When Endings Go Bad

When Endings Go Bad

There are plenty of words of wisdom for anyone planning on writing a screenplay, but I’ve always thought that the best of them is “Make sure it has a good ending.” Not just an ending, but one worthy of all that’s led up to it.

Indeed, after coming up with a great concept for a story, it’s wise to figure out what conclusion you want the story to reach. That way, all the rest of the plotting will be driving towards that end, and it’s easy to trim away that which isn’t leading directly towards the finish.

Still, sticking the landing of a script is tricky. It can’t be too predictable, yet it needs to feel wholly appropriate, justifiable, and even inevitable in its way.

Finish on a high note, the right note, and audiences will adore your film all the more. Botch the ending and the audience will grouse about it forever after. I believe endings are so key to the success of a film that the truest classics tend to have an exemplary finish, not just an adequate one.

One could argue that the discussion of many of cinema’s greatest stories tend to start with the examination of their extraordinary endings. Norman Bates is revealed to be masquerading as his mother in Psycho. Rhett walks out on Scarlett, even cursing her name, in Gone with the Wind. Jake Gittes tragically fails to save Evelyn Mulwray or her daughter at the end of Chinatown. And in the final scene with the reveal of the Statue of Liberty, The Planet of the Apes is revealed to be our earthly home.

Lately, however, great endings seem few and far between. Perhaps endings don’t resonate as much since there is so much content available these days, too little stands out in the way of their final reels. I also think that audiences are now far too immune to being surprised by endings as they’ve gotten used to the tricks of the trades after a steady diet of thousands of hours of movies and shows in their lifetimes. Horror movies, for that matter, don’t really even end anymore because the bogeyman must always come back from the dead for the franchise to endure.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Several film endings in the past years have gone out of their way to play open-endedly, too.  At first, it seemed that Batman sacrificed his life to rid Gotham City of a bomb at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. But then, in the last scene, a vacationing Alfred discovers Bruce Wayne lunching with Selina Kyle in Florence. Did Batman survive or is Alfred just imagining that Master Bruce is on holiday in Italy? Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is surely toying with us there, leaving it up to each of us to decide for ourselves. It’s a headscratcher of an ending, for sure, but it did have a certain charm to it.

The same cannot be said for many of Nolan’s endings. At times, he seems to be more intent on being The Riddler than a clear and cogent filmmaker. He ended his science-fiction thriller Inception with a spinning top, leaving the audience to wonder if it was little more than another illusionary scene like so many in the narrative before it. Nolan was keeping the film’s guessing game going, but there is a limit to how many puzzle-box endings can dazzle before they start to grate.

Case in point? His next film Tenet.

In that film’s finale, it appeared that the good guys (John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki) thwarted Kenneth Branagh’s baddie, but after all the time travel, and narrative folding in on itself over and over again … who knows? Plus, if time can be reworked in the physics of Nolan’s plot repeatedly, is any ending truly an ending at all? That gene seems to be dominant in the Nolan family as his brother Jonathon’s television series, Westworld, has disoriented audiences as much as it has impressed them in its three confusing years on HBO.

Most of Alex Garland’s new film Men is quite adroit, revealing itself to be a scathing critique of the societal pattern of men bullying women, but its controversial ending undid a lot of goodwill built up until those final moments. In the story, Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a widow whose selfish husband commits suicide when she decides to leave him. Before he jumps off their high-rise balcony, he blames his pending demise on her. Then, as she retreats to the country to clear her mind, she encounters one belittling and belligerent man after another.

Whether barkeep or vicar, all the men Harper encounters on holiday remind her of that asshat husband of hers. But then, at the very end, Garland throws in a bizarre scene that confused much of what had gone on before it. The scene was a gruesome and blood-filled spasm of one man after another birthing another out of a fantastical vagina on each man’s person. It was almost comical in its outrageousness. At the very least, its symbolism was, uncharacteristically for Garland, ham-fisted.

That climax also left many wondering if there was more to it—was it a hallucination, something supernatural, or merely a metaphor? Garland himself punted on the answer, admitting that he deliberately created such an ending to be open to interpretation. On one hand, that’s fine—chalk it up to artistic discretion. On the other, however, it felt almost incongruous to the very deliberate tonality of his previous 90 minutes of storytelling.

Television too has fallen into a sort of bad ending rut malaise as  well with many shows underwhelming in their endings if not delivering outright duds. Too many MCU shows on Disney+ seem wholly anticlimactic as to merely set up a continuing saga, rather than a proper wrap-up to its given season. The 2020 miniseries The Undoing was a crackerjack thriller up until its rushed finale that turned Hugh Grant’s previously sly doctor into an eye-rolling mad man. And in last year’s Dexter: New Blood, the showrunners botched its second opportunity to end the serial killer drama with a satisfying finish. Sure, Dex was done in, but so few knew his true identity that it seemed like a huge missed opportunity for the drama. Even as good as Killing Eve was for four seasons, the finale unceremoniously bumped off worldly assassin Villanelle in a way totally unbefitting of her brilliant character.

Stanley Kubrick, one of our all-time greatest filmmakers, often left his films with more questions than answers at the end of his movies, but at least they were intriguing questions. What was that trippy trip through the cosmos all about at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why was Jack Torrance in that 1921 party photo revealed at the end of The Shining? Did the doctor’s little girl get led away in the toy story at the end of Eyes Wide Shut by sinister party guests from the opening Christmas party?

You can go down a rabbit hole trying to decipher what each of those Kubrick film endings meant, but even if the filmmaker left a lot of unanswered questions, at least they were incredibly interesting ones.

Most screenwriters, of course, are not going to be the next Kubrick, so it would behoove them to aim to be less open-ended or mysterious, and aim for an ending that is clear and clever. If they can imagine that, their story has a very good chance of not only being terrific, but memorable as well.

And in the end, who would ever want their work to be anything less?

*Feature Image: Men by Jeff York

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Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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