It's happened to everyone. You're watching a movie, and things are starting to wrap up, and all of a sudden, you see it: The Perfect Ending. But then a strange thing happens... the movie keeps going. Even though they had the perfect ending, the filmmakers don't end their film, and in the process, come dangerously close to tarnishing your entire opinion of the film in the process. This has happened numerous times in films that I've watched, and today, I'm looking at my Top 5 examples of films that failed to stick the landing because they didn't end minutes or seconds sooner. Beware, spoilers ahead...----
5. Mystic River (2003, dir. Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood spent the latter half of the nineties & the first two years of the new century stumbling through rote, interchangeable thrillers like Blood Simple & True Crime. However, his 2003 adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel Mystic River put him back on the map in a big way. The film features brilliant performances from all of its leads, including Oscar wins for Sean Penn & Tim Robbins. At the film's climax, Penn's character Jimmy kills his childhood friend Dave (Robbins) because he's blindly & wrongly convinced that Dave killed Jimmy's daughter. When their other childhood friend Sean (Kevin Bacon), who is a detective, confronts Jimmy to find out when the last time he saw Dave was, the film is never more intense, as the audience is wondering if Sean will put aside his lifelong friendship and turn his friend in. They discuss their childhood, and Jimmy defiantly walks away from his friend, boldly daring him to try and pin Dave's murder on him. If the film ends here, it's a masterpiece, but instead, it continues for another several minutes, ending at a parade where all the major, surviving characters shoot furtive, borderline ridiculous glances at one another. Apart from watching Dave's wife Celeste stumble through the parade crowd in a panic, the film could lose all of the rest of this and not be changed one iota from the much better ending that happened several minutes sooner.
4. Source Code (2011, dir. Duncan Jones)
Good science fiction filmmaking is so hard to come by these days, but one of the most original science fiction films in the last few years was 2009's Moon. Directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, it placed me firmly on board for anything he did in the future. His follow-up film was 2011's Source Code, a film with a complicated premise, but one that makes perfect sense while you're watching the film. The film builds beautifully to an ending where the hero Capt. Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) realizes that he's been used by his superiors, but he gets one more 8 minute loop on the train before his life is to be terminated. As the eight minutes expire, he finally leans in to kiss Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and a beautiful freeze frame occurs, leaving us and him in the moment he always wanted... until it unfreezes and they espouse some nonsense about him having created an alternate timeline. Look, I'm not down on happy endings, but when they're tacked on to an otherwise perfect downer of an ending, they really grate on my nerves, and that's exactly what happens here.
3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, dir. Steven Spielberg)
There is no director in the history of cinema that fails so consistently to end his films where they should end than Steven Spielberg. While I could have easily given this slot to Minority Report or War of the Worlds, I had to go back to the first film I've ever walked out of in the theater, 2001's A.I. David, the android who wants to be a real boy, finally makes it to the fabled Blue Fairy and finds himself trapped in a frozen ocean, praying to his deity to make him a real boy. This ending is haunting and gorgeously shot, and was the most likely ending point back when original director Stanley Kubrick was going to make the film. The only problem is, it's not where the film ends. It proceeds for another fifteen minutes and gets bogged down in gobbledygook that includes super advanced A.I. and a plot contrivance that finally made me storm out of the theater (he kept that lock of his mother's hair in his pocket for thousands of years? Please). Had the film ended when it should have, people would have been depressed, but likely would have talked about the film as a modern masterpiece. Instead, when is the last time you heard anyone talk about this film, let alone even thought about it yourself?
2. LA Confidential (1997, dir. Curtis Hanson)
One of the best films of the nineties, Curtis Hanson's tribute to film noir, LA Confidential, builds flawlessly to a dramatic shoot-outat The Victory Motel. Our heroes Bud White (Russell Crowe) & Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) are hopelessly outgunned, and Exley seems ready to die in the line of duty, just like his idol, his father. White takes three shots to the back, presumably killing him, but Exley gets the upper hand on the crooked Capt. Smith (James Cromwell), who advises Exley to hold up his badge when the cops show up, so they know he's a cop. Exley then shoots Smith in cold blood, but manages to get his badge in the air just as a swarm of patrol cars arrive. Had the film ended here, it would have made the film a masterpiece, as it nicely tied up all the multiple themes and story lines at play throughout, but instead we get a thoroughly unnecessary epilogue where we find out that White survived his fatal looking wounds, and ends up with Lynn (Kim Basinger). While the twist that Smith ended up a fallen hero was somewhat of a downer, had the film ended with the shot of Exley with his badge aloft, people would talk about it in the same breath as "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."
1. The Hurt Locker (2009, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
An undeniably brilliant film, and one of the more deserving Best Picture winners from the past few years, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is an intense look at the lives of American soldiers in modern day Iraq. The film's hero, Sgt. William James (a never better Jeremy Renner), spends his days in Iraq defusing i.e.d.'s, and is only truly happy when putting his life or the lives of his fellow soldiers in danger. After two botched missions leave his partners with a respective leg injury & a total loss of will to continue serving, James himself returns home to his wife (Evangeline Lilly) and infant son. The film's absolute most brilliant moment comes on a shopping trip, as his wife send him to the cereal aisle to buy cereal, and we see a man who has always been 110% sure of himself and his purpose in life, lost in a mundane world that most of us are right at home in. Had the film cut to black here, I would have no problem calling it one of the best films of the last decade, but there are two more scenes that insist on spoon feeding the audience this message that was so well conveyed with a single image. James delivers an impassioned monologue to his son and then heads back to the Middle East, the only place he's truly at home, while blaring rock music kicks in. Sure, it's a great tribute to men like Sgt. James who will continue the fight when everyone else has given up, but it's a bit heavy handed considering the film had such a beautifully poetic final image some five minutes earlier. It doesn't make me hate the entire film, but it keeps me from loving it as much as I want to.
So there you have it. Please let me know what you think and what some of your favorite movies with better endings would be. In preparation for this article, I asked a bunch of my film geek friends, and there were two films that kept coming up which I would like to attempt to defend if I may.
The first one is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While that film most certainly suffers from not knowing when to end (though to be fair, they were wrapping up three film's worth of storyline), it most assuredly ends at the proper moment, with Samwise back in the Shire, living happily ever after.
The other one I heard a lot was No Country for Old Men, and I couldn't disagree with this more. While the entire Anton Chigurh/Llewelyn Moss storyline was riveting, it was not what the movie was actually about. You need look no further than the title to discover that the film is actually about Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Ed Bell, coming to terms with his own uselessness in a world of bold new crimes & criminals. While the film keeps you riveted with its cat & mouse chase, the film needs to end with Sheriff Bell becoming aware of his own mortality, and how he lives in a world that truly is not for old men.
What are some of your favorite examples?