Great Endings: What Feels Right In A Classic Ending

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Great Endings: What Feels Right In A Classic Ending

What makes a great ending? It can be a maddening question. Maybe you’ve found an awesome, compelling concept, figured out a strong narrative structure and plot, and written a multi-faceted, actor-bait protagonist role. But try as you might, you still can’t nail that ending. It feels too flat and predictable, too abrupt… it just feels wrong.

A lot of times, this boils down a lack of thematic challenge intrinsic in the choice of ending. Let’s consider some classic examples. THE SEARCHERS is widely considered a classic of the Western genre and frequently shows up on “best of” lists.

The end of the film shows John Wayne, after he’s triumphed, and seemingly “won” the movie by returning his abducted niece. He should come inside the cabin and have a happy moment, right?

But he doesn’t. Instead, Wayne turns and wanders away, as the door slowly shuts on him. Without that ending, THE SEARCHERS wouldn’t be remembered as it is now. The ending completes the film’s challenge of traditional Western “heroism”, with the most traditional “hero” of the genre, John Wayne.

He did what he set out to do, but in doing so exposed the darkness of his soul, as Wayne’s character clearly contemplated killing his niece in the story. The ending is a challenge to the audience and a fulfillment of the film’s thematic thrust, and that’s why it satisfies and has been remembered for so long.

So, if you’re struggling with your ending, ask yourself, what’s the thematic thrust of your story? Another example to consider in this regard is GONE BABY GONE, the film that launched Ben Affleck’s directing career, holds a 94% approval rating on RottenTomatoes, and appeared on numerous Top 10 lists in 2007 (spoiler alerts follow).

The movie is about a missing girl, and who deserves to be her mother. Amy Ryan plays the mother, Helene, who, on the surface, seems like a total disaster. Morgan Freeman plays the police captain involved in the investigation, later revealed to have taken the child in question for himself and his wife.

Freeman’s character, Captain Jack Doyle, has a legitimate argument. The child is better off with him than her biological mother. But Casey Affleck’s character, Patrick Kenzie, has an equally legitimate argument – Helene is her mother.

The movie doesn’t provide the audience an easy way out. Patrick gets Doyle arrested, and Helene gets her daughter back. Doing this costs Patrick his own girlfriend, and in an epilogue for the film, he babysits for Helene, only to realize that Helene doesn’t even know the name of her daughter’s favorite toy.

Did he make the right choice? The audience has to decide for themselves. The commonality here in great endings is that easy black and white answers are rarely satisfying, and problematic shades of gray stick in the mind.

What are some of your favorite movie endings?

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