This is a post about twists. I am about to spoil everything. If you have not seen Christopher Nolan’s movies (or Westworld), please leave!
This movie’s scenes are actually all out of order and the end is the beginning; Liam Neeson is alive; the Dark Knight rose again; Matt Damon is a liar.
It’s not really fair to reduce Christopher Nolan to his movies’ twists. He’s a bold director with vision, one of the only creators who makes distinct films that ask big questions on a massive, blockbuster-sized scale. But he does love a good surprise. It started with Memento in 2000, a movie told from the unreliable perspective of a man who had lost the ability to create new memories. After that, almost all of Nolan’s movies have featured — if not totally hinged on — a third-act twist. (Just so we’re clear: The end of Inception is not a twist; it’s a cliffhanger.) Seventeen years later, there’s a whole cottage industry online dedicated to explaining Nolan’s convoluted roller coasters.
Now comes Dunkirk, a World War II movie about the evacuation of thousands of Allied soldiers from a small harbor in France. It’s a true story, which means that for the first time in nearly 15 years, a Nolan movie will be twistless. You can rest your heart heading into the theater, knowing that the rug won’t be pulled out from under you. This relative lull gives us a chance to reflect on Nolan’s oeuvre of sleight-of-hand filmmaking, and most importantly, decide which of his twists are the best.
In order to do so, let’s first define the factors that make up a good twist.
- Misdirection: The first rule of twists is that you can’t know a twist is coming. It won’t work if you do. Not to continue what I’m sure is a lifelong trend of being compared to his older brother, but let’s use the twist in Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld as an example of how important misdirection is. Westworld’s twist was not very effective, because the internet saw it coming from a mile away. The twist involving the nature of Jeffrey Wright’s character worked much better, though, because it had the mystery surrounding Ed Harris’s Man in Black working as misdirection for it. It’s a must-have for twists — without it, you can’t have …
- The "Wow" Factor: Before your brain actually processes the plausibility of a twist, there’s a split second when you react to the changing circumstances with raw emotion. The level of that emotion separates a good twist from a great one: The higher the emotion, the better the twist’s "wow" factor. Think about it this way: If you hear a man literally yell "Oh shit!" during a reveal, that means you are witnessing a very good twist.
- Satisfaction: A twist must be earned. After eliciting that initial gasp, a twist should be able to hold up on further examination, and ultimately produce a feeling of gratification, or at least acceptance.
- The Implications: This final factor is more abstract and philosophical. In judging a respective twist, we ask ourselves the following questions: What is the filmmaker, in this case Christopher Nolan, really saying by introducing this twist? Are the questions or commentary that result from it interesting?
Each of Nolan’s tricky candidates will be scored from 1–10 on their execution of these factors. The one with the highest score will be officially crowned as Christopher Nolan’s greatest twist. Let’s get started. [Spins top.]
6. Bruce Wayne Is Not Dead, Just Eternally Vacaying in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
Misdirection: When we last see Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s carrying a nuclear bomb away from Gotham City. When it goes off, Batman is presumed dead, and is forever honored as a martyr. Meanwhile, everyone watching the movie knows Batman somehow bailed before that bomb went off. No disrespect to Michael Caine, whose "I failed you!" line-reading at Bruce Wayne’s funeral almost makes me cry to this day, but this twist was telegraphed. 2/10
The "Wow" Factor: Even if someone actually believed Nolan’s Batman trilogy was going to end with Batman’s death, the lame moment of recognition between Bruce and Alfred blunts any feelings of surprise.
