17 films and TV shows that cleverly teased their big twist early on
Sometimes, there’s just no beating a good plot twist. David Fincher’s grisly 1995 noir Se7en, which marks its 25th anniversary today, is celebrated for many things, among them its shocking final twist.
But even upon repeat viewings, many people don’t notice the subtle clues left earlier in the film, which tipped their hand towards Se7en’s climactic reveal.
Foreshadowing can be a fine art, leveraged for great tragic or satirical effect – or it can simply be playful, a way of rewarding obsessed viewers who trawl through their favourite film or TV series hunting for Easter eggs.
From Breaking Bad to How I Met Your Mother, here is a list of 17 films and series which secretly gave away big twists early on.
In case it needs saying, heavy spoilers follow…
The World’s End
Edgar Wright’s 2013 genre romp The World’s End didn’t so much spoil its own ending as the entirety of its plot. In the film, which is centred around an apocalyptic pub crawl, the names of the 12 pubs (which form the so-called “Golden Mile”) contain oblique references to the events that transpire within them (in The Two Headed Dog, the protagonists are attacked by twins; The Hole in the Wall sees its wall crashed through with a car, etc). But the most notable foreshadowing comes when Gary (Simon Pegg) declares the group the “five musketeers”, prompting Oliver to respond: “Don't you mean the three musketeers?” He’s right, of course, and by the film’s end, two of the five members have perished.
Released in the UK earlier this year, Uncut Gems saw Adam Sandler deliver a blisteringly good performance as the compulsive, chaotic gambler Howard Ratner. After pissing off a loan shark’s henchman (Keith Williams Richards) one too many times, Howard gets a bullet in the face during the film’s breath-taking conclusion. The thing is, his killer told him he’d do so just 10 minutes into the movie. “You’re dead,” he tells him. “You’re dead. You think I’m playing games? When I’m shovelling the dirt over your f***ing head, you’ll see how funny it is then.”
The ending of Martin Scorsese’s 2010 noir Shutter Island was truly a mind-blower. After watching detectives Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate mysterious goings-on in an island mental institution, we learn that Teddy is in fact an inmate of the asylum, part of an elaborate experiment to help sew his psyche back together. There are a litany of small indicators that the whole thing was a set up, but one particularly telling moment comes when Daniels and Aule de-holster their firearms. Aule, who is really an employee of the asylum, fumbles with his weapon, betraying for an instant that he is clearly not a member of law enforcement.
The ending of Jaws sees Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) use compressed air tanks to finally kill his aquatic nemesis, exploding them while in the shark’s maw. Earlier in the film, a picture is shown of a shark biting down on a long cylinder, which looks an awful lot like the ending. But the most glaring bit of foreshadowing comes when the air tanks roll around on the deck of the ship, and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) says: “You screw around with these tanks, and they're going to blow up!” Shortly after, Quint (Robert Shaw) tells him: “That's real fine expensive gear you've brought here, Mr. Hooper. But I don't know what that bastard shark is going to do with it. Might eat it, I suppose.”
Christopher Nolan’s 2006 thriller featured a couple of major twists, including the revelation that magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is in fact a set of two twin brothers – a ruse they exploit to perform the notorious “Transported Man” trick. However, this was foreshadowed earlier in the film, when a boy witnesses a trick featuring a collapsing bird cage. When the magician appears to bring the squashed bird back, revealed up his sleeve, the boy asks, “Where’s his brother?”
Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 pop classic features a number of hints that the identity of the snitch was, in fact, Mr Orange (Tim Roth). Besides the prevalence of orange visual signifiers dotted throughout the film, the opening coffee scene also tips viewers off to his betrayal: when Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) neglects to tip the waitress at the diner, Orange is the one to dob him in to their boss.
Skyfall made a big mark on the James Bond canon with its decision to kill off M (played by Judi Dench) at the end of the film. While this came as a surprise at the time, the twist was in fact not-too-subtly revealed in the movie’s opening credits. After Dench’s name appears on-screen, the camera zooms into a tombstone – appearing, for a split second, like an epitaph.
