A plot twist can make or break a film. While the greatest movie plot twists of all time were executed differently, each one of them was shocking, believable, and necessary to move the story forward.
Like in other forms of storytelling, plot twists in films are changes in the narrative that subvert expectations. Plot twists don’t follow the linear path that viewers have been led to believe at the start of the story, and when effectively pulled off, they genuinely surprise the audience, who, in turn, become more invested in the movie.
A good plot twist causes a significant shift in the viewers’ understanding of the movie’s reality and its message. It reveals a deeper layer to the events that have unfolded, making them much more sensical. A plot twist is a good one when the audience has a feeling that they suddenly understand the story in a deeper way. A bad plot twist, on the other hand, invalidates everything that has happened in the film so far, making the story less meaningful.
While plot twists are commonly associated with endings, they can happen any time after the movie has established the viewers’ expectations. A plot twist that happens in the middle of a movie grips the audience’s attention and inspires them to be more careful of all the details that will follow. Meanwhile, a plot twist that is unraveled in the latter part of a flick tends to have a more lasting impact on the viewers and is more likely to be the most memorable part of the film.
Though a film can have multiple plot twists, the greatest movie plot twists of all time are mostly not preceded and followed by another plot twist.
While a plot twist, by definition, is a sudden and unexpected change of direction in the narrative, the greatest movie plot twists are those that are also realistic and sensible. Plot twists that are random and too outlandish are simply gimmicks and usually leave the audience unimpressed. Moreover, plot twists that exist simply for shock value make the viewers feel cheated and uninspired to finish the rest of the film.
The greatest movie plot twists are those that are preceded with effective foreshadowing. For the uninitiated, foreshadowing is a narrative device in which suggestions or warnings about an upcoming significant event are dropped or planted prior to the big reveal.
Movie writers and directors should strike a good balance between giving away enough details and keeping enough details hidden to deliver a believable and plausible plot twist. Hints at the impending twist should be so subtle that they may not even be noticed by viewers the first time around but will make perfect sense looking back. In short, a movie should plant just enough clues about the twist, so viewers will be surprised but not feel swindled about it.
Most movies are outlined using a three-act structure. The first act sets the story up, the second part sends the main character on a mission, and the final portion concludes the story with a resolution. Since this structure has worked for years, this has remained the blueprint of most of the films today. Despite sharing a common blueprint, movies still appear unique to one another, thanks to the different narrative techniques, including plot twists, that filmmakers often used.
Filmmakers, however, don’t rely solely on plot twists to make their movies engaging. Plot twists are usually paired with strong storytelling and characterization, among many others to make an unforgettable flick.
To learn more about what makes a perfect plot twist, check out 30 of the greatest movie plot twists of all time in the list below.
The greatest movie plot twists we didn’t see coming
American Psycho (2000)
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel of the same name, American Psycho stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a yuppie New York City investment banker who is gradually revealed to be a serial killer preying on homeless people, sex workers, work colleagues, and random members of the public.
But in the final scene of the Mary Harron-directed movie, Patrick learns that many of his victims are still alive, suggesting that the killings he has done are not real and may all be in his head.
Based on Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel of the same name, Atonement centers on Briony, an aspiring novelist who has a crush on Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of her family’s housekeeper. One day, she walks in on her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) having sex with Robbie. Briony misinterprets the situation and later blames Robbie for an assault on her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) even though she didn’t witness the attack.
Because of Briony’s accusation Robbie is sent to prison, later joining the army to fight in World War II, while Cecilia becomes a nurse. Several years later, feeling guilty for derailing Robbie and Cecilia’s lives back in the day, Briony visits them in their apartment to apologize. The couple, however, turns her away.
