Turning on a dime: 15 great gearshift movies

Turning on a dime: 15 great gearshift movies

 

Warning: "Gearshift movies," a term coined by P.T. Anderson, are films that head in one direction, stop on a dime, and veer off into radically different territory. Since the turning point is usually a startling surprise, it should go without saying that the entries below contain major spoilers. Proceed at your risk.

1. Psycho (1960)

Imagine, for a moment, that you'd never seen Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and knew nothing about it. To really make the thought experiment work, let's pretend you didn't even know it was called Psycho. What kind of movie would you think you were watching for the first 40 minutes? Psycho at first plays like the story of a woman of limited means who makes a bad decision, then tensely lives on the outside of the law. On the run after absconding with her boss' money, she slowly turns into a nervous wreck. Then she checks into a motel, meets a nice (though slightly nervous) young man, and comes to a decision: She will right her wrongs and return the money. But first, a nice shower… At which point Psycho throws out its carefully constructed moral drama and enters a place where personal values and tough choices get destroyed by insanity that lets life bleed down the drain. It also abandons its seeming protagonist to a grisly fate, revealing that the story was never really about her at all.

2. Audition (1999)

As with Psycho, the ideal way to experience Audition is to know absolutely nothing about it going in—not the genre, not the director, and certainly not any plot developments beyond the most basic synopsis. And even then, you have to be the sort of person who can stomach a movie this graphic, though knowing you need a strong stomach spoils the movie a little, too. The last third of Audition is what shocks most viewers, but fans of extreme J-horror maestro Takashi Miike are probably more shocked by the first third, which tells the story of a lonely widower with a restraint more common to a Yasujiro Ozu movie. When the man uses his post in a film-production office to "cast" a potential future wife, he finds the demure young woman of his dreams. Then, in one shot involving a telephone and the contents of a giant burlap sack on her apartment floor, the genre, the tone, and the audience's expectations all abruptly change.

3. Death Proof (2007)

Going into Death Proof, the hot-rod half of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez exploitation epic Grindhouse, it's pretty obvious that the movie is going have fast cars, sexy women, and a few violent intersections of the two. What comes as a shock is that the beautiful, charming ladies Tarantino dotes on at the beginning of the movie—dwelling on their conversations, and taking time to show them downing shots and dancing to songs on a barroom jukebox—aren't picked off one by one, with the survivors allowed to develop as characters as they struggle over time. Instead, they're abruptly killed en masse in a single terrifying act of vehicular homicide by psychopath "Stuntman Mike," played by Kurt Russell. It only appears that Tarantino is introducing us to the main characters; in reality, he's establishing his killer's M.O., which a different group of women will thwart in Death Proof's second half.

4. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927)

F.W. Murnau's stark morality tale, one of the great achievements of the silent era, opens with a married man from the sticks (credited simply as "The Man," alongside "The Wife," "The Maid," et al.) sneaking off to see a foul temptress from the city. As they share intimacies under the moonlight, The Woman From The City convinces The Man to murder his wife and run off with her instead. But at the very moment he's about to drown The Wife, he recognizes his madness and has a sudden change of heart. From there, Sunrise quickly shifts to what amounts to a second honeymoon between man and wife, a delirious trip to the city that's a radical break from what has transpired before. But viewers can't forget so easily, and the revival of this moribund marriage carries a tension that wouldn't have been possible without the opening act.

5. Boogie Nights (1997)

P.T. Anderson put his love of gearshift movies into action with Boogie Nights, his sprawling portrait of the porn industry in the '70s and '80s, and the surrogate family of fucked-up stars and filmmakers caught up in its ebb and flow. Anderson shows an obvious affection for way things were done in the '70s, before hippie permissiveness ran smack into Reagan-era moral reactionaries, and before the video age laid waste to porn producers striving for some measure of artistic legitimacy. The difference between the two decades couldn't be drawn more sharply: As midnight approaches at a New Year's Eve party in 1979, with news of video's imminent rise already tarnishing the atmosphere, a despondent crew member, finally driven to the brink by his wife's infidelities, pulls out a gun. Blam! It's the '80s. The good times are over.

