This is a guest post by our friend Taylor Hawkins.
In professional wrestling, there is something called the “Dusty Finish,” which is named after the late, great Dusty Rhodes.
The Dusty Finish is when a match ends due to wonky circumstances, like the referee getting knocked out cold, allowing a substitute referee to come in and declare a winner, only to have the original referee overturn the call, or having an official from the back, whether it is the owner or general manager, come out and overturn a match decision. When done well, there are few better ways to tell a compelling story. When overused or misused, it is cringe-worthy and can ruin an angle.
I think there is an equivalent of the Dusty Finish in the world of film, and it is often referred to as the “Shyamalan Twist.” Named for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s propensity to toy with the audience and swerve them at the last moment, the “Shyamalan Twist” was first seen in full effect in the 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense, Shyamala’s third feature film and first blockbuster. It was the reveal of the year, if not the decade: Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was dead all along. It was a revolutionary moment for the thriller genre, a landmark moment that today is still mentioned among the most iconic in cinema.
M Night’s Long Night
There was a time when Shyamalan was the king of thrillers. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all massive critical and financial successes.
Less than a decade later, The Happening came to theaters. The big twist was that the unexplainable suicides were caused by *gasp* the plants! It was something out of the worst rejected Stephen King short story. This was part of a rapid, post-Signs descent in M Night’s filmography. Eventually, he decided to forgo his patented twist in lieu of something else entirely.
The Last Airbender and After Earth were big budget sci-fi films that were much more straightforward than his previous offerings, and while they were visually appealing they were regarded by popular opinion as massive failures. Will Smith called After Earth the “most painful mistake” of his career.
During this period, M Night became a 2-time Razzie Award winner for worst director (Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender) and was nominated for two more (The Happening and After Earth).
Gone were the opportunities for Shyamalan to play with a $75 million+ budget. He had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get back on the right track.
The question that M Night had to be asking is could his patented twist make a comeback?
The Cautionary and Instructive Tale of Daniel Bryan
The Dusty Finish wasn’t just a ploy used to fill time and space. There was a specific purpose behind it, and it was tweaked and perfected along the way. It was designed to create a sympathetic character by showing someone cheated out of a title or victory that rightfully belonged to them. The point was to create a powerful, impactful moment that would prolong the feud. In professional wrestling, the journey is more important than the destination, and the Dusty Finish made for an exciting bump in the road.
Daniel Bryan was a regular man in a world of hulking gladiators. The 5’8” bearded technician looked nothing like Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, or any other wrestler the general public may have seen in the spotlight over the years. He was miniscule in the ring beside his peers. To anyone that saw him without having watched him perform, he looked like a nobody.
What then did Bryan have going for him? He was one of the best wrestlers in the world.
But wrestling is entertainment, so his in-ring skill wouldn’t matter one iota if he couldn’t win the love of the crowd. This where a number of Dusty Finishes came into play. Utilizing the technique, Bryan would eventually win the WWE Title in what is considered one of the most emotional and iconic moments in WWE history. That’s the power of the Dusty Finish when used to perfection.
To get to that point, however, Bryan had to become a sympathetic figure, and the build for his climactic moment began two years prior to his victory. As a loud, obnoxious heel (villain), Bryan weaseled his way into winning the World Heavyweight Championship, the company’s second biggest belt at that time, and portrayed himself as being on top of the world. But the fans knew he was playing second fiddle to the WWE Champion, C.M. Punk. They wanted to see Bryan humbled. It was fitting then that Bryan lost his title to a guy named Sheamus in a then record 18 seconds. The embarrassing defeat stripped Bryan of his greatest accomplishment and brought him back down to the lowest rung on the ladder.
For the next year, Bryan built up momentum with the crowd through his in-ring talent and antics with unlikely tag team partner Kane (a wrestler whose wild fictional backstory includes being burned nearly to the point of death by his brother, spending time in Hell, and, of all things, control over lightning). He went from a heel to a face (hero). Finally, he was in a position to challenge for the WWE Championship.
Bryan had one big problem, the power-hungry WWE executive duo known as The Authority. These characters—played by the real life husband and wife duo Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who are actually WWE executives—hated Daniel Bryan and didn’t want him to win the championship. On TV, week after week, The Authority said Bryan was too small, too ugly, not the kind of wrester they would want on billboards to sell tickets. These were actual, real-life reasons that had actually hindered the careers of wrestlers over the years. The blending of fiction and reality helped further the notion that the WWE was intentionally trying to hold back Bryan from reaching his full potential. Even the smartest fans who are 100% aware of the reality of wrestling weren’t sure if WWE was being creative or honest.
But finally Bryan earned a title shot against John Cena, at Summerslam in 2013, the second biggest pay-per-view the WWE puts on each year. After defeating John Cena for the title, special guest referee Triple H immediately assaulted the new champion. In this vulnerable moment, Randy Orton, cashed in his contract that granted Orton the right to a title match at any time. As quick as Bryan had won the title, he lost it. Orton was the new WWE Champion.
Bryan would have his shot at a rematch the next month, at Night of Champions. And Bryan won! Again. With no Dusty Finish! Except….the very next night on Monday Night Raw, The Authority announced the referee ha da faster count than normal. Thus, Bryan hadn’t won and had to give the title back to Orton. It was a slap to the face of the fans, and it incited them further to get behind the loveable loser.
