Why can’t people write good endings any more?

by on March 10, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Jeremy Renner as Blaster One in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker probably deserved the Oscar for Best Film but its finale is a disappointment. Up in the Air and No Country for Old Men are two other recent good films that faltered in the final reel. Have screenwriters forgotten how to finish stories or are they perversely choosing to frustrate us?

The Hurt Locker fizzles out after Fiennes

The Hurt Locker is amazing – for about 2/3 of its length. It grips you from the opening scene then expertly builds and releases the tension in waves. The crisis of the second act seemed to be the sequence in the desert where Ralph Fiennes appeared as a mercenary. It was exhausting – in a good way. After the scene back in the barracks I felt we were setting up beautifully for the final act – but no. After that the film loses its way, spends too long doing it, and dissipates both the dramatic tension and the audience’s goodwill.

Some would argue that the desultory nature of the action after that point mirrors the disintegrating mind of the protagonist but this is drama. This is story. No matter how unhinged he becomes, the narrative threads need to be concentrating and the theme needs to be crystallising. Over the sequences with Beckham, the body bomb and the family back home in the States, neither of those things happened. The tension didn’t lift to the level of the 2nd act and ultimately I was left feeling that this guy wasn’t made this way by the war. This is just the way this guy is. So we’ve watched all this because … ? What’s that? To learn that war is hell? Please.

Up in the Air crashes in the final reel

I love romantic comedies and the chemistry between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga was to die for. That scene where they were comparing their loyalty cards was in the Spencer Tracey – Katherine Hepburn league. I was in love. Unfortunately, it all fell apart after the revelation that Alex was married.

I don’t necessarily say they should have ended up together. It was an interesting twist – though I would argue that her actions at the wedding weren’t those of a married woman just having a fling. The problem was that after taking away the conventional pleasure, the writer/director didn’t offer anything in its place. We were talked through the ending rather than feeling it. It was a cerebral finale when cinema audiences – particular where romance is involved – are looking for an emotional denouement.

An example of another recent romantic film that defied convention but still delivered some consolation was 500 Days of Summer. Gordon Joseph Levitt loses Zooey Deschanel. Bummer. But in that short scene at the end, where he meets a woman who’s going for the same job he’s after, we get the sense of possibility. I didn’t walk out skipping but neither was I cursing. After Up in the Air I was left with nothing. George Clooney can’t get a girl? What chance do mere mortals stand?

No Country for Old men – so close to greatness

I think that Anton Chigurh is one of the greatest antagonists in cinematic history. That scene where he’s tossing the coin in that remote general store was sheer genius. No violence but tension off the scale. For the entire movie, we follow this deranged guy with bad hair but entirely dedicated to a curious honour code, as he pursues the opportunistic Josh Brolin. It’s lion chasing Bambi and we’re dying to see whether the deer makes it. Then, just when it appears that we are set for the ultimate showdown, Josh is killed. Offscreen.

How could they do that? How could they be so cruel to their audience? I am not alone here. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this film loves the journey and despises the destination. What a waste.

I know that the film is faithful to the novel in bookending the tale with Tommy Lee Jones but I don’t care. I don’t go to the cinema looking for adaptive fidelity. I go looking for the ride. And that dream stuff with Tommy was plainly uncinematic. That’s not a good idea in the first or second acts. In the third, it’s inexcusable. If the Coen Bros had been operating this ride at the county fair, I’d have demanded by money back.

A satisfying ending isn’t necessarily a happy ending

I’m not looking for a happy ending. I hate happy endings.  I’m looking for emotionally satisfying endings.

Dead Man Walking ends with Sean Penn being executed. That’s a great ending. Because before he dies he finally confesses. That’s catharsis.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ends with Jack Nicholson minus his frontal lobe and suffocated to death. But we leave the cinema feeling fulfilled because his sacrifice has liberated another – the Chief. A tragic yet fabulous ending.

Dead Poets Society has the film’s central character commit suicide and its mentor made the scapegoat yet we walk out exultant because another character rises up out of the ashes. “Oh, Captain, my captain”.

Screenwriting is all about the ending

Personally, I think the whole craft of screenwriting is about delivering an emotionally satisfying ending to your audience. Any mug can write a first act. With a little more talent, you can fake your way to the end of the second act. But it’s in those final 15-30 minutes that it all needs to pay off. If it doesn’t, you haven’t got a B+. You’ve got an F. It’s all about the ending. Fail there and everything that precedes it has been a waste of time – for the filmmakers and the punters.

Why are so many good filmmakers delivering bad endings?

Kathryn Bigelow is a good filmmaker. Jason Reitman is a good filmmaker – and he delivered a great ending with Juno. The Coen Bros are extraordinarily talented filmmakers – and delivered a powerful traditional ending with their early Blood Simple. So I don’t think it’s that they can’t write emotionally satisfying endings. I think they can but choose not to. Why?

I think they want to be original. They want to avoid the predictable. And that’s fine. But if your unconventional ending is less satisfying than a more conventional ending then I think you’ve made a poor choice for your audience. Again, one of the hardest jobs you face as a writer is working within traditional story structures and still finding a way to make it seem fresh. I don’t think abandoning the traditional ending is a sign of creativity. I think it’s a cop out.