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6. Something Wild (1986)

Jonathan Demme's Something Wild has been around long enough now that people forget exactly how shocking it was when it was released. The story of dull, predictable banker Jeff Daniels and his whirlwind fling with free spirit Melanie Griffith starts out as a distinctly postmodern twist on the classic screwball comedy; as Griffith drags the stuck-in-a-rut Daniels along to her high-school reunion, Demme treats viewers to some fine comedic dialogue, memorable setpieces, terrific music, and unforgettable character-driven humor. But it's the jarring turn the movie takes once they get there that makes Something Wild truly special, drawing critical comparisons at the time to 1986's other great convention-twister, Blue Velvet. Ray Liotta, in one of his first film roles, appears as Griffith's steel-eyed, psychotic ex, and, as the film takes an intense turn into darkness, Demme ups the ante, showing the thin line between quirky and crazy and taking the audience on a jittery emotional ride that's entirely unexpected, given the film's kooky beginnings.

7. GoodFellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese's modern gangster-movie classic follows three full decades in the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who got involved with the Italian mob as a teenager in '50s Brooklyn and stayed with them until 1980, when he testified against his former bosses in court and went into witness protection. Throughout GoodFellas, Scorsese covers the passage of time in sweeping cinematic terms, wending through the key events and anecdotes that best evoke Henry's time with the mob and his eventual undoing. But then, on the fateful day of May 11, 1980, which ended with Hill's capture by FBI agents, Scorsese abruptly throws on the brakes. Gone are the majestic tracking shots and '50s pop standards that drew viewers into the mob lifestyle so seductively; they're replaced by a jittery style that mirrors the coke-fueled paranoia of Henry's last day-in-the-life as a free man. He has to pick up his brother from the hospital, arrange a deal with some shady associates from Atlanta, come back home to stir the sauce for dinner… and hey, see that helicopter circling overhead?

8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick's drastic change of tone a third of the way through Full Metal Jacket wasn't just a filmmaking choice; he was faithfully following the shift in style and mood of his source material, Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers. Both begin by bluntly, ominously cataloguing the breaking down of Marine Corps recruits at boot camp, and their subsequent rebuilding as killers. Even so, there's a congenial undercurrent to their training; the film pushes its audience to feel pride when Private "Gomer Pyle" overcomes his shortcomings, and to find goodwill toward Gunnery Sgt. Hartman for the brand of tough love that facilitates it. Then things go way too far in a hurry: A demented Pyle guns Hartman down, and the rest of the movie spirals into a chaotic chronicle of the insanity of the Vietnam War. The abrupt switch in direction is part of the point: Becoming a soldier and fighting a war is a rapid about-face in reality.

9. Lost Highway(1997)

David Lynch's Lost Highway†begins as a creepy take on modern noir, as jazz musician Bill Pullman finds a physical manifestation for his paranoia, in the form of a ghoulish visitor (Robert Blake) who taunts him with tidbits of forbidden knowledge about his possibly unfaithful wife (Patricia Arquette). The sequence builds to a seemingly murderous climax that lands Pullman in jail. But then the film seems to sidetrack to a pocket universe in which Balthazar Getty replaces Pullman as the protagonist, and winds up in another sort of noir, where Arquette plays a femme fatale whose attraction to Getty puts him at odds with local mobster Robert Loggia. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the two stories have elements in common, if they're different at all. Lynch pulled off a similar trick even more successfully, though no less mysteriously, in 2001's Mulholland Dr., using the leftover bits of a failed TV pilot as the foundation for a nightmare about the dreams we let Hollywood create for us, and the way those dreams sometimes eat us alive.

10. In The Bedroom (2001)

For most of the way, Todd Field's debut feature, expanded from an Andre Dubus short story, is about the wreckage a death causes in a seemingly healthy marriage. In the early going, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are united in wanting better things for their son Nick Stahl, who's decided to marry a single mother (Marisa Tomei) they feel is beneath his social station. But when Tomei's pathological ex-husband kills Stahl in a domestic dispute, Wilkinson and Spacek become increasingly angry—at each other, for a start, but also at the justice system that isn't working hard enough to keep the killer behind bars. All these events spark a major implosion at home, but what follows is less expected: Wilkinson, who by every indication is a lawful man, decides to take the law into his own hands. And just like that, a restrained domestic melodrama morphs into a soberer take on the Death Wish vigilante movie.

