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End It Well: Good Movies Ruined by Poor Endings

Jul 14, 2008
There's many things that make a good movie and there's a lot more that make a great movie. One of the deal breakers between a movie going from good to great or falling away from good to a waste of the audiences time is the ending.

Sometimes it feels like the writer just ran out of ideas or had gotten the film's plot so convoluted that when he realises the run time has breached the two hour point the ending is suddenly cobbled together and rushed through.

Perhaps the worst possible end to a film, and indeed any story, is for the main character to suddenly wake up and find it was all a dream. So we sat there and got involved in a story for nothing? What was the writer trying to say?

There's other cardinal sins in ending films: losing the big game or fight (Tin Cup); after a film-long build up the bad guy goes down ridiculously easily (Rocky 3); the whole thing is resolved by something completely outside of the story line so far (Raiders of the Lost Ark); the writer doesn't know how to explain things clearly (Revolver) and leaves the plot so confused that numerous viewings still leave you thinking "what?!!"

I'm not going to look to heavily here at those films which are obvious set-ups for the sequel as I still hold these as a waste of time - films that are franchises rather than installments in a series a-la Godfather.

One of the real irritants in a bad movie is when the character receives absolutely zero pay off for the struggle they've been through in the previous two hours of film.

Castaway, with Tom Hanks, is a prime example. We, the audience, spend the majority of the film watching Tom Hanks struggle to live on an island, losing weight, growing a questionable beard, developing an eerie relationship with a volleyball and desperately struggling to get back home to his loved ones and, specifically, his wife. When he does make it home he finds everyone has given him up for dead and his wife has married and had a child. So what does Tom Hanks' character do? What is our payoff for watching this story? It's Tom Hanks staring at a truck going down a road and smiling. Well that was worth all that struggle. Good have been a good film but ruined by one of the biggest let downs in cinema.

A great film can also be demoted to a mere good film by a let-down of an ending. Take The Sixth Sense. A child psychologist, Bruce Willis, trying to help an annoying little kid who can see dead people. The director, M. Night Shyamalan, masterfully builds up suspense throughout this film as the psychologist encourages the kid to help the dead people. Parodied many times but a pretty good film bordering on the great, until the ending where we find out that Bruce Willis' character is dead.

Bit of a let down and a poor twist - how had anyone not wondered why he was wearing the same outfit throughout the film? Oh, and the kids mum finally believes the kid can see dead people.

As a small point, Shyamalan is one of the biggest perpetrators of bad endings on pretty good films. Signs, for example, masterfully built up and then the aliens turn out to be allergic to water. I haven't even seen Unbreakable simply because so many people have told me how bad the ending is.

Some bad endings are so bad they can kill an entire trilogy. Godfather 3, for example, nearly killed the trilogy just by it's mere existence. A hugely and overly convoluted plot bought shuddering to a series of questionable scenes finalised with Michael (set sometime in the future from the plot) sitting in a chair in an Italian garden, he puts on his sunglasses then dies, a dog sniffs him and the screen fades. Great way to end what had been once billed as the greatest saga.

Speaking of great sagas, there's the end (or endings) of the Lord Of the Rings trilogy. What could have been a huge film in terms of battle, resolution and final feel good factor is ruined by not knowing when to end. Something like a dozen endings follow the films logical conclusion point (Frodo waking up and being greeted by all the survivors) one of which seems to be there only as an attempt to quash the questioned homosexual relationship between Frodo and Sam, thus ruining a film which could have been the best of the trilogy.

So, for all those budding screen writers and the film makers that keep committing cardinal sins when wrapping up films, here are some tips.

Don't rush the end but know when to leave it alone - we don't want to know what the character did for the rest of their life just the end of the story you're telling us. Don't make it too confusing, if you can't explain it clearly don't attempt to be clever - for every The Usual Suspects there's a Revolver.

Don't make your main character to something completely against grain and nature just to wrap things up or attempt a twist - "oh he turned out to be evil" is not a twist.

Give the audience a payoff, they've spent upwards of two hours on an uncomfortable chair watching this story they don't want to see someone merely shrug the events off as an attempt at a symbolic gesture and try not to kill your lead too easily if you must kill them at all.

Look at Pulp Fiction: John Travolta's character gets killed ridiculously easily halfway through the film but thanks to some clever sequencing, is still alive when the credits role as the films money-rollers knew that's what the audience wants to see. Nobody wants to spend the films duration relating to and liking a character only for them to get hit by a car at the end and die.

I'm not saying all films end badly, there are many, many great endings that make a film even greater.

My own personal favourite ending is Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. A great film with a great ending. The characters don't suddenly change, they don't die on screen. They may well die but we don't see it. They remain true to their friendship and attitude, deciding they can shoot their way out not knowing that while they've been planning the entire Bolivian army has gathered outside to await them with a hail of gunfire. We don't see that though, what we see is our film's hero's bursting out smiling and then held in position as the credits end.

When you roll those credits, do it well.
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