How to End a Movie

I saw Inception on its opening weekend, and I have to say that everything good everyone’s saying about it is true.  But among the praise for the writing, the acting, and the action, is the ending.  It was one of the best movie endings I’ve ever seen in my life.  I was going to do a Top Ten Movie Endings post, but couldn’t come up with enough movies.  I then tried the Top Five Movie Endings list, but got a much better idea instead:  a post on ways to end a movie well.

Okay, before we get started–SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT! I claim no responsibility for ruining movies for anybody that reads this (and I WILL be talking about the end of Inception, so you’ve been warned).


This is the easiest way to make a “s’okay” movie great.  It worked most famously for The Sixth Sense.  That was a good movie on its own, kinda scary, we felt bad and cared for the kid, but if Brucey-boy hadn’t been dead all along, I seriously doubt we’d remember it the way we do, if at all (and this is coming from a guy whose heart is broken over the crumbling of M. Night’s credibility as a decent director).  The most important part of a Twist Ending is that it has to be obvious after the reveal.  The audience needs to be able to look back over the whole movie, either by memory or a second viewing, and realize that it had been there all along.  You can see that no one talked to Dr. Crowe at all throughout The Sixth Sense.  In The Prestige, you put together that Borden was never cheating on his wife with Olivia, but that it was his brother all along, and THAT’S what was going on on the days he said “I love you” to her and she knew he didn’t mean it.  But if you throw in a twist that just doesn’t line up with what we’ve seen, it’s crap.  Have you seen Basic?  It has Sam Jackson and John Travolta in a very not-Pulp Fiction movie.  To explain to you what happened, let me just ask you to imagine watching the last episode of Lost, but instead of the whole purgatory thing, it just gets revealed that Jack and John and Hurley and Ben and Libby and Boon and Bernard and Rose and Tom Friendly were all okay and they explained to Kate that they were all old buddies all along and planned everything to happen exactly like it did so they could con some money out of Charles Whidmore.  That was essentially the ending to Basic. It made that much sense.  There are others like that, where at every corner at the end, there’s ONE MORE person that was in it the whole time, or SOMEONE ELSE was pulling the strings all along, instead of the person we were just told was pulling them.  That’s bad writing, and I hate that.


Arguably, the Happy Ending is really the best way to end a movie.  What is honestly better than watching our heroes succeed?  I guess most movies go with this, but it takes something special to have a Happy Ending and be a GOOD ending.  Sure, the end to Independence Day was a happy one, but it wasn’t special.  They won, and we knew they would win; not that I would have preferred they lose (no matter what you think of Jeff Goldblum), but I didn’t walk out of the theater on July 2, 1995 thinking, “And what an ending!”  No, a GOOD Happy Ending is something like Rounders. The thing with the end of Rounders is it could have gone so many different directions, and any one of them would have been more than adequate.  Mike could have walked when he had his $20,000 victory; it would have been a big moment for him to essentially tell KGB where to shove it and take the safe bet and leave the life behind that had cost him his career and his girlfriend.  But instead he sticks around, just to show that he’s better at the game than KGB is.  Then we see him losing that hand, and he could have lost that one and the movie could have taken us out on a down note, but no–Mike wins.  And what’s so great about it is that we WATCH him flop the nut-straight.  The turn and the river are meaningless to Mike’s inevitable victory, but we get to be in “the know” and watch KGB gloat himself broke, thus putting Mike far ahead of where he would have been before, and proving that he’s as good as he knows he is.


