Spring 2008

Happy Endings

For a film to be critically successful, the ending doesn't have to necessarily be realistic and downbeat. It just has to be right for the material.


As a working movie critic, I’m constantly writing about what a director does: the tone, the look, the pacing of a film. I rarely stop, though, to consider the true difficulty of the juggling act. Bringing a movie to fruition must be like shepherding a mob through a high-hurdle race. The tone depends on getting the proper screenplay and actors; the look relies on the right cinematographer; the pacing on a simpatico editor. And those are just some of the variables.

Then there’s the studio front office, constantly tugging a film toward the best shape it thinks will recoup its investment. I recently had an e-mail back-and-forth with the director of a major blockbuster in which he dejectedly outlined the ways in which his pet project had been sandbagged from preproduction on. The evidence was the finished film, a crippled wonder that failed at the box office.

It’s amazing any movie gets made at all—but it’s not surprising most have troubles with their endings. The final minutes of a film are where the push-pull of art, commerce, craft, and entertainment gets actively Byzantine. Test screenings can turn a movie upside down; 11th-hour panic makes directors and producers do silly things. The original ending to the above blockbuster would have been dark but fitting; the one that was released was a gaseous setup for a sequel that may not be coming. It fooled no one.

On the other hand, movie audiences can be the most conservative viewers of all, expecting complete harmonic story convergence with their popcorn. It takes balls to stick with a challenging finale, and the success of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood is both due to and in spite of their refusal to end nice. Has there ever been a wrap-up as polarizing as Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis bringing the movie to a screeching halt with murder and the words “I’m finished”?

Well, sure there has. How about Chinatown, whose pitch-black final moments—the girl gets killed, the villain gets away, it’s Chinatown, Jake—was strong-armed into place by director Roman Polanski over protests by writer Robert Towne? How about Thelma & Louise, which kept its final suicidal freeze-frame in the face of studio pressure? Or Se7en, whose producer retailored the nihilistic climax along saving-the-damsel lines only to change it back after the director and star balked?

Then there are the endings that got away. Hitchcock’s Suspicion was supposed to reveal Cary Grant as the killer, blithely and unknowingly posting the letter that will incriminate him. No one, including Hitch, thought audiences would accept the star as a murderer, so a tortuous resolution establishing Grant’s innocence was substituted, one that the director acknowledged later as “a complete mistake.” (So why was Grant hired in the first place? To bring in audiences, of course. Such are the paradoxes of commercial moviemaking.)

The Hollywood remake of the Dutch thriller The Vanishing presents what amounts to a clinical laboratory trial. The 1988 original ends with the hero losing his cat-and-mouse game with the deranged but brilliant killer: a classic bummer that works. When director George Sluizer reworked his film for 20th Century Fox in 1993, everything was changed: good survives, evil gets punished, and the film no longer makes a lick of sense.

Lousy art and lousy commerce—everyone went home a loser (including Sluizer, who never worked in Hollywood again). On the other hand, you have a case like Blade Runner, whose dumb, rosy theatrical-release ending was successfully supplanted by Ridley Scott’s tougher vision—a rare example of a moviemaker trumping the suits. It only took 10 years.

What’s important to understand is that a movie doesn’t necessarily need a dark, “realistic” ending. It needs the right ending, one that fits with all that goes before it and either resolves the narrative appropriately or gives it one final goose in a fresh direction.

The wrong ending can just drive a critic nuts. The freeze-frame at the end of John Sayles’ 1999 Limbo left me infuriated, and for good reason—it represented a talented filmmaker pulling a fast one for no reason other than that he wanted to. Or Tim Burton wrapping up his Planet of the Apes remake with a simian Lincoln Memorial? That not only made no sense, it showed scorn for our trust in the material. The proper ending doesn’t have to serve the audience or the studio, of course, but if it doesn’t serve the story, no one’s coming along.

Some final scenes put everything together with a profoundly satisfying snap: The Usual Suspects, for instance, or Casablanca. Some of this critic’s favorite endings, though, are the ones that leave matters almost resolved except for one tiny thing to keep me thinking on the drive home. Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, with Paul Newman wondering if he should pick up that ringing phone with Charlotte Rampling on the other end—perfect. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, daring to stop at the precise moment its lovers recapitulate to each other—one second longer would have been all wrong.

The classic example of the delayed-gratification ending may be Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. You remember it, don’t you? The studio would have been happy with Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross boarding the bus: fade-out, credits, glory all around. But Nichols dares to hold on the couple as they sit in the back and the enormity of what they’ve just done dawns on them. Their eyes don’t meet, their smiles fade—real life and a real, complicated relationship begins.

It’s the deepest, most telling moment in the film and it happens where all movies take place: in the audience’s head.

Ty Burr is the movie critic for the Boston Globe.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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