A few days ago, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece over on Badassdigest.com (a really phenomenal site that I can’t recommend highly enough) about the terrible ending of the classic Bill Murray film, Stripes.
Mr. Faraci is right on the nose — the last 30 or so minutes of Stripes are really quite terrible. Now, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the first two-thirds of Stripes, either. I think I saw the film way too late in life to really connect with it the way other children of the eighties did. Despite my long-held love for Bill Murray’s movies of the 1980’s (epitomized by my near fanatical worship of Ghostbusters), somehow I missed Stripes throughout my childhood — I only finally saw it when I was in college, and by then I just didn’t find it all that funny.
But Mr. Faraci’s article got me thinking about other good films undone by their endings… and wondering if there any films, as Mr. Faraci asks, whose first two-thirds are so good that I forgive their weak ending?
(Let me state that, obviously, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD for the films under discussion!!)
Let’s begin with some films that start off strong but are, in my opinion, completely ruined by their terrible endings:
No Country for Old Men — I was totally engrossed in this tense, beautiful film for much of its run-time, but the ending totally sunk my enjoyment. After following the character of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) throughout the film, and totally investing in him, I couldn’t believe how that character was completely abandoned and ignored in the final few minutes of the movie. The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) indicates to me that the Coen Brothers intended the film to be the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s. But the movie never earns that. It never shows us the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene. What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss that so affected Sheriff Bell? For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply? We’re never told, and ultimately, as a viewer, I didn’t care too much about Sheriff Bell — I was invested in Llewelyn! And having the end of his story be cut off by the finale really disappointed me.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — Not that the first two-thirds of this film were so perfect to begin with, but had the movie ended with David trapped underwater, left forever in sight of the Blue Fairy while wishing, over and over again, to be human, I think it would have been a suitably sad, poetic end to the film. But, of course, the film doesn’t end there, and instead continues for 25 more insanity-filled minutes with futuristic robotic aliens who recover David and are able to use a strand of Monica’s hair that Teddy somehow had secretly kept all this time to recover her psychic essence from the timestream and restore that essence to a cloned artificial body that can only live for one day before dying forever so David can have one last joyous day with his mommy before she dies and he goes to sleep and apparently dies too. Hurgh. It’s just madness — possibly the worst 25 minutes Mr. Spielberg has ever committed to film. Any attempt by Spielberg and co. to create a scientifcially plausible future world goes out the window in the face of hokey philosophical mumbo-jumbo that’s all just a shameless attempt to bring the audience to tears by repeatedly bringing David hope only to snatch that hope away. It’s all just such ridiculous nonsense that it makes my teeth hurt. The music swells, schmaltz is piled on schmaltz, and I’m left wondering what happened to the director Steven Spielberg whose work I used to unabashedly, unquestionably love. Read more about my recent re-watching of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence here.
Minority Report — This first two-thirds of Minority Report, which Steven Spielberg made immediately after A.I., are far better than the first two-thirds of A.I., and the ending of Minority Report isn’t nearly as batshit bonkers as the ending of A.I. is. But that ending is just as ruinously terrible. Minority Report is pretty awesome right up until John Anderton (Tom Cruise) discovers Leo Crow and the secret he holds, and finds himself ready to murder him. Then the whole film crumbles. Despite the revelation by the pre-cog Agatha that, despite John’s hopes, there was no “minority report” for the murder they foresaw — meaning that ALL three pre-cogs saw John killing Leo Crow, John somehow chooses heroically not to kill him. And then it’s a straight road on to a simplistic happy ending. The villain — who to this point has been extraordinarily careful and skilled at covering his tracks — makes a ridiculously obvious slip to John’s wife, and practically hands her the keys to defeating him, giving her a box with John’s weapon (!) and his real eyes (!!) which will enable her to break back into Pre-Crime and free John and defeat the villain and shut-down Pre-Crime. John magically gets back together with his estranged wife, and in a sun-bathed epilogue we see that the pre-cogs have been freed to grow out their hair and read books out on a nice safe farm in the countryside. The end. But without the Pre-Crime unit — whatever its flaws might have been — doesn’t that mean that, whereas we had been told that the Pre-Crime unit had brought the homicide rate down to zero, people will now be able to start killing each other again? Is that dark side to the film’s ending even hinted at? No, absolutely not, it’s a happy ending, shut up and go home happy, America. Sigh. I have lots more critical things to say about the ending of Minority Report — including an analysis of how ridiculous the villain’s scheme to outwit the pre-cogs is — here.
