This article contains major spoilers for each of the films concerned.
Movie endings can be contentious things, but every now and then comes one where you can’t help but feel the filmmakers just went on a minute or two – or 20 minutes or so – too long.
We freely acknowledge that we’re discussing some excellent films over the coming feature, and we’re also aware that we’ve coming close to telling filmmakers how to do their job. Which isn’t our place.
However, there are films that we watch where we wonder if things would and could have been improved just by putting on the brakes a tiny bit earlier…
Curtis Hanson’s movie was robbed. It went toe to toe at the Oscars with James Cameron’s Titanic, and was swept aside as a consequence. A real pity: Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s book (with a handsome screenplay from Brian Helgeland) remains a bona fide 1990s classic. Just remember the moment where two words – ‘Rollo Tomassi’ – turn the film. One of many golden moments in an exquisite piece of cinema.
I do still wonder if it would have been still better had the curtain been draw just moments sooner, though. The moment where James Cromwell’s Dudley Smith – having being exposed as the man behind the Nite Owl killings – looks to have got away with his crimes, holding up his ID to the arriving cops sent chills down my spine. It struck me then as it struck me now that leaving some ambiguity as to the fate of Smith may have added yet more strength to the movie.
In this instance, though, L.A. Confidential was three of four themed novels, known as the L.A. Quartet. Thus, the fate of characters in the film was explored in the follow-up book, White Jazz. As such, in this case, it may not have left that much ambiguity. But it stills struck me as an incredible shot to end the movie on.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
A problem inherited from J K Rowling’s book, the final Harry Potter movie got pretty much the bulk of what it needed to do right. The eight-film series had been wrapped up in some style, the credits were all set to role, and then… the epilogue.
Once the book itself was published, there was a mini-uproar that the epilogue didn’t gel, with the (strong) argument being that Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows would have worked just as well without it. Whichever side of the debate you landed on, however, the film version did not end the series on a high.
Even accepting Rowling’s decision to tie her story up long term, the problem here is one of young actors being asked to convincingly age on screen. It would be fair to say they do not. It’s a big ask for them, but sticking on a bit of facial hair and getting some more sensible clothes does not complete a transformation. It can’t help but take you out of the scene, one that’s already hitting you with a lot of information you didn’t necessarily want or need in the first place.
A clearly unrelated consequence: unconvincing ageing make-up has gone on to be a regular part of the Doctor Who Christmas special since, well, for the last two years…
The Shawshank Redemption
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but nobody had any idea at all just what a revered film The Shawshank Redemption would become on the day it was released. Sure, it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but it lost the lot, and on its cinema debut, it took just under $30m in the US. Not much more elsewhere, either.
Since then, it’s become many people’s favourite film, but the one rankle is that ending. We see Morgan Freeman’s Red get approved for parole the one time he didn’t seem that bothered about getting it, and he starts to follow the path that the ill-fated Brooks took in the middle of the movie.
And yet Red has something to live for. It’s the hope of meeting his friend, Andy, once again. He hopes for it. His voiceover tells us that he hopes for it. And the original plan was to fade to black right there, and roll the credits. Would Red’s hopes be realised? We’d never really know.
Only we do.
For tacked onto the end of The Shawshank Redemption is the moment where Andy and Red are reunited on the beach. Which takes that whole message of hope away. The scene’s addition is the result of the insistence of the film’s backers – Castle Rock – on a happier, more conclusive denouement. They got it, against director Frank Darabont’s wishes. And it’s arguably the only overt misstep the film makes.
I’m breaking the rules a little here, as with Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, there’s one moment just near the end that I always felt made the ending just a little too tidy. I’m conscious from my extended lookback piece on Contact that lots of people disagree, but it still doesn’t quite work for me.
It’s the point where Jodie Foster’s Ellie has returned from Vega, and there’s real ambiguity as to whether what we saw was real. Did she meet her father? Did they have the reunion, or was it all in Ellie’s mind? Certainly when she arrives back on Earth, everyone sees that she’s been gone for seconds, not for 18 hours. They think her mission was a failure. She, however, is convinced her mission was a success.
The film looked all set to leave it there too, precariously balancing its debate between faith and science (arguably in a more convincing way than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). Then Angela Bassett interjects, with a line that confirms Ellie has 18 hours of static on her recorder. It removes the doubt, and just slightly – for me anyway – weakens the end of the film.
I still love Contact, I should add. But it’s my main grumble with it.
28 Days Later
Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror film was not only a huge hit, but also hugely influential, reinvigorating the zombie flick and influencing countless future movies and videogames. Atmospheric and uncompromising though it was, 28 Days Later didn’t, we’d argue, end as satisfyingly as it began.
Boyle and Garland clearly struggled to come up with a workable conclusion, since two alternate endings were filmed and a third was storyboarded. One of these was even placed after the credits for the film’s American theatrical release.
For us, the film’s original conclusion – which shows the survivors cheerily, laying out some bed linen to spell out the word “Hello” in a field – is jarringly upbeat compared to what came before, even if it was reportedly in the original script. A bleaker, more abrupt conclusion would have made a more fitting end to the story, perhaps, than the protracted shots of Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris frolicking around the countryside in colourful knitwear, but that might be us being miserable.