Bryan had a rematch against Orton on the next pay-per-view. All the fans were ready. Except in the middle of the match, the 7-foot tall Big Show, on orders from “The Authority,” interrupted. Big Show knocked out Bryan, Orton, and the referee, effectively ending the match.
The next pay-per-view was Hell in a Cell. Fans thought this match would be different, since Bryan and Orton would do battle within the confines of a locked cell and the special guest referee was the legendary Shawn Michaels, who happened to have trained Daniel Bryan. It meant he would finally get a fair fight, right? Absolutely not. He was betrayed by his mentor in the form of a kick to the face.
With that loss, Bryan started feuding with a group known as the Wyatt family. In the wrestling world, this would indicate that Bryan’s chance at the championship seemed over. Especially since Batista (Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy) had won the Royal Rumble, earning a title shot at Wrestlemania. The fans were disappointed. Bryan had become their favorite underdog, cheered and applauded every time he wrestled or gave a promo. To see him miss his chance was sad.
To the shock of the fans, Bryan swerved the Wyatt Family and ended the feud.
Even more shocking, with Wrestlemania approaching, Bryan was given one final opportunity to get his shot. He had to defeat Triple H early on at Wrestlemania to earn entry into the main event. That would be two matches in one night! And the second match would be a triple threat. It was yet another bump in the road in a long series of bumps. But each setback Bryan had faced, each injustice he had been forced to overcome, each “Dusty Finish” he had encountered, had earned Bryan more and more loyalty from the fans.
At Wresltemania XXX Bryan defeated Triple H. The crowd exploded in jubilation. Then came Bryan’s ultimate test, the triple threat match between Bryan, Randy Orton, and Batista. When Bryan managed a victory, the ear-breaking cheers from earlier in the evening magnified to a moment of pure ecstasy.
Thanks in no small part to the “Dusty Finish,” the Daniel Bryan saga marked a high-point of entertainment rarely seen in any medium, let alone the “lowbrow” world of professional wrestling.
M Night’s New Dawn
The “Shyamalan Twist” too has a specific purpose. Its point is to make a thriller transcendent and keep the viewer off balance. He spoon feeds you just enough information to keep you interested without ever giving the big turn away. He leads you to a specific conclusion before pulling the rug completely out from under you, and when he does it and it is done right, there are few more exciting moments in cinema.
With few studios banging on his door to throw buckets of cash at him, M Night decided that his best course of action would be to fund his next film himself by using his cut from After Earth. A $5 million budget was a far cry from his previous projects. This film would be stripped down to the bare minimum.
The result was The Visit, and with The Visit came the return of the “Shyamalan Twist.” The film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike; some felt it was one of his best films, while others firmly believed it was one of the worst. Polarizing would be the best way to describe it, but it was a huge step in the right direction after the string of consensus failures. Plus, it was a big financial success, earning $98.5 million worldwide. It was the perfect base upon which he would make his grand return.
Despite the success of The Visit, Shyamalan still didn’t have the funds necessary to create a massive blockbuster. With $9 million at his disposal and a horror movie in mind, he would need to use all of his directorial skills. Thus came Split.
Split focuses on Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with dissociative identity disorder, a form of mental illness brought on by abuse during his childhood. Crumb has 23 known and distinct personalities. For a large portion of the film, a 24th persona referred to only as “The Beast” is alluded to and referenced by the other personas. “Hedwig” informs the girls Crumb has kidnapped that they will be sacrificed to The Beast. “Dennis” discusses The Beast at length with Dr. Fletcher, his psychiatrist, and it becomes more and more clear that The Beast is a made-up persona used to scare the other personalities and give power to the bad ones, a trump card that seemed to carry a lot of weight inside the demented discussion hall of Crumb’s mind. For a moment it seemed Shyamalan would not use his patented twist, opting instead for anti-climax.
But the Shyamalan Twist came, unveiling The Beast, a persona that is super fast, super strong, and impervious to bullets. It has a minor transformation in appearance. M Night could have given The Beast furs, horns, fangs, wings, or any other monstrous quality, but kept him decisively human while being a carnivorous monster that feeds upon Dr. Fletcher, Claire, and Marcia before turning his sights on Casey.
Just as we start to view The Beast as entirely dehumanized, he explains to Casey his plan to wage a war against those who don’t know pain, or loss, or tragedy, those whose hearts are “impure” by how perfect their lives have been. But then The Beast sees Casey’s scars. The cutting she had done to herself in trying to cope with and process all the times her uncle had molested her. The scars, both physical and mental, from her abuse made her pure in The Beast’s eyes, something that she wasn’t in the eyes of others. He spares her.
Charity organizations and mental health professionals clamored for boycotts because they felt the movie misrepresented mental illness as being an overtly violent sickness. But I don’t think they’re seeing the forest from the trees. The message is that the damaged “evolved” due to what they had endured. It’s a testament to those who have suffered, survived, and lived to persevere through another day. It was an ode to them and a triumphant return to the spotlight for Shyamalan
And just when we thought Split was over, M Night had one final twist up his sleeves—the revelation that Split took place in the same universe as his earlier superhero film, Unbreakable. The clear implication being that we would get a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split that would pit the hero versus the villain. The response from many movie fans was a loud, “Yes!”