A well-executed plot twist is a neat trick, employed by wily directors eager to give an audience that’s seen it all something new. M. Night Shyamalan has made his career on the plot twist. Aside for a few notable exceptions, his body of work is full of gotcha moments, laboring heavily under their own ambitions, trying in vain to surprise a jaded audience, and, more often than not, failing miserably.
You go into a Shyamalan film waiting for the other shoe to drop. If the plot seems straightforward and easy to understand, hold onto your hat because two-thirds of the way through the thing, something you never saw coming is going to emerge from the shadows, hitting you over the head with how clever it is. It’s the movie equivalent of click bait: You fall for it hard the first time around, but every subsequent iteration leaves you queasy and irritated.
The surprise plot twist is Shyamalan’s calling card — winking, pedantic, self-serious, intending to teach the audience some larger moral lesson while also engaging their interest enough to stick around to see it come to fruition. In honor of his new movie The Visit, where the twist is that the obvious setup actually works, we took a closer look at the twists throughout Shyamalan’s filmography. How twisty are these twists, really? Will anything live up to the standard set by The Sixth Sense? To keep things fair, we eliminated movies that he made that don’t include a hoary surprise ending, and ended up with this ranking from worst to best.
6. The Happening (2008)
The Plot: Something in the air is causing mass suicides around the world, starting in Central Park and spreading rapidly throughout the Northeast. Science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) embark on a journey to figure this out. It turns out the enemy — plants! — is all around us.
The Twist: Instead of bioterrorism or anything that makes a modicum of sense, the real enemy here is Mother Nature. The plants are the enemy. Kill the plants before they kill you.
How Twisted Is It? Technically, the fact that the plants are emitting poison into the air with the intent of exacting revenge on humans is a surprise, but it is honestly one of the most hackneyed surprise endings that ever was.
Rating: As twisty as thinking you found money in your winter coat before immediately realizing it’s just a crumpled ATM receipt.
5. Lady in the Water (2006)
The Plot: Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is a mopey handyman who discovers a Narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living in the pool of the apartment complex where he works. It turns out Story is a mystical creature from a bedtime story sent to find the author of the book that will eventually save humanity. That person happens to be Vick Ran (M. Night Shyamalan himself), the author of a book that contains ideas so transformative, they will inspire future leaders to change the world for better. Also, the residents of the apartment complex are actually part of Story’s story and at the end of the whole thing, she flies off to safety on the wings of a giant eagle.
The Twist: Technically none, unless you count the fact that the marijuana-fueled ramblings of a self-important director that never should have left his dream journal got made into a film.
How Twisted Is It? The plot is, quite frankly, insane. But as nonsensical and trite as it is, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s no surprise ending or sucker punch — it’s just not good, at all.
Rating: As twisty as the hair of that “mermaid” you see down the beach that, upon closer inspection, ends up being an empty Doritos bag and an abandoned T-shirt.
4. The Village (2004)
The Plot: Once upon a time, in what seems to be the 19th century, there lived a group of villagers so terrified of the “monsters” in the forest just beyond their borders, they go full Voldemort. The Elders of the town, who keep their secrets locked in black boxes under their beds, forbid their children from speaking of the evil spirits and entering the forest at all costs. But after one of the villagers, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), is injured, the blind daughter of the chief village Elder (Bryce Dallas Howard) is permitted to seek help in “the towns” by passing through the forest, where she learns the secret of where she actually lives.
The Twist: It’s not the 19th century, and the villagers are being held captive as part of some weird social experiment by the chief Elder, who’s actually an American history professor. The only “monster” that’s beyond the walls is modern society, huzzah!
How Twisted Is It? Even a casual viewer of Shyamalan’s body of work could see this coming a mile away. If you think about it, this is not only pretty dumb, but The Truman Show did something sort of similar in a much more poignant way.
Rating: As twisty as the tangled chain of a necklace you’ve been working on for three hours, with no end in sight (just abandon it).
3. Unbreakable (2000)
The Plot: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a brooding security guard with the ability to evade bodily harm, and the unique ability to see bad things that people do just by physically touching them. Samuel L. Jackson is Elijah, a shadowy figure cursed with fragile bird bones that shatter at any moment. As you can imagine, this does not end well.
The Twist: David is (maybe) a superhero and Elijah is his arch-nemesis, a man who perpetrated terrible crimes — including the train accident that helped David realize what he was — in order to bring them together.
How Twisted Is It? It’s less of a plot twist and more of a reveal that makes you sit back and go “…huh,” really. Riding on the fumes of The Sixth Sense’s smash success probably didn’t help its case, either.
Rating: As twisty as thinking you’re going somewhere fancy for dinner and ending up at Jack in the Box. :/
2. Signs (2002)
The Plot: Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a preacher who loses his faith in God and lives on a farm plagued by crop circles, dead animals, and shadowy figures generally running amok. Before you know it, the crop circles are taking over the world, and Graham’s neighbor has an alien — green, evil, afraid of water — trapped in his basement. Also, there are literal tinfoil hats.
The Twist: There isn’t one! That’s the twist — there’s no twist. It’s your standard crop-circle-alien-invasion narrative.
How Twisted Is It? For once, not at all, even though the entire time you’re watching this movie, you’re waiting for the twist. But Shyamalan ends up tricking you by not even trying to trick you, and mostly pulling it off. In a way, that's its own great twist.
Rating: As twisty as the path you take to the bathroom when you really, really have to go.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Plot: Bruce Willis is a frowny-faced child psychologist working his magic on a fresh-faced Haley Joel Osment, who, as we all know by now, sees dead people, all of whom are apparently shackled to this earth, unaware that they’re dead.
The Twist: Surprise, Bruce Willis! You’re actually dead! That’s why your wife is ignoring you. Haley Joel Osment, somehow, is actually right.
How Twisted Is It? Pretty twisted! This movie set the standard for what would become Shyamalan’s calling card — the surprise-ending gut-punch — and in the original iteration, truly caught people off guard. Also, Haley Joel Osment’s wide-eyed and whispery delivery of the line that will haunt the rest of his life is arguably one of our earliest memes.
Rating: As twisty as your insides after the halal cart “chicken” plate, your modest dinner following waaaay too many happy hour drinks.