Really? That’s it? 2/10
Satisfaction: On the one hand, it would have been extremely frustrating for Batman to die off screen after spending three whole movies with the character, so it’s satisfying to get confirmation that Bruce Wayne’s story lives on after The Dark Knight Rises. On the other hand, that the trilogy ends on this bland, predictable note is pretty disappointing, and it feels less like a purposeful plot point and more like a cheap trick to avoid explaining how Batman managed to escape that whole nuclear bomb situation. 6/10
The Implications: Earlier in Dark Knight Rises, Alfred tells Bruce that he fantasizes about going to Florence and seeing Bruce at a cafe, maybe with a couple of kids. "You wouldn’t say anything to me, nor me to you," Alfred says, "but we’d both know that you’d made it." His point is that Gotham is a pit for Bruce — there’s nothing there for him, and his unceasing mission to save the city as Batman is robbing his life of any actual meaning. The twist at the end — in which Alfred’s fantasy comes true — is a nice bit of resolution, a warm way to signal that Bruce Wayne’s life is finally beginning now that he’s unburdened himself of Batman. It’s all rather trite, though, and in relation to the commentary posed by some of Nolan’s other twists, fairly tame. 3/10
5. Ra’s al Ghul Is Alive, and Is Liam Neeson in ‘Batman Begins’
Misdirection: For most of the movie, you don’t even know that Liam Neeson is Ra’s al Ghul. You’re led to believe that Ra’s is a silent monk type, while Neeson is a guy named Henri Ducard, an upper-management type in the League of Shadows who trains Bruce. He seems pretty cool and fatherly until he asks Bruce to execute a petty thief and help the League destroy Gotham City, which Bruce is NOT down with. In rebellion, Bruce burns down the League’s temple and apparently kills Ra’s in the process, though he saves Ducard. From there, he goes back to Gotham. The way Nolan presents this lulls you into a false sense of security. You dismiss the League of Shadows episode as just part of a superhero origin story, and Ducard as a nonfactor. Your senses are down when Neeson finally reemerges in Bruce Wayne’s burning mansion. 8/10
The "Wow" Factor: Despite the expert setup, though, the twist in Batman Begins doesn’t pack a devastating punch. The reaction is less "wow" and more "ohhh, OK," and by the time the reveal drops, Ra’s al Ghul is a one-dimensional villain hell-bent on driving a train into a water tank, which flattens the impact. 5/10
Satisfaction: Knowing that Ducard is actually Ra’s makes for an illuminating rewatch of Batman Begins. It adds a layer of dramatic irony to the film, and tinges Wayne’s decision to save Ducard with unfortunate fatalism. 6/10
Implications: Would the movie lose any of its meaning if you knew all along that Liam Neeson was Ra’s al Ghul? Not really — which means the twist is in place for shock value alone. 2/10
4. Cooper Is Murph’s "Ghost" in ‘Interstellar’
Misdirection: That Murph’s dad is the one pushing books off the shelves of her childhood bedroom, trying to save the human race by communicating with her from a future, three-dimensional space in a five-dimensional reality doesn’t require much extra misdirection. (One day we’ll look back on Interstellar and marvel over how Nolan managed to get Paramount and Warner Bros. to let him make this movie.) The entire plot is so convoluted and steeped in quantum theory that you need to be Neil deGrasse Tyson to not be in a total state of confusion by the time this twist rolls around. That’s a good environment for a twist, regardless of whether Nolan intended it to be. 6/10
The "Wow" Factor: "You were my ghost," older Murph, played by Jessica Chastain, says as tears roll down her eyes. It’s played as a traditional moment of recognition, as if Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper wasn’t floating in a bizarre 3-D box when Murph came to this revelation. Either way, this moment elicits a "what?" rather than a "wow," which isn’t nearly as cathartic. 5/10
Satisfaction: There is some poetic, "circle of life" beauty to this twist, even if the nuts and bolts behind it require extensive Googling. 6/10
The Implications: Interstellar is partially a rumination on the power of parental love, the implication of this twist being that futuristic beings went out of their way to build this means of communication, knowing that Cooper would successfully make contact with Murph and lead to humanity’s survival. That’s really sweet stuff. The twist also implies that time is a flat circle, which is less sweet and more headache-inducing. I am extremely tired after attempting to explain this movie. 5/10