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11. Wild Things (1998)

As gearshift movies go, the camp thriller Wild Things is a borderline case, because the huge reveal around the halfway mark could be called a twist rather than a radical shift in tone. After all, here's a movie that keeps piling on twist after twist, right through the closing credits. Yet consider this: As an audience, we have every reason to trust that Matt Dillon's character—a teacher falsely accused of sexual assault by two different students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell)—is a wronged man, right up through a criminal trial that completely falls apart. But when it's revealed, via an infamous three-way, that all parties were in cahoots all along, the filmmakers pull the rug out from under the audience, and suddenly the movie is down a straitlaced protagonist.

12. The Ninth Configuration (1980)

In this wonderful genre-defying film by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, new psychiatrist Stacy Keach arrives at an experimental hospital for Vietnam veterans, determined to find out whether the inmates are faking their madness. For the first hour or so, Ninth Configuration follows the path of a highbrow surrealist comedy, as Keach pushes the inmates to show their true selves, and they push back just as hard, resulting in some hilariously quotable dialogue. But soon enough, the movie makes a tectonic shift: Some of the inmates suspect that Keach is crazier than any of them, and when their fears are confirmed, The Ninth Configuration becomes a sort of theo-psychological thriller. And just when all the tense confrontations and philosophical arguments over the existence of God start to get a bit much, Keach's own true self becomes evident, in one of the most startling fight scenes of the decade.

13. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female Rocky, and indeed, a large part of it progresses exactly like that: Hilary Swank bugs crotchety old boxing trainer Eastwood into taking her on, and once he finally does, she becomes a big-time competitor. There's plenty of sentimental excess tossed in—the two form an adorable father/daughter relationship, since they're both estranged from their families—so almost everyone who didn't hear about it ahead of time was caught off-guard at the abrupt plot twist which turned a perfectly fine sports movie into a grim treatise on euthanasia.

14. Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation may be the only gearshift film that actually shows viewers the cogs as they turn, amid an abundance of bizarro self-reference. Nicolas Cage stars as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who's struggling to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief into this very movie. When Charlie's attempts to anchor the plot land him in meta-film hell, he seeks the advice of his doltish twin Donald, who's just sold a terrible script for a cool million. As Donald (also played by Cage) makes his influence felt, Adaptation undergoes its own rapid adaptation. A barrage of clichés atomizes the dreamy, cerebral atmosphere, with Orlean (Meryl Streep) becoming a sex-obsessed fiend for an orchid-derived drug, and a poacher (Chris Cooper) blasting Donald with a shotgun before being eaten by an alligator.

15. The Crying Game (1992)

Neil Jordan's moody 1992 thriller is one of the most-spoilered films of all time, up next to Citizen Kane, but the big reveal that made the movie infamous doesn't actually mark either of the film's major tonal turning points. For roughly the first 40 minutes, The Crying Game is a claustrophobic, intimate little drama about a reluctant IRA agent (Stephen Rea) tasked with guarding a kidnapped British soldier (Forest Whitaker) who's being held as a political ploy. While Rea's superiors try to profit from their catch, Rea gradually gets to know Whitaker, in long, quiet, private conversations held in a dilapidated greenhouse deep in the woods. It's the kind of story that feels like it started on the stage, as a raw, simple, deeply personal little two-man play. Then Rea is ordered to take Whitaker into the woods and shoot him. In the wake of Whitaker's death—and an army sweep that leaves Rea alone and on the run—Rea retraces Whitaker's footsteps and steps from that hushed dialogue-driven drama into a moody, dingy, music-hall romance that takes place in a far larger and more crowded world. In essence, it becomes a neo-noir, with Jaye Davidson as the "femme" fatale leading Rea into trouble with a violent ex and a club scene he isn't ready for. Finally, Rea's IRA honchos reassert themselves, leading into an action-filled third act that comes with car chases, murder threats, bomb plots, and eventually outright murder. Davidson's true nature is far from the only thing about the film that keeps viewers off-balance and trying to guess what's going to happen next.

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