Chances are, if you see a movie with a Tragic Ending, it’s going to stick with you.  It’s generally a bad move to have your heroes not succeed in some fashion, so to do such an ending you really have to lay the groundwork for it.  I would hold that Se7en is the best reference for a tragic ending, where you realize that John Doe was going to win all along, and as much as we’d love to either stop Mills from shooting him at all, or (in my own, admittedly sick, preference) let him suffer a little longer, the fact is that Mills’s wife is still dead, as is his unborn child.  That’s heavy stuff.  The Tragic Ending can also make you take more home than just depression.  Have you seen American History X?  Danny’s death is a pretty strong way to say “you reap what you sow.”  Derek and Danny seeing the light didn’t change the world around them, and now we wonder if Derek will continue on with his new ways, or let the anger of his brother’s murder put him back where he was.  And speaking of movies with “American” in the title with tragic endings, there’s also American Beauty.  I loved that movie when it was relatively new, but I really don’t think I could handle it now.  I think this is an example of a pointless Tragic Ending.  Not only is it a profile of very sick, broken people, its ending is pointless.  Why does Lester need to die?  I guess it brings everything to a place of “people realizing what’s most important when its too late,” but I still don’t like it.  And do you know what the original, full ending was going to be?  It was going to be the kids on trial for his murder, with the tape they made at the beginning of the movie as the nail in their coffin.  “Thanks for seeing our movie, try not to drive your car off the road on the way home!”


The word “epic” means both “pertaining to a long poem usually centering around a hero,” and “unusually great size.”  So when I say “Epic Ending,” of what do you think?  I think of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  A lot of people complained that the ending was way to long for that movie, but take a closer look at those who say that–they’re probably idiots.  It’s essentially the ending to a 12 hour movie, so why in the world should it end in two minutes?  Granted, the constant fades-to-black were a bit deceptive, but I think that was intended to add to the slow, peaceful feel the ending took on.  Another good Epic Ending would be that of The Godfather.  I refer to the Baptism of Blood scene on to the last shot of Kay’s face disappearing behind Michael’s closing office door.  There is so much atmosphere and so much emotion through those final scenes, as we see Michael fully plunge himself into evil.  This is the kind of ending, though, that can really only work on huge movies like these.  I tried to watch Lawrence of Arabia a few weeks ago but couldn’t get past the 45 minutes of desert trekking, even with the hope of seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi in a headdress, but I’m willing to bet that had a huge ending, too; and if so, it would have worked and been appropriate.  The only “small” movie I can think of that I would argue has an Epic Ending would be Wayne’s World.  But that’s probably stretching the meaning of “epic” a bit.


I’ve had a difficult time locating many movies that I would say have a “Surprise Ending,” and not something else, like a Twist Ending.  The line is very thin, but I hold that there is a definite difference.  The Surprise Ending sweeps the rug out from under you by dropping something in your path in a way you didn’t expect it, but it doesn’t mean you were fooled like you are in a Twist Ending.  The best example of a Surprise Ending (and the only one I can think of at this moment) is The Shawshank Redemption.  It didn’t turn out that Shawshank Prison was hell all along, or that it was all a dream, or something worse; no, it just turns out that Andy really was unbreakable and had an ace up his sleeve the whole time.  Due to my poor variety of examples of these endings, I can’t say this definitively, but I would think that a Surprise Ending works best on a movie that is the story of one character.  But what do I know?  Oh!  The Brothers Bloom!  Would that be Surprise or Twist?  It’s kind of a twist because we’re fooled into thinking Stephen was okay, but turns out he wasn’t, but we didn’t spend the whole movie thinking one thing when another was true–all that took place in the ending was confined to the ending.  I dunno.  Let’s debate it in the comments.


This, like the Tragic Ending, has to be done exactly right to be effective and not frustrating, and, like the Twist Ending, has to make sense in the context of the movie.  I differentiate this from the other endings (because there is certainly lots of room for overlap with my ending types) because it’s really the last shot of the film that leaves you questioning everything (or leaves you excited for the next movie).  Of course, my first example of this is Inception, when we don’t get to see if Dom’s top stops spinning or not, so we don’t know if he’s still dreaming.  Another decent example of this is the Bill Murray movie Broken Flowers, where he’s spent the whole film looking for his illigitimate son and thinks he finds  him, but as the boy runs away and Bill’s character gives chase, Bill just stops at an intersection, looks around, and the screen goes black.  I wouldn’t say that’s one of the best uses of “last shot,” but it’s definitely unexpected and it gives the filmgoers something to discuss.

Thanks for reading.  Are there any examples I’m not thinking of?  Are there other kinds I didn’t bring up?


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