The solidly spooky new Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy, now out in theaters, is built around a twist most viewers will have guessed by the film's halfway point (if not much, much earlier). The film has been dinged for this in a fair number of reviews, and it's easy to see why. If you guess a twist early enough, then the rest of the movie is spent waiting for the characters to catch up, which can be really, really frustrating.
But is that what Goodnight Mommy is up to? The film drops many, many clues as to what's actually going on in its story, early and often. And since it has only three major characters — two young twins and their mother, who has recently returned from having reconstructive surgery that obscures her face with bandages, leading the twins to believe she might not be their mother — it's fairly hard for it to proceed without nodding toward this elephant in the room. (If you want to know what happens, here are full spoilers, courtesy of the A.V. Club.)
I would argue, then, that Goodnight Mommy isn't built around a twist at all. It's built around what I'd call a reveal, and as such, it plays fair with the audience, enhancing the horrors the characters go through. This extends to the film's marketing. A cursory look at the poster will easily suggest who the true monster in the film is. In almost every way, Goodnight Mommy wants the audience to be ahead of it.
And there are plenty of other movies that have been accused of having bad, easy-to-guess twists that I would argue were less "twists" and more "reveals." (Off the top of my head: Shutter Island, The Village, and several moments in the TV show Lost.) A twist, see, is simply there to pull the rug out from under the audience; a reveal is there to more deeply explore the characters.
The "reveal" focuses more on characters' emotions
Another recent work that's been hit by the "the twist was too easy to guess" criticism is the USA television series Mr. Robot. In it, one character isn't real, which is fairly obvious from roughly the second episode.
When I spoke to the series creator, Sam Esmail, he said this was his intention all along — so that when the ultimate reveal came, the audience's focus would be on the central character, Elliot, and his emotional upheaval. Esmail said:
I wanted the audience to be a little bit ahead of Elliot on this. In a weird way, I think that helped them absorb that moment more. It wasn't about the shock of the reveal. It was about how Elliot felt in that moment, how Elliot's going to process this moment and what Elliot's going to go through in that moment. I felt like if it was turned into a big shocking twist, it would be more about that, less about us empathizing with him.
And, indeed, having the audience be ahead of Elliot in this one particular instance gave Esmail room to pull off one actual major twist that very few viewers guessed.
Goodnight Mommy is a story about the always-fraught relationship between a mother and her children: frequent, fertile ground for horror. Most female-oriented horror takes as its starting point the terrifying things that can happen as a result of bearing children, and this film is no different. Thus, the film, suspecting we might be at least a little aware of its genre, gives clues to its ultimate reveal early and often — so it becomes easier for the audience to shift its sympathies from one character to another as it nears its climax. In other words, if the audience isn't ahead of the reveal on some level, it's not getting the film's intended emotional effect.
Directors and screenwriters Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz play fair with the audience, too. Once you've started to figure out what's going on, everything in the film steers you toward realizing you've figured it out. This is the very best kind of reveal, where it feels to the viewers like they've solved a mystery.
But if you assume that Fiala and Franz were trying to keep all of this from you, building up to a major twist, then that denouement must seem pretty disappointing.
"Twists" are about keeping something from the audience at all costs
Think of some of the best twists in film history. The one in The Sixth Sense, for instance, drops a lot of clues, but few of them make sense without the full picture. The movie plays fair, but keeps its cards very close to its vest. The twist also underlines the film's ideas of drawing closer to family in the face of our own mortality.
Similarly, there's no real foreshadowing of the idea that Planet of the Apes is set on a far-future Earth, for instance, but that twist ultimately leaves the audience thinking about its own relationship to the world it inhabits.
But twists don't want to be guessed. They're there to obscure themselves, and when they're not handled well, the audience can feel restless for having figured it out.
Think, for instance, of the 2010 romantic drama Remember Me, whose twist was that one of the characters was going to die in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The film never hinted toward this, which made the ultimate twist feel all the more maudlin and perplexing. It came out of nowhere. It was a cheap ploy, designed to pull one over on the audience.
Because twists exist solely to turn everything on its ear — rather than to reveal something deeper about the characters — guessing one rarely leads to the kind of detective work that Goodnight Mommy or Mr. Robot reward.
When twists are handled well, they can feel like glorious "aha" moments that arrive out of the blue, like the writers and directors pulled off a kind of magic trick. At their worst, twists feel sort of nonsensical and mostly there to throw the audience for a loop.
Whether it's a "twist" or "reveal" may be up to you
I will freely admit that this taxonomy of "reveals" and "twists" is highly biased by my own feelings.
You might have watched any of these examples and had the opposite experience: either been disappointed because you guessed what was happening early on, or blindsided by a reveal I've suggested was designed to be easy to guess. And sometimes, merely knowing a movie has a twist will send viewers into a film watching intently, trying to spot the twist before the movie springs it. In those cases, attentive viewers will almost always guess the twist or reveal before the film unveils it.
All I would suggest is that sometimes, when we complain about something making a twist too easy to guess, its creators may just be trying to lead you by the nose to a reveal because that makes everything around it psychologically richer.
So the next time you groan over an obvious twist, ask yourself this: Does knowing the twist make the movie more emotionally compelling? Then you just might be dealing with a reveal — and a film that wasn't even trying to fool you.
Goodnight Mommy is slowly expanding throughout the country. Find out if it's playing in your area here.