Featuring a wonderfully hangdog performance from Jean Reno as the title character, a precocious debut from Natalie Portman, and a blistering turn from Gary Oldman as the villain, Leon remains one of Luc Besson’s most successful thrillers.
About a childlike Italian hitman living a dreary existence in New York – until an orphaned girl named Mathilda becomes his unlikely sidekick – the movie builds to a tragic yet satisfying finale. Having been cornered by corrupt cop Stansfield (Oldman) and his men, Leon fights valiantly to protect Mathilda, who manages to escape amid the mayhem.
All seems to be lost for Leon, as Stansfield stands triumphantly over the hitman’s bullet-ridden corpse. But wait: Leon reveals a cache of grenades hidden beneath his jacket, and better yet, he’s just handed the pin from one of them to Stansfield. The villain’s horrified gasp is drowned out by a deafening explosion.
The film, we’d argue, should have ended here: Mathilda heads off for an unknown future, but has nevertheless survived to tell the tale. Instead, we’re treated to a lengthy coda in which Mathilda visits Leon’s miserly boss, Tony (Danny Aiello), returns to school, and digs a hole for Leon’s favourite houseplant in its grounds.
It’s not a bad ending, by any means – merely an extraneous one. And it contains one of the film’s most feeble exchanges.
“Do you know who she is?” one school kid asks. “Nah,” the others reply. Then Sting starts singing “Shape Of My Heart.”
Also, Leon’s plant is apparently a Aglaonema, or Chinese evergreen, which like the shade and hate the cold. Where Mathilda planted it, we’re guessing Leon’s favourite plant would have died within days.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
A bit of an unfair one, this, because the ending was forced on director Don Siegel by a nervous studio. And even with it, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remains one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
You’ll probably know the gist of the story: Kevin McCarthy’s small town GP, Dr Hill, becomes increasingly concerned when he patients complain that their love ones aren’t really their loved ones, but soulless replacements. At first, the doctor assumes they’re in the grip of mass hysteria, before he realises that his town’s being overrun by an alien race hatched from plant-like pods.
In its original cut, the film would have ended with McCarthy screaming – with fearsome intensity – “They’re here! You’re next!” straight down the camera lens. But what could have been one of the most jarring conclusions in 50s cinema was softened when the studio insisted on adding a new beginning and ending in which Dr Hill reassures the audience that America’s been saved by the FBI.
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the same name wasn’t subjected to the same meddling, and served up a stark, chilling conclusion of its own.
As a work of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is almost flawless. Indeed, its finest moments have been viewed, isolated, dissected and parodied so many times, it’s only when the film’s appreciated as a whole – preferably on a big screen – that its brilliance emerges once again.
Like so many of Hitchcock’s films, Psycho also has its own streak of ghoulish humour. His violent set-pieces leap from the screen like the punch lines to sick jokes, from the famous shower scene to Martin Balsam’s unfortunate encounter at the top of Mrs Bates’ stairs.
Even Psycho‘s big reveal – that Norman has a split personality, runs around in his late mother’s clothes, and keeps her corpse in his basement – is as slyly funny as it is horrifying.
Disappointingly, that wonderful moment is followed by a scene where a psychiatrist explains the nature of Norman’s madness at length, and reassures us that, yes, Marion Crane really is dead. Critic Pauline Kael reportedly called it “Hitchcock’s worst scene.” Roger Ebert argued that much of it should have been cut.
We’re inclined to agree. If this scene were shorter, we wouldn’t have to wait so long until we got to Hitchcock’s delicious final pay-off: Norman Bates, sitting in his cell, now consumed by mother’s identity. “I’m not even gonna swat that fly…”
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
I rewatched Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequel a few months back, and I still enjoy it more than many seem to. I wrote about it in a bit more depth here.
Spielberg himself has all but admitted he lost interest during the making of the film, but he still puts together some strong sequences, not least the pane of glass cracking moment. Jeff Goldblum gets to be Jeff Goldblum too, so that’s a bonus.
What isn’t, though, is the Godzilla-taunting coda that sees – for no logical reason – a T-rex rampaging through San Diego. The story had basically stopped, the island has been escaped from, and the film had notched up a good running time. And then we got another perfectly decent but utterly unnecessary 15 minutes or so. It didn’t fit the film, and in a movie that wasn’t short of bloat anyway, it just padded it out further.
And talking of Spielberg films that perhaps should have called time just a little earlier…
For me, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s collaboration on Minority Report is both excellent, and some distance ahead of their more successful War Of The Worlds movie. In fact, up until around 10-15 minutes from the end, I’d suggest it’s one of the highlights in the career of both men. It’s certainly one of the most successful – and not just in commercial terms – adaptations of a Philip K. Dick story to the screen.
