It starts with the end. At least that’s how you know you have an exceptional story — think of an amazing ending and work back to the beginning.
Whatever way your look at a story, the end is critical. Would Chinatown have been so memorable with a happy ending? Would Blade Runner have been as powerful if we’d known what had happened to Rachael and Deckard? Happy, or sad, a great ending does more than complete a remarkable story — it makes the story remarkable. That’s why so many stories are both entertaining and forgettable — because the ending is a missed opportunity.
What makes a brilliant ending?
I think it’s an ending that satisfies the story appropriately, and in some instances takes the story to another level, emotionally. It heightens the resonance, encapsulating the story so that it lingers on as an experience after the narrative is over. It makes the audience think. It provokes.
In the buddy movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is set in the old American West, the film ends with the two heroes making a suicidal charge. Just before they die the film goes into freeze frame. We know what will happen next, but because the story ends where it does — on that single frame — the reality of their death never occurs within the narrative. Stories are ‘arbitrary’ moments, ‘start’ and ‘end’ points decided by the author. In this case the story literally stops before the unthinkable happens. We’re left in a limbo, a purgatory of sorts. We know the fate of the heroes, but we will never experience it. Because of this, what should be a tragic, possibly even depressing ending, feels less downbeat — merely by ending three seconds early.
It’s masterful, but also a cop out.
The end of Thelma and Louise follows the same pattern as _Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. _We know that the two women drive off a cliff, but we can delude ourselves that — somehow — it could end up happy. In both stories, with similarly bleak endings, we’re left feeling that there’s some hope. Or at least we are spared the despair, which is probably not a great emotion to send your audience away with.
In the international cut of The Big Blue a self-destructive urge becomes a transcendental experience; a journey into a new world — the afterlife. Enzo, a deep-sea diver is in his element, constantly pushing himself to dive to ever greater depths. In the end he pushes himself too far and he can no longer return to the surface, the real world. In the US version, the ending has an additional scene where he makes it back up. The different endings result in two very different stories. One offers a mysterious, tragic and emotive end, the other an upbeat resolution.
Dr Zhivago has a dramatic ending when Zhivago chases a woman in the street — the love of his life who he has lost contact with (she’s also the mother of his daughter). He falls to the ground suffering from a fatal heart attack. The story could end there, but it continues with a low-key resolution. The denouement allows the audience reaction time, time to reflect on what’s happened and get over the shock before they leave the cinema.
The last scene of a film sums up the story’s overarching tone. It’s what the audience leaves with and remembers. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly the good character enjoys the last laugh, literally. He has deservedly won, defeated evil, and shown mercy to the ‘ugly’. He rides off into the sunset. His victory is total and the audience is left feeling upbeat. The tension has been resolved; we’re given permission to relax.
Some films have ambiguous endings, like The Bike Thieves or The Graduate. We don’t know what will happen next. Sometimes in a twist of fate, victory is stolen from the hero in the final moment, just when it seems that they have triumphed. In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot what appears to be a celebratory, happy ending, as the two heroes drive away into the sunset with the loot, turns into a tragic and shocking conclusion. The audience is not given time to reflect on what has happened. Why end it that way? Because it shows that the friendship between the heroes was more valuable than the money.
When an unremittingly bleak story ends with a glimpse of hope, as it does with THX 1138 (where the hero breaks free of a repressive technocracy) the audience is literally taken from a dark place into the light. Alternatively, positive experiences like discovery and adventure can be subverted through the ending. In The Wicker Man the delight of experiencing an unfamiliar culture ends in horror.
The pointless death of the hero is a tragedy and a warning. The hero who dies to serve a purpose finds redemption. The hero who defeats his or her enemy is celebrated as a success. The tone of a story is decided through its ending.