Wishful Thinking – Endings
(PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE IS RIDDLED WITH SPOILERS ABOUT MOVIE ENDINGS. IF YOU WANT TO SAVE YOURSELF SOME SURPRISES, AVOID READING SECTIONS ON MOVIES YOU HAVEN’T SEEN YET.)
I have often thought throughout the years that one of the chief differences between a good movie and a great movie is the ending. The note, the shot, the emotion, or the twist that a great film ends on can really create a cohesive movie experience that everyone remembers.
There are easy to realize examples. Where would It’s a Wonderful Life be without its tearfully uplifting ending? “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” C’mon, there’s not a dry eye in the house by that point. Or what about Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With The Wind powerfully standing in front of that blazing sunset, fist rising in the air, with the music swelling as she declares “Tomorrow is another day”? Everyone quotes Dorothy’s “There’s no place like home” moment. One of the main things everyone cites from Jerry Maguire is the “You complete me” ending. The powerful end of The Searchers is what vaults that film into being The Duke’s best. “Nobody’s perfect” as the last line of Some Like It Hot. Casablanca is all about the ending.
And a great ending doesn’t have to be upbeat or finite either. The star baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is ambiguous and wonderful. Kurt Russell and David Keith staring at each other in the snow at the end of The Thing remake is part of what makes that movie awesome. No Country For Old Men ends on a quirky and thoughtful note. Lost In Translation has an ending where people still speculate about what he said to her. Slim Pickens famously riding that missile in Dr. Strangelove is exactly how the movie needs to end. The Silence of the Lambs is great because Hannibal gets away. Butch and Sundance go out in a blaze of glory. Even They Live ends awesomely because after saving the world Rowdy Roddy Piper still dies. Roman Holiday ends perfectly. The Third Man has one of the greatest endings ever. And we won’t even go into too much detail here on the tricky surprise endings of Citizen Kane or The Sixth Sense or Inception or The Usual Suspects or countless mystery stories.
Often, a great ending is based on the image or mood with which the audience is left. A great modernish example that comes to mind is the terrific and underated 1997 Kurt Russell/ Kathleen Quinlan thriller Breakdown. If you haven’t seen it, it really is a tense Hitchcock-esque thriller that you really should watch. (Spoiler alert) But one of the things that truly makes it memorable is at the end, after an exciting fight with J.T. Walsh and his semi truck, after this married couple has been through hell, the film leaves them silently out of breath, holding each other. While logically you assume the police show up eventually, and they survived, and their lives go on after that, the film smartly doesn’t draw all that out for you. The movie just got done putting the audience on edge, and instead of letting you untense, exhale, and leave the theater, it leaves you at that heightened state where you still feel the effects of this couple’s ordeal after the credits roll. There’s nothing fancy in that ending. It is very much a genre picture, but done extremely well. Sometimes a great ending can be a simple as that.
There is a converse to this phenomenon though. How many times have you sat there watching something that is really terrific, until the story blows up at the last minute? Something happens, and instead of leaving having been moved in a exciting new way, you’re frustrated that it should have been better. Honestly, I think that happens more often than not.
Sometimes I like to play a game with myself where I adjust the ending to a film. There are some movies that would have been better if they had just cut the film earlier. Other times, one tweak in the script would have really made the movie great.
Let me give you one of the most famous examples, that I didn’t even conceive of myself. Originally, Kirk Douglas was offered the role of Rambo’s commanding officer, that was eventually played by Richard Crenna. Douglas had read the script and gone back to Sylvester Stallone saying he would do it, but he wanted one change. He thought Rambo should die at the end of the movie. Stallone said no, so Kirk Douglas passed on the project and life went on. Now, the movie ending the way that it did allowed our hero Johnny to go on to kill Viet Cong with napalm tipped arrows, fight alongside the “freedom fighting” Taliban, and blow up minorities with mine-laced rice paddies in three sequels. So Stallone made a career and a ton of money with his decision. But honestly, most of that first movie is good. Brian Dennehy is menacing, Rambo was a mentally tortured hero who was working out some PTSD issues, and it felt gritty. Can you imagine how powerful it would have been during that last scene where his commander is trying to talk him down if he’d ended up blowing himself away after all that struggle?
Suspenseful movie most of the way through. Glenn Close gives her star-making performance terrorizing saggy-bottomed philanderer Michael Douglas. “I won’t be ignored, Dan.” A rabbit is boiled, a kid is almost kidnapped, and death threats ensue. At the end, Close’s character shows up in Douglas’s home and attacks him. He drowns her in the tub, and a slow panning shot shows her drowned beneath the water. If they had just faded to black and rolled the credits there, it would’ve been perfect. But no. Like Jason Vorhees, she has to leap up from the tub one last time brandishing a knife, so that Anne Archer can shoot her one last time for the mundane serial killer ending. It’s an easy ending. If they had just left her drowned, the audience would have been unsettled in a good way. But instead, they had to release the tension so everyone could tell themselves “it’s just a movie.” It makes for a cheap, easy ending.