Today’s moviegoers have become almost immune to the effect of twist endings or plot devices so unforeseen as to produce a genuinely psychic shock that sends waves of recognition out the force to alter the cultural
landscape. Part of the reason is that serious film fans have gone so far back into Hollywood history that they’ve seen things that the moviegoer who rejects classic film mistakes as original when they see it replicated in a contemporary release. Another element that has reduced the intensity of the impact of an authentically shock to system of cinematic expectation is the increased sense of ironic detachment from committing so deeply to a fiction that such a profoundly honest emotional reaction is on the verge of becoming impossible.
That shift in tonal foundation of emotional investment began with the culture-wide revolution of the 1960’s that ultimately tarnished the previous tone of absolute dedication to honest emotion over the safer form of hip ironic detachment. The differentiation in the expressive mode of filmmaking today from that which initiated its gradual change during the 1960’s can be summed up in the one word that every filmmaker commits to avoiding ever be effectively utilized in a review of their movie: corny. What used to be known as the desire to put raw emotion on the screen is today described as being corny.
The combination of having become accustomed to expecting twists, the gradual recognition of seeing a twist coming courtesy of expanding your awareness of film history and the move toward irony over real emotion at almost every expense means that it is highly unlikely moviegoers will ever again get to experience the authentically profound sense of witnessing something you did not see coming like audiences experienced during the 1960’s.
It is beyond comprehension to imagine any movie upsetting audience expectations and pulling the rug out from under them today in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock managed to do with “Psycho.” The conventional wisdom a moviegoer carried into the theater in 1960 simply did not allow for the possibility that a star the magnitude of Janet Leigh would not just be killed off halfway through the movie she was the star of, but would be killed off in such a gruesomely violent and inhumanly unnecessary way. Nobody would blink twice if a movie star possessing the same level of celebrity as Janet Leigh possessed in 1960 were killed off, but the shower scene quite literally changed the way that audiences consciously connected the star of a film with their fictional mortality.
The ending of “The Graduate” is perhaps the most iconic moment of tonal transformation in any 1960’s movie. Today’s audiences probably cannot even imagine that the ending of that movie has any power to shock. What you have to realize is that just about every movie romance that eventually brought boy and girl together at the end left little room to question that their life together would be of the happily ever after variety. The downbeat and ambiguous conclusion to the unconventional method by which boy and girl are brought together at the end of “The Graduate” is enough to insinuate doubt that they will leave the bus together, much less live happily ever after together.
The potential for ending a movie on clumsily orchestrated twist ending is no better exemplified by the way that M. Night Shyamalan is forced to frame scenes leading up the twist in a completely incoherent and misleading fashion that amounts to one of the most inartistic cheats in movie history. Compare how “The Sixth Sense” has to completely undermine all sense of reality and challenge your suspension of disbelief by distracting your from the rather obvious fact that Bruce Willis’ character is never seen talking to anyone but the kid who sees dead people with the elegant convergence of narrative, theme and plot throughout “Planet of the Apes” to lead audiences directly to one of the most unexpected and shocking final scenes in movie history.