Last night, I watched Christopher Nolan’s Memento with my boyfriend. It was my first time seeing it, though I had more or less enjoyed other Nolan films such as The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and my personal favorite, Inception. Nolan is known for mind-bending films, and I love the complication, the race to mentally keep up with the story, and the depth. But I’m always torn about one aspect of his movies–he tends to include something in the last five minutes that completely subverts the entire rest of the story.
[vague spoilers ahead]
In Memento, we find that what we thought was happening for this wild ride we’ve just been taken on is actually all based on a lie the main character tells himself. In Inception, similarly, we’re led to believe in the last few seconds that nothing in the movie actually happened. And even in The Dark Knight, Batman’s last act in the movie, while self-sacrificial, turns all the principles of truth and justice from the rest of the story upside down.
I enjoy the ride in these stories, but they leave me feeling a bit dissatisfied.
In contrast, I absolutely love M. Night Shyamalan movies. Shyamalan also usually produces thrillers that contain a twist ending–something that makes us see everything that came before it in a new light. The iconic ending to The Sixth Sense does change every other part of the story once we know the truth. The Village‘s revelation about the true setting of its community shatters all of our previous assumptions. And the end of Unbreakable likewise causes us to stop and rethink everything we thought we knew about this world.
So what’s the difference? Why does The Sixth Sense make me think while Memento leaves me a little disappointed?
I think the difference is that the twists in Shyamalan films, rather than undermining the message of the rest of the movie, actually strengthen it. They make the story more meaningful, while Nolan twists seem to make the story less meaningful. Rather than being an exploration of a greater depth, Nolan films seem mostly to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if everything you thought was true the last two hours is actually not?” And don’t get me wrong–as a storytelling device, it is kinda cool. The plots are brilliant. But they still leave me with one particular thought–“So what was the point of all that?”
Shyamalan twists, on the other hand, complement the theme of the movie rather than subverting it. The endings cause the movie to make more sense, not less sense. Nolan twists just leave us with more questions and more confusion.
Yes, life can be full of confusion. It doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes we reach the end of a reality plotline only to realize everything we believed and trusted was, in fact, false. In this life, and only in this life, Nolan twists make only too much sense.
But at the end of days, when the final chapter of this pre-eternal episode is concluded, we will be faced with a Shyamalan twist that makes us look back on our lives and all of history and say to ourselves, “Ah, I understand it now.”
I believe we were made to crave that kind of twist because it is our destiny. We are always looking forward to that time, because eternity is in our hearts. Our dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction isn’t wrong–things are supposed to make sense in the end.
Just sometimes a big twist has to come before we can finally see it.