In some films, particularly of the twists and turns variety, a significant event, moment or even line of dialogue, can be summarized by the phrase “This changes everything”. This is known as a Game Changer, where the established landscape of the movie’s plot is irrevocably and dramatically altered, with no chance of ever going back. Audience reaction can range from emotional sledgehammer to WTF?
Often this single moment can encapsulate the whole film, and become its most famed component: everybody who has heard of The Crying Game is also familiar with its reveal. This isn’t the Twist Ending we’re talking about; this is the story shaking, ultimately defining wham moment.
Here are six great examples.
Obviously contains extensive spoilers.
“Have you a valediction, boyo?” – L.A. Confidential
A feast of noir murder mystery and crusading character development, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s labyrinth novel proves to be a flawless thriller with a suitably twisty plot and lots of meaty plot to sink your teeth into.
Starting out as an investigation into a massacre at a Los Angeles diner, L.A. Confidential quickly spirals into a tale of corruption and backstabbing, and takes a bold and startling turn in its second act, one that provides a heart stopping shock, a sickening and dizzying revelation, and one of the finest acted death scenes in cinema history.
It comes when charismatic Hollywood detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) visits the home of James Cromwell’s amiable, paternal police chief late one night, needing some background about a recently deceased cop who may hold the key to solving the shooting. Initially cooperative and committed, Smith checks just how far Vincennes’s lead goes, then quickly checks whether he has shared his findings with ad hoc partner Exley. When Vincennes responds with a no, Smith suddenly shoots him dead.
In one fell swoop, the film loses its top billed star, establishes its main villain within the heart of the good guys’ camp, and sets up the road to the climactic, blood soaked and stunning endgame. Breathtaking viewing.
Meeting With a Man Named X – JFK
Though it takes plenty of liberties with established fact for the sake of dramatic license, Oliver Stone’s JFK remains one of the most passionate, overwhelming and searing drama/thrillers of the 90’s, a recounting of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison’s mission to bring to court the first criminal trial regarding the infamous assassination of John F Kennedy.
Played by Kevin Costner, JFK sees Garrison and his legal team fighting and scouring for any hint or piece of evidence to implicate businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) in the murder, and quickly finds them out of their depth in a sea of horrifying conspiracy and ill motive. With witnesses dropping like flies, and other agencies dirtying the waters of their effort, Garrison is suddenly contacted by a very significant, but nameless, figure at the pinnacle of the intelligence community.
Meeting at the Kennedy memorial in D.C., the anonymous ‘X’, played by one scene wonder Donald Sutherland, breaks it down for Garrison in a stunning monologue, detailing not only the suspicious movements within the government on that fateful day, but also pointing the finger at the military and firmly establishing reason, means and depraved need for the killing.
Though inadmissible, verbal and unrecorded testimony from a man unwilling to be named or testify, this finally gives Garrison the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’, and firmly cements him in a state of horror at just how deep the darkness runs, and how impossible, though righteous, his mission truly is.
Lacey’s Revenge – The Escapist
A barely viewed and criminally overlooked debut from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, The Escapist is an intelligent and thoroughly engrossing prison drama with a solid gold finale twist of poignant, title altering quality.
But, in terms of plot, this final confrontation is set up by an unpredictable, hugely significant wham half way through, one that defines the “Oh crap!” trope.
Having already established the hierarchy of the joint the characters reside in, and are trying to break out of, in which psychotic capo Rizza (Damian Lewis) is the Godfather, and his perverse, drug addled brother Tony (Stephen Mackintosh) is untouchable as a result, the film allows a flawed though satisfying character moment to dramatically alter the immediate future of protagonist Frank (Brian Cox) and his team.
This is when Dominic Cooper’s new inmate Lacey, terrorized by Tony from the start, decides to take extreme measures and brutally attacks the monster with a folding chair, ultimately killing him, in Frank’s cell. Unfortunately, this occurs in the middle of a convoluted narcotic pay off that will see Tony turn a blind eye to Frank’s escape plan, one that Lacey is part of.
