Us: “Obvious” Twist Beats “Cheap” Twist

I have a lot of thoughts about Jordan Peele’s Us, about 95% of which are positive (with the remaining 5% being “less positive,” though not outright negative), which should make it  difficult to pin down the one thing related to it that I most urgently want to blog about. Fortunately, all the lines on my multi-track mind occasionally get switched over to a single track with no bottlenecking, so here I am, ready to devote several hundred words or more to the movie’s twist ending, as it relates to twist endings in general.

Many people have indicated that they guessed the ending of Us well in advance. Being that I “guessed” it as well, I believe them, but it’s not an impressive bit of sleuthing or an indictment of the film’s storytelling. First off, given the supersaturation of available fiction in the market–a state that has long existed, but is more pronounced today than it’s ever been–I’m going to guess that any story-lover over the age of twenty has been exposed to every type of twist ever has been and can be. That makes it that much harder to take anyone by surprise with a plot twist; doubly so for genre stories, where such twists are often expected; triply so for genre stories featuring clones.

Just off the top of my head (while trying not to spoil more recent / potentially popular movies that have done this), the 2000 Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and the 2002 film Impostor (adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1953 short story of the same name) both featured the same twist that wraps up Us. The “real person” we’ve been following was actually the “clone” all along. While working with twins instead of clones, this twist was similarly revealed in the Simpson’s Halloween segment “The Thing and I.” Again, those are just off the top of my head, and if I had it in me to do an ounce of research I’d probably find a hundred more examples from every medium. It bears clarification: the fact that this twist is not “original” is not a criticism. In fact, it’s a defense against any criticism levied against the film solely based on someone having predicted the twist. Of course you saw it coming, it’s probably one of several potential twists you were keeping a lookout for, and you’ve seen / read it before, and ultimately it doesn’t matter how “obvious” it may have been to you, because the twist serves the story, not the other way around. It also, thank everything, isn’t cheap.

I mentioned earlier that I “guessed” the twist as well. Well, really I just anticipated the possibility, one way or another, of the movie ending with the alternate version of our heroine being mistaken for the “real” version. Would it be that she had been the “fake” version all along? Would she get swapped out at some point midway through the movie? Or get replaced during the climax? I wasn’t going to mind either way, as long as the movie earned the twist and didn’t opt for a cheap, lazy switcheroo existing solely to keep a horror movie from having to end without one last, stupid scare or down moment, God forbid.

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See, there’s an easy way to make this twist more surprising and less obvious, and that’s to have it come out of nowhere. To be fair, the completely unexpected, nigh-inexplicable end moment can work when execute well. The original Halloween basically ends on the “twist” that Loomis wasn’t just talking shit when he called Michael pure evil and “the bogeyman.” But that’s the exception that kicked off a ton of copycats who created the rule, that rule being, “No matter how defeated the villain appears to be, or how victorious our heroes appear to be, or how ridiculous it would be for the opposite to be true, the opposite is likely true.” Hence we have Freddy Krueger spoiling the ending of his otherwise classic film debut for the sole purpose of “Sike!”

The Halloween twist works and is beloved because, despite being unpredictable and largely unexplainable within the context of the plot, it fits thematically. Likewise, the brutally tragic twist at the end of The Mist at least serves a purpose and had some thought behind it, making the story feel almost classically mythological. So I don’t mean to present a false binary in which there are only “obvious” (good) twists and “cheap” (bad) twists. But I do mean to present the case that predictability isn’t the true measure of a twist’s effectiveness. If the only thing a twist has going for it is that it’s surprising, then it’s very likely to be lousy. If the only negative thing about a twist is that it was a bit “obvious,” then it’s still an effective storytelling mechanism.

It doesn’t matter that the ending of Us was a bit too apparent to some people. All that matters is whether it was good storytelling. It doesn’t fall into my “5% of the movie that I found less than positive,” so you can predict how I feel about it.