3. ‘Dunkirk’ Is Under Two Hours Long
Misdirection: Here are the lengths of Christopher Nolan’s past four movies: 152 minutes (The Dark Knight), 148 minutes (Inception), 164 minutes (The Dark Knight Rises), and 169 minutes (Interstellar). So yeah, I’d say the twist that Dunkirk is only 106 minutes was set up extremely well. 8/10
The "Wow" Factor: Our own K. Austin Collins wrote an essay inspired by this shocking twist. Content engines have been churning trying to make sense of it:
The people are FLABBERGASTED. 7/10
Satisfaction: No one (aside from Chris Ryan) has ever said, "I wish this movie were an hour longer," so it’s fair to say that this twist is roundly satisfying. 7/10
The Implications: Only time will tell what this twist dispels. Nolan’s Batman trilogy is partially responsible for spawning the era of bloated superhero films (and other franchise flicks) that currently dominate the box office. Could his turn toward brevity inspire other filmmakers with massive budgets to dial back their runtimes? Please say yes. 3/10
2. ‘Memento’ Is a Self-Inflicted Endless Loop
Misdirection: The setup of Memento’s twist is flawless. (It helps that this was the year 2000, when Nolan wasn’t known for these kinds of twists, and social media wasn’t around to spoil everything.) The movie is a puzzle for the audience to decipher, alternating between black-and-white scenes that are in chronological order and color scenes ordered in reverse. And you’re so busy taking all of Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) "facts" at face value and bending over backward trying to figure out who "John G." is that you don’t consider that maybe Leonard isn’t the most reliable narrator. By the time the actual truth reveals itself, you’re just like Leonard — in too deep. 9/10
The "Wow" Factor: The end of Memento punches you in the gut. Leonard is purposely ignoring the truth about his wife’s attackers and death because it’s too painful — a life of vengeance is easier to stomach. And as this discovery hits you, so too does the realization that you as a viewer are as guilty as Leonard, breathlessly hunting down John G. out of a blind, base urge for revenge. 8/10
Satisfaction: The twist is satisfying because the dots connect after the fact, as Nolan leaves clues for the viewer to decode the structure of the film. You can see that the answers were there all along — you were just too trusting and emotionally committed to notice. 7/10
Implications: The point of Memento’s twist, that we convince ourselves of the level of truth we’re capable of handling, is a universal theory on humanity. When Leonard scribbles "Don’t believe his lies" on the picture of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who is the only person capable of telling him the truth, it’s haunting and sad, but only because deep down, it’s relatable. 8/10
1. Alfred Borden Had a Twin in ‘The Prestige’
Misdirection: Fittingly, this movie about two competing magicians is crafted like a magic trick, with a premise, a misdirection, and a reveal. The Prestige does a hell of a job with that second task, shuffling the identities of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), even reanimating the latter after he appears to be executed. The level of mystery is so high, and the events leading up to the end of the movie are so unfathomable, that you’re perfectly set up to be shocked when Nolan finally tips his hand. 9/10
The "Wow" Factor: Angier spends most of The Prestige trying to figure out how Borden pulls off his most noteworthy trick — apparently transporting from one end of the stage to the other instantaneously. The viewer does as well. Then Borden returns after certain death and reveals his secret: All this time, he was working in tandem with an identical twin, and the two each lived half of one life. The explanation is simplistic (especially compared to the sci-fi, Tesla-assisted way Angier executes his transportation trick) but jaw-dropping, heightened by the realization that the answer was hiding in plain sight. Jackman’s face during the reveal says it all:
Satisfaction: There’s a part in all of us that wants to know how the magician does his trick. The end of The Prestige gives us that opportunity, flashing back to past moments as Borden reveals his methods. It wraps the movie up tightly, and lays bare the tragic lengths these two men went to for their craft. Which brings us to … 8/10
The Implications: What is the actual purpose of besting a rival? What is the cost of an unrelenting pursuit of fame and adulation? These are the heavy questions that The Prestige’s twist asks — questions that are universal, but that also aptly apply to Christopher Nolan’s directorial pursuits. 7/10