Why can’t people write good endings any more?

by Allen Palmer 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.

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