For as long as there have been plots, there have been plot twists. Even at their most basic, twists have a certain thrill about them. But the best ones, do a great deal more than that. They not only unveil a new facet of the story being told, they provide a key piece of information which has been missing and subsequently recontextualize the entire narrative of the film.
One of the earliest examples of this kind of game-changing twist in the cinematic form is that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Released in 1920, the German expressionistic film that chronicles the story of Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist assistant, Cesare, and the various murders they commit. The entire story is told from the perspective of Francis, the love interest of one of Cesare’s primary victims, Jane. However, in the final minutes of the film, it is revealed that Francis’ story has been just that; a story. He himself is an inmate in an asylum, as are all of the characters in his story. It’s an ending that forces us to reconsider the entirety of the film and puts everything in a completely different perspective. It is no longer the tale of a mad doctor and his murders, but the delusions of a madman, wishing to paint himself as a hero.
This kind of ending has since infiltrated practically every facet of pop culture and cinema. The most important impact this twist had was to impress its impeccable structure and mechanics on the creative world. Through the decades it has evolved, from the ‘dead-all-along’ endings of films like Carnival of Souls in the ‘60s or The Sixth Sense in the ‘90s to more overt uses of the unreliable narrator trope, like Shutter Island in 2011. It is only through this evolution and refining of the technique that it’s reached peak potential. Which it did, in a little 2015 film called The Gift.
The Gift is an intimate thriller that served as Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut. Which is all the more impressive considering how masterfully Edgerton handles the content. It tells the story of a newly relocated married couple, Robyn and Simon, who run into a figure from Simon’s past in the form of Gordon ‘Gordo’ Mosely, a high school classmate. Simon and Gordo have a complex history together and their interactions are tense at best. Over the course of the film, it is slowly revealed that Gordo was bullied throughout high school and that Simon was the cause of it, in more ways than one. As the tension between them escalates, we the audience learn about this history alongside Robyn, who continues to dig and explore. All the while, her former addition to prescription pain pills begins to rear its ugly head once more, with her even passing out from intake at one point.
All of this is crucial setup because it makes not only perfect narrative sense but also perfect thematic sense. When the film jumps forward a few months, revealing that Robyn is pregnant, it provides an added complication and possible resolution to the arcs of both Simon and Robyn. Having a child forces Simon to re-evaluate who he is and was as a man, with a clear parallel between his relationship with his own child and that of his and Gordo’s relationship. For Robyn, being pregnant should offer a reprieve from the depression that led to her excessive pill intake, yet it doesn’t. If anything it heightens her fears of Simon’s abusive past and makes her even more sympathetic towards Gordo. And again, the film squarely puts the audience in Robyn’s shoes.
These arcs escalate to the point that hours after Robyn gives birth, she tells Simon she wants to separate, yet happily accepts Gordo into the room to see her. And it is here that the film plays its trump card. Through a videotape, Gordo shows Simon footage of the day when Robyn passed out from a pill overdose. Only it’s revealed that Gordo was in the house when she fainted. The tape depicts Gordo preparing to sexually assault Robyn’s unconscious body, nine months earlier.
It is never officially confirmed by Gordo or the film if he went through with it or if the child is a product of that act, but that doesn’t even matter. The act forces Simon to reconsider everything, just as it does to the audience.
This twist works so brilliantly specifically because it is hiding in plain sight. When Robyn faints early on in the film, the audience assumes it has to do with her pill addiction because the narrative has been precisely constructed to build to this moment as a clash of characterization and plot. So when she falls and the screen cuts to black, the audience never questions it for even a moment. When in fact, this interim of time missed is the most crucial in the entire film. It’s also such a sickening realization because of how much of the film is shown to us through Robyn’s perspective. We as an audience blacked out with Robyn and thus feel violated by the fact that something happened while we weren’t even aware of it. Plus, by putting us in Robyn’s shoes, the film had been slowly building up more and more sympathy for Gordo as a victim. To see that sympathy trounced on and to have him revealed as the kind of monster who would do such a thing, makes us feel sick inside for ever feeling for him in the first place.
Similar to Caligari, The Gift’s twist ending recontextualizes everything we thought we knew about the film we were watching. And yet, it produces a much more visceral reaction. Whereas films like Caligari or The Sixth Sense leave audiences in a state of shock, they don’t actively violate the audience’s state of mind. Joel Edgerton plays completely by the rules, crafting a narratively and thematically sound and logical story and then inverts everything about it with the reveal. Suddenly, the safe space we as an audience are accustomed to, of a film playing by the formulaic and general rules of storytelling, is turned against us. We assume we are reaching the end of the film, that Simon has gotten his comeuppance, Robyn has become a stronger and more independent woman, and that Gordo has finally been accepted as a friend by Robyn. And then the film twists not only its narrative but its thematic content as well, into something much darker and much more horrific.
Film is an ever-evolving medium. As audiences grow increasingly more cinematically literate, the best creators are able to take the equations and structures of old and revitalize them in spectacular fashion. Joel Edgerton does an excellent job of this in The Gift, crafting a film that truly earns its twist through observing, learning from, and capitalizing on the works of nearly a hundred years’ worth of filmmaking that came before it.