But it unravels just a little at the end, when the curse of Hollywood over-explaining kicks in. That we need to go back to Max von Sydow’s Director Lamar Burgess and wrap up with an exacting bow. Burgess finds himself faced with admitting to murder, or seeing the whole PreCrime system undermined, and effectively being made redundant. So it’s all tied up for us when Burgess kills himself. Cue the happy ending for the PreCogs, and Tom Cruise gets a happy ending that the film never really points towards or needs.
It’s still a cracking movie, though.
The Dark Knight Rises
Appreciating that at the time there was some ambiguity about it, the general consensus – and certainly the view of Christian Bale – is that it’s not a dream at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne does indeed survive the huge explosion, has a cuppa with Selina Kyle, and Alfred does that smile thing. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds the batsuit.
Considering the strength of the endings to both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, neither of which left things tied up so neatly, The Dark Knight Rises‘ finale feels weaker. Appreciating this was the end of a three-film narrative arc, showing that Batman survived seems to undermine things just a little.
Sure, we all knew even then that Batman would be back on the big screen in due course (although Affleck was a surprise), but for the purposes of this particular story, Batman’s sacrifice mattered. It concluded the ideas that had underpinned the character throughout Nolan’s three films, the whole idea that Batman’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not always needs. Gotham needed him more dead than alive. So he died.
The passing of the cape and cowl to Gordon-Levitt has equally opened up discussion, but that always seemed more logical to me. However, stopping the movie before Bruce Wayne gets his olive branch would, arguably, have made it a more tragic, impactful and truthful story.
The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King
Well, it’s an obvious candidate really. By the time many of us got to the end of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, we could afford it goodwill in sizeable quantities. Few cinema experiences can beat turning up annually to be blown away by Jackson’s adaptations (I’d argue that The Hobbit trilogy never really had the same effect).
As such, by the time Return Of The King started to end, it, well, sort of never stopped. Ending followed ending followed ending, as Jackson was clearly enjoying sending his characters off for what he believed at the time to be the final occasional. It was almost a surprise when the final credits rolled, so many encores did the film seem to want to take.
I never minded it, in truth, although there’s clearly a strong case here for sticking the handbrake on ten minutes earlier. But then, which ending should Return Of The King actually stop on? I like to think of it as the cinema equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Skip to the finale you prefer, watch that, press stop, and sit back with a warm grin on your face…
Edge Of Tomorrow
Just a minute or two would and could have made the difference here. After a blistering 100 minutes or so, that’s seen Tom Cruise transform from a cowardly PR man to an alien-basher, and also seen Emily Blunt prove herself as the best lead of last summer, Edge Of Tomorrow fumbles the last pass.
When I was at school, I distinctly remember my teacher warning me off writing stories that end ‘it’s all a dream’. But that’s what the last few minutes of Edge Of Tomorrow feel like to me. Appreciating throughout this piece that I’ve argued ambiguity often works better than having a full ending mapped out, this is the one exception. Because by cutting back to Tom Cruise on the helicopter, and ending on a shot of Emily Blunt, it’s adding mystery where none whatsoever was required.
One of the film’s writers, Christopher McQuarrie, has admitted that they wrestled with the ending of the film, but they were concerned that they’d got through a lot of sci-fi exposition already. Adding more for the final few minutes wasn’t really an option, as McQuarrie told Film School Rejects last summer.
Edge Of Tomorrow remains a terrific film. But I’d argue it’s even better if you go and get a cuppa just after before we get back to that helicopter…
14. The Village
Was this the one where M Night Shyamalan overstretched himself with his by-then trademark twist ending? If not, he’d have another go with The Happening (a film we’ve defended here).
The criticism of the ending to The Village, where we learn that the story has actually been taking place in the present day right the way through the film, is that it makes no sense to the narrative. That whilst it get a reaction from the audience, it doesn’t add anything, and feels like a twist for the sake of a twist.
It’s a divisive one, certainly, and perhaps it’s telling that more people recall the last five to ten minutes than the film that preceded them (although I’d argue there’s some strongly-directed stuff in The Village, warts and all).
I remember at the time grinning like a madman at the twist, finding it audacious and a genuine rug pull. But over time, I’ve realised it’s a rug pull and a surprise because, in this instance, it just didn’t seem to make much sense…
And two more to consider….
I didn’t include this in the main body of the article, because I love the ending to Being There. It adds something to a second watch of the film, stuck in my head for days after I first saw it, and it just felt right. Yet I’m painfully aware others disagree.
For Being There is a film that, on the surface, has no fantasy element to it. Yet when Peter Sellers, in arguably his finest screen role, walks across the water at the end, the film takes on another complexion. Is Chauncey Gardiner supposed to stand for Christ? Or are director Hal Ashby and writer Jerzy Kosinski turning the tables on us? There’s an interesting blog post on it here
Personally, I think Being There‘s ending is outstanding, and wouldn’t stop the film early for the world. But mine is not the only opinion on the matter…
It’s bound to come up if we don’t acknowledge it, but as we explored in our longer piece about The Abyss, it’s the last act that causes contention in James Cameron’s thriller more than just stopping a few minutes early.
That said, we’re sure you can point out a few we’ve missed in the comments…
This article first ran on Den of Geek UK in February 2015.