At the end of the movie, an elderly Briony gives an interview about her last book, an autobiographical novel titled Atonement. She confesses that the scene in the book describing her visit and apology to Robbie and Cecilia was entirely imaginary because the two were never reunited. It turns out that Robbie actually died of septicemia at Dunkirk on the morning of the day he was to be evacuated, while Cecilia died months later in the Balham tube station bombing during the Blitz. Briony says she included the scene in her book to give Robbie and Cecilia, in fiction, the happiness she robbed them of in real life.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Featuring one of the greatest movie plot twists of all time, Citizen Kane is considered by many critics and experts to be the best film ever made. It opens with newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) on his deathbed, where his last word is “rosebud.” Assigned to decipher Kane’s final word, reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) gradually discovers Kane’s ruthless quest for power and fortune.
Though Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and his mistress, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), shed fragments of light on Kane’s life, Thompson fails to uncover the meaning of Kane’s last word. But in the movie’s final shots showing Kane’s cataloged belongings, the camera reveals that the trade name of his childhood sled is actually Rosebud, proving that the publishing tycoon had a touch of sentimentality after all.
Disney Pixar animated film Coco centers on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming an accomplished musician despite his family’s generations-old ban on music. Desperate to prove his talent and reverse his family’s ban on music, Miguel travels to the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead to find his idol and great-great-grandfather, the popular singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
While mingling with the dead, Miguel meets Héctor (Gael García Bernal), a sad sap trying to reconnect with his family. At the end of the movie, Miguel discovers that Héctor is actually his true great-great-grandfather and that he is murdered by Ernesto so he could take the credit for his music and become a famous musician.
Fallen opens with Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) recounting how he almost died. After witnessing the execution of a serial killer, Hobbes starts tracking down a copycat killer, who reveals himself to be the demon spirit Azazel. Since Azazel can inhabit bodies of any living things through touch, Hobbes concocts a plan to lure Azazel to a remote cabin and kill the body he’s inhabiting.
In the final showdown, Hobbes also kills himself to make sure that Azazel will die without a host body. The demon, however, manages to possess a cat wandering nearby, so the narrator who “almost died” isn’t actually Hobbes, but Azazel imitating Hobbes’ voice.
Fight Club (1999)
Based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club centers on an unnamed narrator ― an insomniac officer worker (Edward Norton) who befriends a reckless soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, they form an underground club where members fight each other to escape their mundane lives. But the pair’s perfect partnership starts to fray when Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support group crasher, attracts Tyler’s attention.
In the final act of the David Fincher-directed movie, the narrator uncovers Tyler’s plans to erase debt by destroying buildings that contain credit card records. But much to the narrator’s shock, he ultimately realizes that he and Tyler are the same person and that he’s actually suffering from a dissociative identity disorder.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th centers on a group of teenage camp counselors ― Jack (Kevin Bacon), Alice (Adrienne King), Bill (Harry Crosby), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), and Ned (Mark Nelson) ― who are murdered one by one by a brutal killer while attempting to re-open Camp Crystal Lake, a summer camp that has been closed for 20 years after a young boy named Jason Voorhees drowned and two counselors were murdered in the lake.
It turns out that Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), is the one responsible for all the murders. She believes her son drowned to his death because the negligent counselors were having sex instead of looking after the campers. Mrs. Voorhees confesses all these to Alice, who successfully kills her at the end of the movie.
Get Out (2017)
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American man who is invited by his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a weekend getaway to meet her dad (Bradley Whitford), mom (Catherine Keener), and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). At the Armitage house in Upstate New York, Chris notices Rose’s family make disconcerting comments about black people and witnesses strange behavior from the family’s black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson).
In the third act of the movie, Chris discovers that the Armitages transplant their brains into others’ bodies, granting them preferred physical characteristics and a twisted form of immortality. It is also revealed at the end of the film that Georgina and Walter are actually Rose’s grandmother and grandfather, respectively.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone follows Boston private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) who take on the difficult task of searching for a kidnapped girl named Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien). During their investigation, the duo deals with Amanda’s aunt, a disapproving lawman, and a drug dealer.
In the end, the kidnapping is revealed to be fake, and Amanda is just living with local Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), whose own daughter passed away years earlier. Though Doyle argues that Amanda will have a better life with him instead of with her neglectful mother Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), Patrick ultimately calls the police to rescue Amanda and arrest Doyle.