Though warranted, Tony’s death spells a fatal showdown with Rizza, one that seemingly makes the getaway impossible, surely shattering all hope remaining.
The Elevator Scene – The Secret in Their Eyes
Regarded as the finest effort Argentinean cinema has to offer, Oscar winning The Secret in Their Eyes is a thoughtful and emotionally charged thriller that easily transcends the stoic limitations of noir detective fable and doesn’t so much rely on its twists as much as simply thrive on them.
Told in flashback, attorney Bejamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is investigating a life defining case, the rape and murder of a young woman. Working with boss Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), Esposito is able to identify and track down the killer, sending him on his way to justice. However, a year later, the guilty party, Gomez (Javier Godino), shows up free and unchecked, spotted on TV by the victim’s widower.
A quick trip to the courthouse reveals that Gomez is not only a free man, but is working undercover in the political echelons as an enforcer. In other words, with powerful connections and scary liberties, ones that are revealed when Esposito and Irene make to leave the building.
Traveling in an elevator, they are joined halfway through by Gomez himself, who takes the opportunity to wordlessly take out his sidearm, load and prime it in front of the terrified antagonists, before taking his leave, face still blank. It proves to be an utterly chilling warning from bad guy to the good guys. Not only is the killer at large again, but he is untouchable, unlike them. That it is incased in such a tense, terrifying and tautly brief scene is the icing on the cake.
“Joey did it. Tom Stall didn’t” – A History of Violence
Something of a sleeper hit from horror director David Cronenberg, A History of Violence may lack the Canadian’s trademark sense of grotesque imagination, but as the title suggests is certainly not averse to graphically displaying the darker side of human nature.
And it is a complex saga that leads to the big, big moment.
The film previously seems to carry as a case of mistaken identity, in which local family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) has to suffer the attention of the country’s media after selflessly stopping an armed robbery in his diner, and then the scrutiny of Philadelphia gangsters (led by Ed Harris) arriving in the backwater town, dangerous men convinced that he is in fact fellow hoodlum Joey Cusack.
But after the inevitable stand off between Tom and the mobsters takes place, with the everyman again showing suspiciously adept skills at killing, the seeds of doubt truly begin to flourish, culminating in his wife (Maria Bello) finally confronting him over the matter. Wounded, vulnerable and dazed, Tom replies that “Joey did it”, not him.
With one line, it is not only revealed that Tom was indeed Joey Cusack, an infamous and psychotically violent criminal, all along, but that his new identity is less of a lie and more of a psychosis hinting at extreme denial and multiple personalities. This stark shock, turning the hero into the ultimate evil, precedes the breakdown of his cover, his family life, and leads him back into the world that gave him his homicidal streak in suitably body count totting style.
Vaginoplasty – The Skin I Live In
Described by Pedro Almodovar himself as “a horror film without the scares”, psychological character study The Skin I Live In remains one of the most troubling, compelling and subtly disturbing films of the new decade from a maverick director hardly noted for his restraint.
The reason why this low key, patient and contemplative drama is so well known is surely down to the sucker punch that occurs in flashback, when the link between a past revenge plot by Antonio Banderas’ plastic surgeon Robert and the dysfunctional relationship with his present test subject and live-in lover/pet Vera (Elena Anaya), a woman who’s origins are unknown and purpose unclear, is finally revealed.
After kidnapping and imprisoning young slacker Vicente (Jan Cornet), due to his indirect part in his daughter’s suicide, Robert sets about drastically altering him cosmetically, culminating in the aftermath of the first operation, in which Robert calmly reveals that the procedure was a “vaginoplasty”.
It is here that we realize, with a sense of dread and genuine horror, that the beautiful and delicate Vera is in fact Vicente, completely transformed from man into woman by Robert’s personal project, a distressing and macabre attempt to build a new daughter out of the person he considers responsible for the real girl’s death, and whom he has subsequently fallen in love with. As far as game changers go, it is one of the most thought provoking and twisted in recent memory.
By Scott Patterson