made The Sixth Sense, an all-time great horror movie with possibly the most famous twist in cinematic history.
The film finds Bruce Willis playing Dr. Malcolm Crowe, an award-winning child psychologist, and in the opening scene, he’s shot by a disturbed patient he couldn’t save. But a couple of months later, Crowe is walking around and seems perfectly okay. Well, his marriage is falling apart, and his wife won’t acknowledge his existence, so that isn’t great. But at least he gets a chance at redemption by helping Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled boy who can see dead people.
However, Cole isn’t the only one who can see spirits. Moviegoers have been looking at a dead guy pretty much since the start of the movie. After trying so hard to talk to his wife, Crowe finally realizes why she won’t respond: he’s a ghost. That gunshot in the beginning of the film? Yeah, Crowe didn’t make it, and he’s been a dead man walking ever since. It was an ending that sent shockwaves through Hollywood, and Shyamalan has been trying to recapture that glory ever since. But while a film or two has come close, The Sixth Sense still stands supreme as the perfect Shyamalan twist.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Everybody knows the twist from The Empire Strikes Back. Even moviegoers who’ve never seen a single Star Wars movie know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad. The twist has permeated the pop culture consciousness, and the line "No, I am your father" has become one of the most memorable (and misquoted) lines of all-time.
But back in 1980, the Luke-Vader revelation absolutely floored Star Wars fans. Most of the cast and crew didn’t even know the truth about Luke’s family tree. According to Mark Hamill, the original script read that Obi-Wan Kenobi had murdered old Anakin. Famously, only Hamill, James Earl Jones, George Lucas, and director Irvin Kershner were aware of the twist. So when Vader finally pronounced his parentage, everybody was gasping — from audiences to the actors themselves.
And this shocking moment did a whole lot more than elicit gasps. The Dad Vader reveal sent the series in a completely new direction, and that one line laid the groundwork for seven additional Star Wars films. Has any other movie twist had such an enormous impact? Well, as Luke Skywalker might say, nooooooooooooo.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi is one of the twistiest chapters in the entire Star Wars franchise. We learn that Rey’s parents are nobodies. Big bad Snoke gets cut in half. Princess Leia is secretly Mary Poppins. It’s twist after crazy twist, but the biggest shock comes early in the film, when Luke Skywalker reveals his Jedi days are done.
To set the scene, we have to go back a long, long time ago to 2015, when The Force Awakens was teasing audiences with the promise of Luke Skywalker. It had been over 30 years since fans had seen the beloved Jedi Knight, and the entire premise of Episode VII involved a group of heroes searching for the legendary warrior. Finally, at the end of the film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds the bearded Skywalker standing on the cliffs of Ahch-To. As that John Williams music starts to swell, Rey hands the Jedi his long lost lightsaber, and that’s where the film ends — with Rey reaching out to the hooded, silent hero. Audiences had to wait two whole years to see what would happen, but obviously, Luke was going to take the lightsaber and lead the charge against the First Order… right?
Not exactly. As The Last Jedi begins, Luke takes his lightsaber and tosses it into the ocean. In the years since we last saw him, Luke has turned his back on the Force and wants the Jedi to die out. This little twist flew in the face of fans’ expectations, but really, they should’ve listened when the trailer warned, "This is not going to go the way you think."
Sorry to Bother You
If Terry Gilliam, Karl Marx, Spike Lee, and Rod Serling all teamed up to make a movie, it might look like Sorry to Bother You. Written and directed by Boots Riley, this movie is absolutely insane in all the right ways, and no description can do it justice. It’s without a doubt the most anti-capitalist film to ever come out of Hollywood, and it features perhaps the most deranged twist of the 21st century so far.
The plot follows a promising young telemarketer named Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who finds success in sales by using a "white voice" to smooth-talk customers. Soon, Cash is promoted to the big-time, which involves selling slaves to giant companies, and eventually, he crosses paths with a psycho billionaire (Armie Hammer) with big plans for the future of business. Up until this point, the movie has been incredibly weird — for example, Cash’s David Cross impersonation is spot-on — but when Cash discovers the billionaire’s plans, that’s when the movie loses its mind. As it turns out, the billionaire is turning people into half-human, half-horse monsters so he can create a powerful but malleable workforce.