Gone Girl (2014)
Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl tells the story of teacher Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his glamorous wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) who present a portrait of a blissful marriage to the public. However, their image of a happy union starts to crumble when Amy suddenly goes missing and Nick becomes the prime suspect.
But it turns out that Amy is the one responsible for her own disappearance. After learning that Nick cheated on her, she meticulously planned her vanishing act to make it look like Nick killed her.
High Tension (2003)
Directed by Alexander Aja, High Tension revolves around two college student best friends, Alexia (Maïwenn) and Marie (Cécile de France), who decide to spend a quiet weekend at the former’s parents’ secluded farmhouse to study for their final exams. But on the night of their arrival, the girls’ idyllic getaway turns into a seemingly unending night of horror when a serial killer on the loose terrorizes them.
After her entire family is brutally slaughtered, Alexia is taken hostage by the killer. Marie manages to outsmart the killer a couple of times and pursues him with the intent to save her friend. As the film progresses, Marie becomes an incredibly badass “Final Girl” until she is revealed to be the killer the entire time. Apparently, Marie’s extreme attraction to Alexia has split her personality in two: a ruthless killer and a heroic savior who won’t let anyone come between them.
One of the greatest movie plot twists of all time was written by Christopher Nolan for the film Memento, which he also directed. The neo-noir psychological thriller centers on Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and short-term memory loss following a home invasion that left his wife dead. In an attempt to discover his wife’s murderer, he uses an intricate system of Polaroid photographs and tattoos to track information he cannot remember.
In the third act of the film, Leonard discovers that his wife actually survived the home invasion, but was accidentally killed by him.
Oldboy’s plot twist is so nasty it truly deserves to be on the list of the greatest movie plot twists of all time. Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a businessman who has been kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. During his detention, he learns that his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. Dae-su and his wife share a daughter.
When he is finally released, Dae-su falls in love with an attractive young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). After discovering that his daughter was adopted, he gives up trying to contact her and focuses his time and effort on identifying his captor. While tracking down the man behind his imprisonment, Dae-su gets closer with Mi-do and together they consummate their relationship.
When Dae-su finally comes face-to-face with his captor, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), the latter reveals that Mi-do is actually Dae-su’s daughter. Woo-jin says he orchestrated everything to make sure that Dae-su would fall in love with his own daughter so he would experience the same pain of incest he felt several years back.
It turns out that Dae-su had witnessed Woo-jin committing incest with his own sister back when they were in high school. Dae-su shared what he saw to a friend and everyone eventually found out about it. Because of this, Woo-jin sister killed herself, leading a grief-stricken Woo-jin to seek revenge.
Devastated by the loss of their unborn baby, husband and wife John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) decide to adopt a child. At the orphanage, the couple feels drawn to a 9-year-old girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), whom they ultimately adopted. But when a series of tragic events unfold, Kate starts to suspect that there’s something sinister lurking behind Esther’s angelic exterior.
In the latter part of the psychological horror flick, it is revealed that Esther is actually a 33-year-old former prostitute named Leena Klammer who suffers from a growth disorder. It is also revealed that she has murdered at least seven people, including the last family that adopted her, after failing to seduce her then-adoptive father.
Though Orphan is popular for having one of the greatest movie plot twists ever, it fails to build on its interesting premise and suffers from its formulaic and sleazy screenplay.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Loosely based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle, 1968’s Planet of the Apes follows three astronauts who crash-land on an unknown planet after traveling at light-speed for 2,000+ years. Although the planet appears desolate at first, the three survivors stumble upon a society ruled and dominated by non-human primates like gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. While the planet is also inhabited by Homo sapiens, they are mute creatures wearing animal skins and are considered second-class citizens.
But at the end of the Franklin J. Schaffner-directed movie, the last surviving astronaut finds a half-sunken Statue of Liberty on the shore, subsequently realizing that he’s actually on Earth all along.
