Endings say a lot. In our lives and onscreen. The way endings are handled—even if they’re not the most consistent reflection of the beginning and middle— can take root deep inside us, for better or for worse. Endings stay with us. They play in our minds over and over. Our hearts linger on them. They’re what we hold onto.
This goes for our own lives of course, but is taken to new heights onscreen.
Movie endings spark debates…yes, obviously Jack and Rose could have both fit on the door, but it was the distribution of the weight that was the problem, PLEASE let it go already.
They shock us…Verbal was Keyser Soze all along! Tyler Durden was nameless Ed Norton insomniac character all along! Mrs. Bates was Norman in a wig all along! Is anyone really who they say they are?!
They haunt us…will Michael Myers ever f*cking die? What is he? How is he still alive? Is he behind my couch right now?
They mystify us…how is Jack Torrance shown in that ancient photo of the Overlook hotel if he just arrived there a few months ago?
They break our hearts…“I have loved you for the last time…is it a video?”
So let’s talk about some movie endings that have always stayed with me…mainly, so I can get them out of my own head and try to figure out why they made such an impact. Here are they, in no particular order—*spoilers ahead*
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Despite not being big on the Coen brothers, I’ve always loved this ending. It’s simultaneously calming and unsettling to me in a way that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. A key element is the lack of score, not only in this scene, but throughout the movie, and the eerie silence in this final scene is heightened by the ticking of a clock. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) has retired, having failed to catch the psychopathic killer, Anton Chirugh (played by Javier Bardem), he has been chasing throughout the film — declaring that he feels “over-matched.” In the very last scene of the movie, Bell recounts a dream he’s had to his wife. He describes his deceased father riding past him on horseback and waiting for him up ahead. Bell says “I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. Then I woke up.” The scene cuts to black here and the clock keeps on ticking. My impression was that the dream represented his chase after Chigurh, and how Chigurh would always be waiting for him — and on a broader scale, how violence and unlawfulness would always await him, no matter what he did to try to stop it. In retiring from a world that has become too wild for him, Bell has given up the quest to have order, to make sense of it all, to return to a more civilized Western world. In giving up the chase, Bell will no longer have to risk his life, in a country that has no longer has any place for old men.
2. The Revenant (2015)
“You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Well you enjoy it Glass. Cus ain’t nothin’ gonna bring your boy back.” These are the final words of John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) who has murdered the son of Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and left Glass for dead. The movie follows Glass on his journey to find and kill Fitzgerald. After a long battle between the two, instead of finishing Fitzgerald off himself, Glass whispers “revenge is in God’s hands, not mine.” He then pushes Fitzgerald through an icy river towards a group of Native Americans, who kill him. Glass crawls away along the riverbank and sees a vision of his late wife, walking away from him. She looks back, smiles, and then disappears into the snowy trees. Glass turns to look directly into the camera. The screen goes black and we hear only his breath.
Is it implied that Glass has died in this scene, and that the breaths we are hearing are his final ones? And the visions of his dead wife throughout the film represent the fact that ultimately, he will not survive, and will join her in the afterlife? The fact that she disappears before he actually dies may represent that nothing he does can ever bring his family back, just as Fitzgerald has said. Or maybe why Glass sees his wife before him is because she is leading him to the end of his life, so that they will finally be together again in death.
On the other hand, this ending could also very well allude to him not dying. Glass’ continuous breathing as the credits begin to roll (which brings to mind a line from earlier in the movie: “as long as you can grab a breath, you fight”) could signify that he survives, despite all the treacherous obstacles, and finally lets go of the dead that he can never bring back.
