Jane Campion’s BAFTA-winning western The Power of the Dog is distinguished by both great acting and a surprising ending, which I won’t reveal.
The strength of the picture’s denouement is that it doesn’t come across as an M. Night Shyamalan-style contrivance, rather as a logical development of the characters.
Of course, twist endings are nothing new; witness the likes of Psycho (1960), The Planet of the Apes (1968), Soylent Green (1972 – Heston again), The Wicker Man (1973), The Parallax View (1974) and more recently Se7en (1995).
The Power of the Dog is a relative rarity in being a cowboy movie with an unexpected conclusion; the device is usually employed in sci-fi, horror and thrillers.
Shock endings are a risky endeavour – a fair few are telegraphed in advance to the even half-aware viewer, often greeted with a shrug of ‘well, I saw that coming’.
Case in point, the final scenes of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake (2001), Steven (Peaky Blinders) Knight’s Serenity (2019) and Signs, where the hyper-intelligent alien invaders are defeated by a few beakers of plain old H20.
But which films pull off their twists with aplomb?
The Departed (2006) Amazon Rent/Buy
Martin Scorsese’s masterly remake of the 2002 Hong Kong policier Infernal Affairs is a great picture, with (aside from the casting of Ray Winstone) nary a misstep.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play respectively a cop infiltrating the Boston mob and a criminal plant in the Massachusetts State Police. A leering Jack Nicholson dominates the proceedings as Irish Mafia boss Frank Costello.
A very satisfying payoff at the movie’s end, at a point when the viewer could be forgiven for despairing that there’s any justice in the world.
Winstone later whined that he didn’t ‘click’ with Nicholson on The Departed set; I suspect the Oscar-winning acting legend wasn’t too bothered.
Promising Young Woman (2020) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy
Revenge from beyond the grave provides a satisfying conclusion to Emerald Fennell’s (Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown) assured first feature film, which she also wrote.
This fable-like take of female empowerment sees Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) hatch a scheme to avenge her friend Nina, whose rape at the hands of medical school classmate, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) led to her suicide when the crime was covered up.
Fennell has since collaborated with Andrew Lloyd-Webber on his musical version of Cinderella, and equally depressingly (considering her evident talent) is working on two comic book adaptations (DC’s Zatanna and Nemesis by Mark Millar).
Presumably the money must be good.
Don't Look Now (1973) Amazon Rent/Buy
After the tragic death by drowning of their daughter Christine, architect John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura seek solace in Venice, where he has been engaged to restore a medieval church.
When told by two eccentric paranormally-inclined elderly English sisters that John has psychic gifts and he must leave Venice as he’s in great peril, the architect is initially sceptical.
But when he survives the collapse of the church’s scaffolding and catches glimpses of what he thinks may be his deceased daughter, Baxter comes to believe that he has ‘The Sight’.
Unfortunately, this belief leads directly to Don’t Look Now’s shocking final frame when he catches up with the fleeing ‘child’.
The Prestige (2006) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy
Some might say Christopher Nolan’s Victorian mystery was too clever by half, an accusation the director has often faced.
Two rival stage magicians (played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) compete to perfect the best version of ‘The Transported Man’ teleportation trick.
Both achieve success, one prosaically, the other through scientific means, supplied by electricity genius Nikola Tesla (a mannered David Bowie).
Released in the same year as The Prestige, The Illusionist pursues a similar path, this time in turn of the century Vienna, where Ed Norton (more of whom later) plays prestidigitator Eduard Abramovich (no relation).
As with The Prestige, the film attempts a surprise ending, this time of a far happier kind.
The Usual Suspects (1995) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy
The Usual Suspects possesses the regrettable distinction of featuring two talents now languishing in disgrace - director Bryan Singer and star Kevin Spacey.
With a title taken from Captain Louis Renault’s (Claude Rains) famous phrase from Casablanca (1942), The Usual Suspects follows the twisty tale of a group of professional felons who are ‘accidentally’ thrown together in a police line-up and decide to team up for a series of heists.
They later discover that they have been working for the shadowy Turkish crime lord Keyser Söze, feared by the criminal fraternity as 'a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night.'
The revelation of Söze’s identity is predictable on rewatching the picture, but for a first-time viewer The Usual Suspect still packs a punch.
The Mist (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy
Frank Darabont’s (The Shawshank Redemption) adaptation of the Stephen King novel has one of the bleakest endings in cinematic history.
When a military research facility accidentally opens a door to another dimension, its Lovecraftian denizens lay siege to the small town of Bridgton, Maine.
When David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son Billy and three other survivors run out of gas and see one of the monstrous creatures approaching their vehicle, he decides (with the agreement of the adults) to take drastic action.
The Mist was also adapted into a Spike TV series in 2017…avoid.
Layer Cake (2004) Amazon Rent/Buy
Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut gave a Hollywood sheen to London and its environs.
An unnamed cocaine dealer (Daniel Craig) decides to quit the business after making his nut, but events prevent his retirement, a plot that Guy Ritchie appears to have lifted almost wholesale for the inferior RocknRolla (2008).
Craig is very good in the picture, which also includes some nice location work, especially the final scenes at Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire, also used in Goldfinger (1964).
After many adventures, Craig’s character finally comes out on top, but plumps to follow his original plan of retiring to live happily ever after with amore Tammy (Sienna Miller) …
Primal Fear (1996) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
Richard Gere and Ed Norton square off in Gregory Hoblit’s (Fracture) enjoyable legal thriller.
Vain, grandstanding Chicago defence attorney Martin Vail (Gere playing to his strengths) leaps at the opportunity to represent pro bono Aaron Stampler (Norton), a somewhat simple, stuttering altar boy accused of the sadistic slaying of saintly Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson).
Vail uncovers a sordid web of pedophilia, financial crimes, and Stampler’s apparent dissociative identity disorder, which gives the boy two distinct personalities - whimpering naïf Aaron and psychopathic ‘Roy’.
The final scene reveals who the true murderer really is.
The Score (2001)
Ed Norton showing off his acting chops again, this time as sneaky thief Jack Teller, who is masquerading as ‘Brian’ a mentally challenged janitor casing Montréal’s Customs House, where a priceless royal sceptre is being stored.
Teller teams up with master cracksman and cool jazz club owner Nick Wells (Robert De Niro) who reluctantly agrees to take part in the heist to help his fence Max, a typically oddball performance by Marlon Brando in what would be his final motion picture appearance.
Without giving too much away (?), look out for the ‘ol switcheroo’.
Brando famously clashed with Frank Oz on the film, referring to the director by his Muppet character name of ‘Miss Piggy’.
The Game (1997) Amazon Rent/Buy
After Se7en, director David Fincher took a more playful tack with this Smoke & Mirrors thriller, where morose millionaire Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) finds his life upended when he opts to take part in a birthday gift from wastrel brother Connie (Sean Penn).
The present? A participatory ‘life-changing’ game offered by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), promising to draw the Scrooge-like banker out of his lonely shell.
Van Orton gets far more than he bargained for – commenting on the film, Michael Douglas said: ‘I think what I’m most proud about is that it's one of the very few movies that you could not guess the ending.’
If you’re still hungry for more films with unexpected endings, you could do a lot worse than check out the Safdie brothers Uncut Gems (2019), which invites the viewer into to the chaotic life of unhinged jeweller/gambling addict Howard Ratner (no relation), essayed by an excellent Adam Sandler.