Primal Fear (1996)
Based on William Diehl’s 1993 novel of the same name, Primal Fear follows defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) as he represents altar boy Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) in court after the latter was charged with the murder of Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson). When Vail confronts Stampler for initially lying to him, the latter breaks down crying and suddenly transforms into a new persona: a violent sociopath who calls himself Roy. Though Roy confesses to the murder of Rushman, the judge ultimately finds Stampler not guilty by reason of insanity.
While the neuropsychologist who examined Stampler is convinced that he has dissociative identity disorder, Stampler admits to Vail at the end of the movie that he had faked the personality disorder. When Vail asks if there ever was a “Roy,” Stampler replies that “there never was an “Aaron.” Stampler then straightforwardly confesses to murdering Rushman, as well as Linda, his girlfriend.
Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Psycho centers on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a Phoenix secretary who embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who is under the control of his mother. In the climax of the Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie, Marion is murdered in the shower of her room by Norman’s mother.
But at the end of the film, it is revealed that Norman murdered his mother and her lover 10 years ago. After that tragic incident, Norman developed a split personality that made him believe he is his mother. Disguised as his mother, Norman murdered Marion as well as two other young women who checked into the motel prior to Marion’s arrival.
The first installment in the Saw film series, 2004’s Saw opens with photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regaining consciousness while chained to pipes at opposite ends of a filthy bathroom with a dead body lying between them. The two men soon realize that they’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed Jigsaw and must complete his perverse puzzle to survive.
At the end of the movie, it is revealed that the body in the middle of the room isn’t really dead. The corpse rises and is introduced to be John Kramer, the real Jigsaw.
Scream follows Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a high school student in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California, who becomes the target of a mysterious killer in a Halloween costume, a year after the murder of her mother. At a party to celebrate the school’s closure following the recent string of killings, the murderer kills Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), right in front of her just after they have sex.
But at the end of the movie, it is revealed that the murderer is actually two people: Billy and his friend Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard).
Secret Window (2004)
Based on the novella Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King, Secret Window follows Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp), an author who retreats to his cabin at Tashmore Lake in upstate New York to throw off his writer’s block and come to terms with his wife’s affair (Maria Bello). One day, a man named John Shooter (John Turturro) arrives at the cabin and accuses Mort of plagiarizing one of his works.
Shortly after meeting John, Mort is plagued by inexplicable events, including the death of his dog, the burning of his wife’s house, and getting involved in a murder. But it turns out that Mort is actually Shooter. Suffering from dissociative identity disorder, Mort is the one responsible for all the strange occurrences, including the murders of his wife and her lover, whom he both killed when the pair went to see him with divorce papers at hand.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel of the same name, Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Edward “Teddy” Daniels, a U.S. deputy marshal who tries to track down escaped mental patient Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson), who is believed to be responsible for the murder of her three children.
But near the end of the film, it is revealed that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, Rachel’s husband. In reality, Andrew has been incarcerated at the mental hospital located on the titular island for murdering his wife and their three kids. The search for Rachel, which is laid down at the start of the movie, is just a game carefully put together to shake Andrew from his insanity.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The second film in the Star Wars film series and the fifth chronological chapter of the Skywalker Saga, The Empire Strikes Back centers on the battle between the malevolent Galactic Empire, led by the Emperor (Clive Revill /Elaine Baker), and the Rebel Alliance led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). It also follows Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he trains to master the Force so he can confront the powerful Sith lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse / James Earl Jones).
In the third act of the film, Luke abandons his training to save his friends from Darth Vader, who is later revealed to be his actual birth father.
The Departed (2006)
A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs and also loosely based on the real-life Boston Winter Hill Gang, The Departed follows Trooper Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) who goes undercover within the Irish mob to implicate sadistic boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The latter, meanwhile, recruits Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan, a dirty cop, to hunt out the “rat.”
Near the end of the Martin Scorsese-directed movie, Sullivan discovers Costigan’s real identity and shoots him in the head. But when he returns to his apartment after Costigan’s funeral, a shocked Sullivan is welcomed by Costigan’s handler, Staff Sergeant Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), waiting to kill him.