3. Whiplash (2014)
In Whiplash, Andrew Neimann (played by Miles Teller), obsessed with being “one of the greats” in music history, is relentlessly abused and pushed to his breaking point by his Machiavellian music teacher, Terrance Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons). Prior to the final scene, Fletcher humiliates Andrew by having his band play a piece that he knew Andrew did not know or have sheet music for during a critical performance. Andrew leaves the stage defeated, but then returns and interrupts the band with a drum solo. We see Andrew return to his determination to be the best, no matter what it takes or what it does to him. We see his willingness to keep coming back to Fletcher, in his desperate drive to reach greatness and glory. We see the despair of Andrew’s father as he watches. He realizes he has lost his son to this — that Andrew has become just as obsessive and single-minded as Fletcher. Andrew brings the drum solo to a climax and then there is a beat of silence. We see close up shots of Andrew and Fletcher’s eyes and they exchange smiles. Fletcher realizes he has finally found his prodigy and Andrew realizes that he has finally gained Fletcher’s respect. They have both won the battle for power that has occurred throughout the film, and both simultaneously lost it — as they’ve lost themselves to their obsessions. I’ve always found the ending triumphant, while also deeply sad. Andrew has proven himself to Fletcher, but at what cost?
4. Short Term 12 (2013)
Short Term 12 ends as it begins. Mason, (played by John Gallagher Jr.), is regaling his coworkers once again with a story while they’re on break at Short Term 12 — a group home for troubled youth. Sammy, a boy at the group home, breaks out from his room, making a mad dash across the lawn — just as he does in the opening scene of the film. It feels so familiar, almost comforting, but so much has changed over the course of the movie. Grace (played by Brie Larson) has finally opened up about her past abuse and is seeking help for it. Grace and Mason are at a much better place in their relationship. We learn from Mason’s story that Marcus, an 18 year old we see struggling at Short Term 12 throughout the movie, is doing well out in the world. In this moment, we see the growth of the characters internally, but also how much of their life is the same externally. “Here we go!” says Grace, getting ready to chase after Sammy. Her words feel like not only a call to action for the situation at hand, but an acceptance of the next phase of her life, one filled with healing and newfound hope. The scene falls into decelerated motion, and we pull away from the scene at a canted angle, as Grace and her coworkers chase after Sammy. The canted angle matches the chaos that these workers experience on a daily basis, and the beautiful song that’s paired with it reminds us that this story, while extremely challenging at times, is ultimately one of hope and resilience.
5. Phoenix (2014)
This movie, more so than any other to me, is a testament to how much of an impact an ending can leave. I honestly don’t remember much of the movie itself, but the details of this ending scene are hard to forget. In Phoenix, Johnny Lenz (played by Ronald Zehrfeld) betrays his wife Nelly Lenz (played by Nina Hoss) to the Nazis, unbeknownst to her. Nelly survives the Holocaust and the liberation of the concentration camps. She receives facial reconstructive surgery for a bullet wound and is left bearing a resemblance to her old self, but is still unrecognizable when she returns to Johnny. Johnny convinces her to “impersonate” his wife, so that he can gain access to her inheritance. Nelly goes along with it, as she still has a romantic view of their relationship. Ultimately, Nelly finds out that it was Johnny who betrayed her.
This final scene is all about realization. Johnny realizes that it really is his wife before his eyes, not just someone who bears a resemblance to her. Nelly realizes that she must let go of her love of Johnny. This scene is so striking, because all of this is conveyed without any dialogue. Nelly begins the scene singing softly, her voice breathless and her eyes unsure; she is still going along with Johnny’s plan. As her vocals grow stronger around, so does her expression, showing that she is ready to reveal herself to Johnny. Johnny slowly looks up at her, questioning if she really is Nelly, and then shakes his head, dismissing the thought as he continues to play the piano. Nelly turns her gaze upon Johnny, and in his moment of realization (which is confirmed by the sight of the numbers tattooed on her arm) he stops playing the piano. Nelly continues to sing and then stops, turning away and leaving the room. Johnny looks down in horror. Their friends watching the show are frozen. The expressions on their face read of shock, confusion, and even contempt. The film ends. It is the use of sound, both the singing (first with the piano and then without), and the lack of dialogue that adds to the jarring element of this scene. It is the perfectly executed facial expressions that tell us everything we need to know without saying a word. It’s a truly jaw dropping ending that’s directed and acted perfectly.
What are your favorite movie endings? Which have made a lasting impression on you?
Read Part II here.