November 23, 2004

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Perhaps an indication of what is becoming less gratifying to the contemporary viewing public, traditional happy movie endings can be uninspiring nowadays. Emotionally-charged closing scenes, such as those in The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are excellent variations to a customary ending, but perhaps the finest finales are those that are not really endings, in the conventional sense, at all. The conclusion to a film need not follow predictably from the rest of the film. Nor must it be a “happy” ending. Often, the best ones are those that shift some control from the screenwriter to the audience, allowing varying individual interpretations of the ending. Those films keep people in deep reflection days after seeing them.

David Fincher’s The Game immediately comes to mind — as an imaginative brainteaser that, in a sense, plays a practical joke on the viewer, not unlike the one played on Michael Douglas’ character, Nicholas Van Orton. Some viewers might suspect that the elaborate events in the film are all part of a malicious conspiracy on the part of Van Orton’s brother (Sean Penn), but the ending reveals that it was all a sophisticated birthday present, intended to enliven Nicholas’ secluded life. The viewer is left questioning just how much of the bizarre events in the film were scripted as part of “the game,” and this sentiment is clearly shared by Nicholas, who noticeably pauses during his own surprise birthday party, wondering if that too is part of the elaborate trick.

Another great ending is the dark closing scene of the underrated and boldly-written Arlington Road. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is concerned that his neighbors, especially Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins), may be part of a sub-society of terrorists, but the viewer wonders if his suspicions are merely a result of unbridled paranoia. The truth is still in doubt until the final explosive moments, when Faraday’s disturbing inquiry reaches its volatile climax: He dies as the result of a bomb detonation, suggesting that his suspicions about his neighbors were justifiable all along.

Certainly, other films memorable for throwing the viewer curveballs in their final moments are The Usual Suspects, Primal Fear, and Memento. In The Usual Suspects, we learn — at the exact moment the detective does — that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is in fact the villain, Keyser Soze. The ending is shocking and completely unpredictable, making the last shots, of Spacey’s supposedly crippled leg straightening, even more compelling. This theme of cunning criminals is evident in Primal Fear, in which Edward Norton, in his brilliant cinematic debut, plays a manifestly crazy defendant who surely cannot be guilty of murdering his father. As it turns out, his supposed insanity is an act that fooled his own lawyer (Richard Gere). And Memento tells the story of another troubled criminal, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), whose wife, the ending reveals, was not murdered. Rather, he killed her accidentally, but refuses to recognize the truth. All three of these endings are chilling and keep the viewer engaged until the very end.

The other types of movie endings that can be much-appreciated and usually refreshing are the melancholy endings, such as those in Requiem for a Dream, American History X and A Simple Plan, and the bittersweet endings of films such as Lost in Translation, American Beauty, Dead Poets Society and Life is Beautiful. These are the types of films that often carry with them poignant messages. For instance, Requiem centers on the debilitating effects of drug addictions, American History X reminds us that “hate is baggage,” and A Simple Plan, another underrated film, illustrates the tragic consequences of unrestrained greed.

Maybe some of the films hitting theaters soon will retain their standard happy endings. It is the holiday season, after all. But it is much more gratifying, in my opinion, to see a film whose ending is distinctive, but still meaningful and evocative. After all, even at the end of American Beauty, Spacey’s character, after being murdered, closes the bittersweet film by narrating that “it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.” Sometimes, such bittersweet, melancholy and unanticipated endings are happy endings.

Archived article by Avash Kalra
Sun Staff Writer