What is the single most important moment of any movie? The answer will vary depending on the filmmaker, as they will select certain moments of their work that they believe are most worthy of emphasizing. This could be the climax, the moment where the story takes its strongest swerve, or even a quiet shot that passively shows more than any scene of action or dialogue. But generally, I would argue that the most lasting scene is the ending. The closing moment, the final shot, can turn a good film into an excellent one, or conversely, just an average one.
There are a number of routes that a director can take with their ending. A film that is more action focused, where the most impressive bits come in the penultimate moments, seeking to accelerate the heartbeats of the audience, will approach the ending like a smooth exhale. The best example is “Star Wars,” which ends in a wordless ceremony after the destruction of the Death Star. It’s essentially a chance for everyone on screen (and behind it) to take a bow.
Other films will treat their ending as a footnote, making a statement that would not have belonged anywhere else in the coherent story. This is done in “The Shining,” which concludes with a series of photographs that show Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel earlier in his life, revealing that he may not have been as crazed as we believed him to be.
An ending can also be abrupt, pulling the audience away startlingly quickly after an event that normally we would be allowed to react to with the characters on screen. The first movie that comes to mind is “Gallipoli,” which ends with Mark Lee’s character struck by a bullet as he runs rapidly from battle. We get a split second look of his corpse and nothing else.
What all of these endings have in common is that they are memorable. Because the ending is the last thing the viewer sees before they leave the theatre, it’s the freshest in their mind. If a film chooses to end on a mundane note, just throwing in a scene that only serves to fill the end of the reel, it damages everything that came before it. DreamWorks animated films are notorious for this, making their parting moment an inconsequential song and dance that has nothing to do with the story they just spent an hour and a half building up.
On the opposite end, is a film that is unsure of how to end and retraces its steps through an epilogue that overstays its welcome. The last thing a filmmaker wants is the audience begging for a black screen. “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou” both suffer from this fault, giving us second and third character resolutions that we could have just figured out for ourselves. Then there is the infuriating decision of using an ending to set up for a sequel. I really enjoyed “Sherlock Holmes” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but both go so far as to wave their arms in front of us, shouting ‘you haven’t seen the last of us!’
An ending can do as much good for a film as it does harm. Part of the reason that “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” rank among the best films of all time is that their endings contain profound images and dialogue that we’ll never forget. Two recent films that have endings that jump out at me are “The Help” and “Quantum of Solace,” both average films made memorable by their final scenes.
“The Help,” taking place in the Jim Crow south during the civil rights era, is draped in unrealistic idealism. Only one character acts as a truly bigoted villain, and the last twenty minutes of the film show her getting different forms of comeuppance and all of the other characters being rewarded for their good will. But the last moment, spent with Viola Davis’ character goes the opposite way. She is fired from her job, and we see her walking defiantly down the street as a child scream her name from a living room window. It’s cold, powerful and reminds us that the film hasn’t forgotten the world it takes place in.
“Quantum of Solace,” the unambitious follow up to “Casino Royale,” the only Bond film to act as a direct sequel, does too much to set itself apart. After two hours drenched in over-edited action scenes with a villain and leading lady I just didn’t care all that much about, we see Bond return his attention to the best part of “Casino Royale,” Vesper.
He confronts her old boyfriend, a terrorist that feigned a kidnapping which drove her entire character in the previous film, and has his him arrested by MI6. Having been placed on leave by M, she tells Bond she wants him back He responds that he never left, the camera focusing on Vesper’s necklace, discarded in the snow. That’s how the film tell us that Bond is over the genuine love he had for Vesper, and it’s done perfectly.
The next time you watch a movie, pay particular attention to the ending, and try to separate it from the rest of the film. What was your opinion going into the final scene, and how does the ending change it for the positive or negative. Not just from a storytelling standpoint, but what does the shot itself say about everything that lead up to it. A proper ending should have us so wrapped in it, the sight of the director’s name on a blank screen comes as an unexpected surprise.