The Game (1997)
Directed by David Fincher, The Game centers on Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a wealthy banker who throws himself into his work after witnessing his father’s suicide. On his 48th birthday, Nicholas’ estranged brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up and gifts him a ticket for a game that he promises will change Nicholas’ life.
Initially harmless, the game grows increasingly personal, and when Nicholas loses his fortune, he starts to fear the game and the company that runs it, Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). In the climax of the film, Nicholas is cornered on a roof by CRS employees and accidentally kills his brother. Horrified by what he has done, Nicholas leaps to his death.
But at the end of the movie, the game is revealed to be just a game. Nicholas and Conrad are both alive, and the entire game is actually orchestrated by the latter to prevent the former from ending up like their father.
The Others (2001)
The Others stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, a devoutly religious woman who moves with her two photosensitive children to her old family house during World War II. While awaiting her husband’s return from the war, Grace and her two kids are convinced that the home is haunted as they are being tormented by unseen beings.
But at the end of the movie, it is revealed that Grace and her children are actually the ghosts of the house. It turns out that Grace killed her kids and herself in a bout of insanity but never realized it.
The Prestige (2006)
An adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, The Prestige follows the rivalry between stage magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) at the end of the 19th century in London. Obsessed with creating the best stage illusion, the two engage in competitive one-upmanship that eventually leads to fatal results.
At some point in the Christopher Nolan-directed movie, it is revealed that Alfred actually has a twin brother who helped him pull off his magic tricks. Rupert, meanwhile, manages to execute his illusions by cloning himself with the use of a machine invented by Nikola Tesla (David Bowie).
The Sixth Sense (1999)
One of the greatest movie plot twists can be found at the end of the supernatural psychological thriller The Sixth Sense. Directed by Night Shyamalan, the film follows Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a 9-year-old boy who can talk to the dead. Frightened by visitations of ghosts with unresolved problems, Cole seeks the help of child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who tries to uncover the truth about Cole’s supernatural abilities.
But Dr. Crowe is actually dead. At the end of the movie, he recalls being shot by his former patient Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), and realizes that he has been dead the entire time he was working with Cole.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Directed by Bryan Singer, The Usual Suspects follows the interrogation of Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a small-time con man, who is one of only two survivors of a massacre and fire on a ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles. Through flashback and narration, Kint relates a complicated story of events that led him and his four other criminal companions to the boat. According to Kint, they are all controlled by a mysterious crime lord known as Keyser Söze.
After Kint explained everything to the police, the authorities let him leave only to realize at a later time that Kint is actually Söze.
The Village (2004)
Written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Village centers on the residents of Covington, a small, isolated, 19th-century village in Pennsylvania where people live in fear of “Those We Don’t Speak Of” ― nameless humanoid creatures living within the surrounding woods. But at the end of the film, it is revealed that it’s actually the early 21st century, and the tale of “Those We Don’t Speak Of” is just created by the Elders of the community to discourage residents from leaving.
In reality, Covington was founded in the late 1970s by Edward Walker, a former professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania. Edward created the village, along with other people he met at a grief counseling clinic, so they could have a place where they would live and be protected from any aspect of the outside world. Covington was built in the middle of a wildlife preserve purchased by Edward’s family fortune, and to make sure that the village would be invisible to the outside world, Edward funded a ranger corps and even paid off the government to make the place a no-fly zone.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Us centers on Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) who returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child for a vacation with her husband, son, and daughter. The family’s serene beach vacation soon turns to chaos when their doppelgängers show up and begin to terrorize them. Among the four doppelgängers, only Adelaide’s doppelgänger, Red, can speak, albeit in a guttural, raspy voice.
At the end of the film, it is revealed that Red is the real Adelaide, and the Adelaide who has been the center of the movie is actually the doppelgänger. A flashback scene reveals what really happened in the harrowing night Adelaide and Red first met as kids in the hall of mirrors at a funhouse. In the scene, Red chokes Adelaide unconscious, damaging her larynx and making her voice raspy and guttural sounding. After handcuffing and dragging Adelaide underground, Red returns above ground and takes over Adelaide’s life.