There may be no worse offense among fans of film than having a movie’s ending prematurely revealed, or spoiled. Whodunnit? How did they do it? Who gets killed? Who killed them? Do they catch him? Did they find her? Did she want to be found? Was it even her? The surprise ending or plot twist is such a standard convention of genre films (action, crime, fantasy, horror, mystery and science fiction to name a few) that AMC’s filmsite has even identified the top 100 twists of all-time; among them — and arguably one of the best— is to be found in the 1995 serial killer thriller: SE7EN.
The secret to a truly memorable surprise ending is how well the script writer makes use of devices, sometimes known (but somewhat inaccurately labelled) as tropes — conventions of plot movement and direction that any ardent film buff knows, or at least would recognize.
The website TVtropes.org pretty much identifies them all. There’s “Save the Day, Turn Away,” a classic ending of horror films with sympathetic monsters that end up, ironically, protecting the heroine (but then must flee into the night) or the western where the hero releases a town from tyranny only to ride off into the sunset.
Other familiar tropes include “The Body Snatcher” — most obvious at play in Invasion of the Body Snatchers but made humorous in a flic like Freaky Friday (its literary equivalent is often referred to as the doppelgänger).
And I need no other example than The Wizard of Oz to illustrate “all is a dream.”
My favorite filmic device, however, is taken from a literary trope of the same name: the “unreliable narrator” — a narrative technique honed and perfected by Edgar Allen Poe in tales like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tate Heart.”
One of the best examples of the unreliable narrator in film? Director David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999), written by Chuck Palahniuk (based upon his novel).
With FIGHT CLUB, Fincher adeptly uses audience expectations of a narrator — credited solely as The Narrator (Edward Norton) — to deliver a twist so mind-blowing that it’s near impossible to discuss the movie in any detail without ruining its ingenious conceit. Suffice to say that Norton’s foil, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is not who he seems to be.
Fincher’s talent for pulling off surprises in the final reel, however, (and bringing out the best in an otherwise limited-range Brad Pitt) began four years earlier with SE7EN (1995).
Perhaps the finest (hunt for a) serial killer film ever made, SE7EN (or Seven) is also one of the more artistic yet visceral examples of just how effective the twist ending can be.
Note: SPOILER ALERT!
Much has been written about SE7EN and its ever-present atmosphere of fatalistic determinism. It’s a grim film — one that subverts the standard story arc of the killer being brought to justice — using the blueprint of the seven deadly sins to meticulously match and mark seven gruesome deaths.
And its startling final scene, another inversion — that of the “finger in the mail” filmic trope — brings me to coining a phrase for a new device that I believe should be added to the lexicon of cinema: “the head in the box.”
Scriptwriters whose villains are psychopaths, kidnappers and all manner of killers often employ the “finger in the mail” trope: body parts (fingers, ears, even organs) mailed to taunt the police or terrorize the families of victims. Most likely originating with the historical case of Jack the Ripper and a half a kidney mailed to an investigating officer along with a letter addressed from hell, the “finger in the mail” trope has been used in genre films as diverse as Dirty Harry and Escape from New York.
But SE7EN‘s disturbing climax is in a class all by itself.
Killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), in custody, while being transported to prison by the cops that “caught” him, seems to gloat from the backseat as a delivery van arrives on a dusty road with a mystery package for the younger of the two police officers, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt).
It’s a plain brown box. The bottom’s wet. And as a palpable sense of dread descends on a desolate dusty road, the older, world-weary and wiser Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) opens the package to find — not a piece of a just any victim sent by the sadistic killer to taunt the police — but the decapitated head of Detective Mills’ wife.
Not the last, but a catalyst for the last murder of the movie, this head in a box inverts the standard trope, horrifying audiences while tying taught the central conceit. It is not the expected “catch me if you can” but a more sinister “catch me so I can watch you suffer.”
The ending of SE7EN thus deserves a filmic trope of its own. And while I just may have coined a phrase, the credit belongs to writer Andrew Kevin Walker, Director David Fincher, and, as Brad Pitt tells it, his own insistence that the head in the box remain despite audience testing that almost resulted in a rewrite that would have given the film a happy ending.
Had that happened, a good film would never have become the great film it is.
And I wouldn’t be writing about a head in a box.