That’s right. Armie Hammer is turning people into horses. And if that wasn’t wild enough, the movie ends with Cash suddenly turning into an "equisapien" himself. It’s totally bonkers, and no matter how good you are at guessing twists, you’ll never see this nightmare coming.
From the Mandarin reveal to the Thanos snap, the MCU has its fair share of shocking twists. But maybe the most jaw-dropping moment comes in Spider-Man: Homecoming, when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) discovers his love life is about to get really complicated.
Throughout this superhero flick, the wall-crawler is trying to find a balance between homework and crime fighting, hanging out with friends and trading blows with bad guys. You can’t really go to parties or participate in the academic decathlon when you’ve got an entire neighborhood to protect. The guy can’t even impress his high school crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), without having to deal with a supervillain. It’s hard to get a date when you’re constantly trying to fight the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a winged thief who sells alien weapons to local thugs.
Eventually, Peter puts his crime-fighting on pause and takes Liz out to the homecoming dance. He gets his suit, learns to dance, buys Liz a nice corsage, and shows up at her house, ready for a fun evening. And that’s when the door opens to reveal the Vulture himself. As it turns out, this murderous villain just so happens to be Liz’s father. Suddenly, Peter isn’t worried about making a good impression. He’s just worried about making it through the night alive. After all, nothing ruins a date like a great big superbattle.
Two years after terrifying audiences with Get Out, Jordan Peele frightened everyone again with Us, a freakish horror film with a genuinely shocking ending. The film opens in 1986, when a young Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wanders into a hall of mirrors and meets her diabolical doppelganger. Flash forward a couple of decades and adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is confronting her evil twin yet again. Only this time, the doppelganger — known as Red — has brought an army of scissor-wielding clones up from their underground lair, with each one assigned to kill their real-world counterpart.
Throughout the film, Adelaide and her family manage to outwit and defeat their doubles, and in the climactic sequence, our hero finally confronts her twisted doppelganger. But in a stunning flashback, we suddenly realize we might be rooting for the wrong person. As it turns out, the Adelaide we’ve been cheering for is actually the grinning doppelganger from the opening scene. She’s the result of a science experiment gone wrong, and when she encountered the real Adelaide in the fun house, she strangled the girl unconscious, dragged her down into an underworld of mute monsters, and then took the real Adelaide’s place.
So Adelaide is really Red, and Red is the real Adelaide, and this whole creepy scheme has been about getting revenge for having her life taken away. Ultimately, the twist works as commentary on issues like privilege and nature vs. nurture, but in the moment, all you can really think about is picking your jaw up off the floor.
The Usual Suspects
The ending of The Usual Suspects has been referenced in everything from Key & Peele to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a twist almost more famous than the movie itself. The entire film is narrated by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), the sole survivor of a heist-gone-wrong. Verbal is a timid thug who suffers from cerebral palsy, and as he’s being interrogated by Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), Verbal spins a story of how he and his crew were drafted by the world’s most notorious criminal, an underworld bogeyman named Keyser Soze. As Verbal tells his crazy story, Kujan suspects Verbal’s BFF, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), was secretly Soze, and that he betrayed all his buddies during their bloody caper. Convinced he’s solved the crime, he lets Verbal walk and takes a minute to revel in his detective skills.
And that’s when he notices the bulletin board. Shocked, Kujan realizes that Verbal’s story was complete nonsense, and that he assembled his wild tale by pulling keywords and details from the papers and wanted posters tacked on the wall. And as Kujan figures out he let a guilty man walk free, we see Verbal Kint morph into a new man. His limp disappears, his gnarled hand straightens out, and he starts walking with the confidence of a crook who beat the system for the millionth time. This little nobody is actually Keyser Soze, and then, like that, he’s gone. It might be the greatest trick a movie’s ever pulled, and it’s the kind of twist that will make you drop your coffee mug in shock.