The second season of AMC’s hit crime drama Breaking Bad ended with a spectacular tragedy, as Walt’s (Bryan Cranson) actions lead to a fiery plane crash in the skies over Albuquerque, New Mexico. The creators dropped hints, however, in the titles for four separate episodes that season: “Seven Thirty-Seven”, “Down”, “Over” and “ABQ” (the latter being Albuquerque’s airport code).
Better Call Saul
Vince Gilligan and co would pull a similar trick with Breaking Bad’s ongoing spin-off, Better Call Saul. Gustavo Fring, the villainous drug and fried chicken baron played by Giancarlo Esposito, made a surprise return in season three. But the twist was ruined in advance by attentive fans, who noticed that the first letters in all 10 titles of the second season episodes could be rearranged to spell “FRING’S BACK”.
Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed war blockbuster begins with a sequence set in the then-present, as an elderly man visits a tombstone in a Normandy cemetery. As the film flashes back to 1944, it’s not clear which of the soldiers storming the normandy beaches becomes this future veteran – only at the end are we shown that it is in fact the still-living James Ryan, mentioned in the film’s title. However, those with a knowledge of military paraphernalia could have already guessed the identity of the old vet: he’s wearing a 101st Airborne Division pin (Ryan’s division), whereas Hanks et al are part of the Army Rangers.
Another Chris Nolan film, another slice of winking cataphora. The space epic’s big twist – that good-natured astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConoughey) is communicating with his daughter in the past, through a time-travelling tesseract – is in fact hinted at with one of the very first lines of dialogue. When Cooper surprises his daughter, Murphy, she says: “I thought you were my ghost.” Three hours of film later, it turns out he was.
This classic horror from John Carpenter gave away the nature of its shape-shifting alien at the very start of the film, when a dog is chased through the icy landscape by a man in a helicopter. Research station occupants are shocked to witness the scene, but if they spoke Norwegian, they might have been able to understand. The man says something along the lines of: “Get the hell out of there. That's not a dog, it's some sort of thing! It's imitating a dog, it isn't real! Get away, you idiots!”
Game of Thrones
When direwolf puppies are discovered in the first episode of HBO’s beloved fantasy series Game of Thrones, opinions are split as to what to do. No-one is more eager to kill them than Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), however. When Theon later turns on the House of Stark later in the series, they should have seen it coming – direwolves being the symbol of Stark.
How I Met Your Mother
While the identity of the titular mother in How I Met Your Mother remained a mystery up until the final season of the show, her name – at least, her forename – was given away very early on. In the season one Thanksgiving episode “Belly Full of Turkey”, future Ted tells his children about going to a strip club with Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney for dinner, when he is introduced to a stripper, by the name of Tracy. For a second, he fools his kids into believing that this was how he met their mother – which would only make sense if that was really their mother’s name. Sure enough, the identity of the mother is later revealed to be one Tracy McConnell.
Paul Thomas Anderson used the cache afforded to him by his 1999 porn drama Boogie Nights to make Magnolia, a wildly ambitious ensemble film that culminated with a barrage of frogs raining from the sky. Those particularly well-versed in the Christian bible might have expected it, though: Magnolia is littered with references to the numbers 8 and 2, an allusion to Exodus 8:2. The verse in question reads: “The Nile will teem with frogs, and they will come into your palace and up to your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and your people, and into your ovens and kneading bowls.”
Jordan Peele’s superlative 2017 horror climaxed with the revelation that the film’s white villains had been kidnapping black victims and using their bodies as vessels. This includes the eerie housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), whom we later discover is possessed by the Armitage family’s grandmother. Bradley Whitford’s Dean Armitage rather explicitly suggests as much near the start of the film, when he says, “My mother loved her kitchen, so we keep a piece of her in here” – right before the camera pans to reveal Georgina standing there.
It’s one of the most well-known twists in cinema. At the end of Se7en, fulfilling his run of crimes inspired by the seven deadly sins, serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) presents good cop David Mills (Brad Pitt) with his pregnant wife’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) decapitated head in a box. Now, you’d have been hard-pressed to guess the ending beforehand, but, like Doe, Fincher did leave in a few clues. The most cunning of these comes in the way that Paltrow is shot, from the neck upwards – a symbolic decapitation by the camera. One of these “floating head" cutaways is even inserted into the film just as the subject of Doe’s final plan is discussed.