An even less acceptable justification for these “alternative” endings is that “this is how it is in real life”. Oh, really? So, filmmakers who earn millions of dollars a movie, live between homes in LA, Aspen and Florida, and couldn’t tell you the price of bread are going to tell the average cinema-goer how life really is, are they? What utter bollocks.

If you don’t deliver an emotionally satisfying ending, you haven’t given your audience what they came for. You’ve told them what they already knew. That life is tough. That love is rare. That dreams largely go unpursued or unfulfilled. Like they need reminding. People go to the cinema to be reminded of the potential of the human experience because that gives them the heart – gives us the heart – to go on. The audience is boss. I for one am going to try to give my boss what they paid for. A decent ending.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Barrett March 10, 2010 at 11:41 am

The Coen brothers have been cheating their plots and characters in favor of moments since they first burst onto the big screen. They get away with it because they have an intellectual slant to these abuses, but they still cheat. If you know how stories are put together, you can see them doing it.

As to Hollywood in general, redemption is king, and the happy-redemption ending is god. Movies are continually bent late in production to satisfy the psyche of the American movie-goer, and it shows.

You couldn’t make Cuckoo’s Nest today. Nicholson would have to kill Ratchet, or better yet, get her on video abusing a patient. Yeah, that’s it — he’s really an undercover reporter…and his kid brother was treated at the same place…

admin March 10, 2010 at 11:47 am

I agree about the Coen Brothers – which is why I think their work is very hit and miss. How A Serious Man got a Best Film nomination, I’ll never know. Actually, I do know. They got it on reputation. But you can’t fool the punters. They stayed away in their millions.

Not sure about whether you couldn’t get Cuckoo done today. Maybe. Maybe not.

Arielle Nakache-Moulay March 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Allen I really love this blog and agree with your sentiments. I haven’t seen the Hurt Locker yet so will go in cautiously after reading about the dissatisying ending. Hmpf. I wonder what you’ll say about A Single Man. I felt the film was pretty satisfying (not to mention incredibly aesthetically pleasing) through and through. So will await your review! In the meantime, I would like to share that I simply can’t stand the idiocy of showing the beginning, middle and end of a film in the preview (eg the new Brothers film with Natalie Portman) . Do they think we’re completely numb? I say ban editors and promo folk who spoon feed us the entire plot which makes the movie go to my ‘wait for DVD’ if that, list.

Bella April 14, 2010 at 5:20 am

I am so glad someone else thought the same about the Coen No Country for Old Men ending. (Have yet to see Hurt Locker) I can see the Coens tweaking films for the shock value. However, I believe many more mainstream movies could be better if the endings avoided the dreaded “Hollywood Ending.” Of course, this happens due to the pressures of all the various entities…directors, producers, etc.

Karel Segers May 23, 2010 at 11:15 am

Hi Allen,

Last night I watched UP IN THE AIR.

There’s nothing wrong with that film, except that it doesn’t have a climax. In Hero’s Journey terms, there is no Resurrection.

Before the Mid Point, Ryan is trying to change the world. At the MP he realises he has to change himself. That’s when he goes to see Alex, then his sister.

When he convinces his future inlaw to make the step, he’s ‘doing the right thing. It is his Inner Approach to the Inmost Cave. Ryan going to Alex’ place is his Outer Approach. The revelation that Alex is married is a clear and powerful Ordeal.

At this point, he has to be able to let go of everything and everyone he’s built his life upon (his backpack is now set on fire).

A functional Hero’s Journey then shows how the Hero applies his newly found knowledge and strength to his new life.

Yes, we understand he has broken through his isolation but we want to SEE it, and his environment needs to see it, too. That’s the whole point of the Hero’s Resurrection: the community understanding that the hero has finally transformed.

In this film it is really so subtle it feels unresolved.

Mark Harmon June 28, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Have you read Christopher Weekes script ‘The Muppet Man’ ?

It has one of the most emotionally gratifying endings of any script I’ve read.
The catharsis is very powerful.

Its a shame it may never get made.

Allen June 29, 2010 at 10:51 am

No, Mark. I haven’t read it unfortunately but will add it to my list.

Alex Temesvari September 14, 2010 at 8:35 am

I do get what your saying but sometimes a \downer\ ending is so much more powerful or emotive than the happy resolution. I mean look at films like The Dark Knight or The Wrestler or Crazy Heart, they aren’t exactly uplifting endings but resonate much more because of that. Was a big part of me hoping those films would end on happier terms? Sure yeah but the fact that they didn’t actually made me think about them more after the credits rolled. Don’t you hate it when a film seems to pander to the audience and warp everything up in a neat little bow? Is there a middle ground? I’m really interested in your thoughts on this…

Tom Quinn October 11, 2010 at 5:17 am

I whole heartedly agree about the Hurt Locker, it felt phoned in and by the numbers. However, while I think the end of No Country For Old Men is frustrating and leaves me feeling empty, I enjoy it precisely for that reason. I remember coming out on the sidewalk after that film feeling uneasy, with no sense of closure – a certain kind of disappointment mixed with the final image of the Sheriff’s dream. Somehow, these things mixed together to precisely nail the themes of the film and make them last in me – ideas of randomness, choice, death, and loss. Still today, I can feel those things vividly when I think of that film and I think it is precisely because my expectations and desire for closure were scrambled.

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