Layer Cake — I really, really enjoyed this British crime film up until the very last minute of the movie. This tense, funny, romp was the first film directed by Matthew Vaughn and features Daniel Craig in a star-making role. I was having a ball right up until those very last few moments of the film, when the hero (Craig) is brutally shot and killed. Boy, did that knock the wind right out of my sails, and ruin all the fun I’d been having to that point. This is a film I’ve been thinking for a while I should revisit, but remembering my dislike for the ending has kept me away.
Lost — I know it’s not a movie, but I can’t resist noting bitterly how the brutally awful final season of Lost totally destroyed a show that I had loved for the five previous terrific seasons. Click here for more of my whining about the last season of Lost!
Then there are those films that are somehow enjoyable enough to still be great despite their terrible endings:
Superman II — Even the Richard Lester-directed original theatrical cut (which lost some of the best elements of original director Richard Donner’s intentions for the film, such as the great scene in which Lois proves to Clark Kent that she knows he’s Superman by shooting him in the chest) is pretty bad-ass. This is the one and only Superman film that presents villains that are a real physical match for Superman. The battle in the streets of Metropolis between Superman and the three Kryptonian criminals still remains, nearly thirty years later, the greatest superhero slugfest ever committed to celluloid. Lex Luthor’s annoying sidekicks are gone, and Lex actually comes across as smart and dangerous. And there are real emotional stakes in the film as well, as Clark’s identity as Superman is revealed to Lois. The film is great! Then the fight moves to the Fortress of Solitude in the final 15 or so minutes and it all falls to pieces. Superman is given ridiculous extra super-powers (He has super-teleportation! He can turn his chest emblem into super saran-wrap!) which are unnecessary (he’s SUPERMAN for god’s sake!! He has so many super-powers already!!) and laugh-inducing. Worse of all, though, is the way the film hits the reset-button by having Superman plant a super-amnesia kiss on Lois that makes her forget everything that happened (including the revelation of Superman’s secret identity). Ugh. What a cowardly ending on every level. But somehow all of that ridiculousness doesn’t spoil the rest of the movie for me, which I’ve seen many, many times and I still think is a great deal of fun.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail — I know it’s a comedy classic and one of the funniest movies of all time. I’ve seen this film umpteen million times and I love it every time. But all that is despite the film’s — let’s face it — disappointing cop-out ending. Arthur’s quest never reaches it’s climax. Instead, the scene is interrupted — police officers from a previous scene in the film arrive to arrest the actors — and roll credits. It’s as if the Pythons had no idea how to end the film and so decided to just stop. I admire the gutsy break with film formula, but that doesn’t prevent me from feeling deeply unsatisfied every time I get to the end of this film.
Batman Begins — I loved, loved, loved this serious, gritty telling of Batman’s origin. Keeping the story focused on the human emotions of Bruce Wayne (anger focused into a pursuit of vengeance against the criminal element), with street-level villains (crime-lords and gangsters, not super-villains) was a wise touch, resulting in a tense, viscerally engaging thriller. That is, until Wayne puts on the Bat-suit and starts driving around Gotham in his Bat-tank. There’s nothing catastrophically terrible in this last act, but it’s just that I found it so pedestrian compared to the first two-thirds of the film. There are also a few moments that just seemed “off” to me, such as Commissioner Gordon driving the Batmobile and Batman’s weird moral compromise of not killing Ra’s al Ghul himself but instead allowing him to be killed. The filmmakers wisely used the wonderful final scene of Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One to end their movie, but they even got that a bit wrong by adding in the extra exchange of Gordon trying to thank Batman. It doesn’t ruin the scene, but it’s just not necessary.
Chasing Amy — I’m a big, big Kevin Smith fan, and Chasing Amy is probably his best film. It’s his most complete, mature work — absolutely gut-bustingly hilarious, and also genuinely human and emotional, with plenty of geeky comic-book references and searing profanity laced throughout. I love this film. And yet I must admit that things go off the rails a bit in the scene, towards the end of the film, in which Ben Affleck’s Holden proposes to resolve all of his emotional problems by having a three-way with Banky (Jason Lee) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). To me that has always been such an out-of-nowhere “huh?” moment that throws me out of what has been, to that point, an engagingly human and realistic emotional tale.
What do you all think? What other great films have terrible endings? And do those endings ruin the film for you, or not? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know!