What makes a great movie finale? Sometimes it’s an unexpected twist, other times it is the satisfaction in the way events are resolved. Sometimes it’s just the sum of the parts and the quality of the screenplay and filmmaking.
Since there’s no single defining criteria for a great movie ending, here are five movies that finished in style for various reasons.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!!!
Planes, Trains And Automobiles
This family comedy for John Hughes stars Steve Martin and John Candy as mismatched travel companions who run into all sorts of hysterical mishaps at Thanksgiving.
For the most part it follows the standard formula of such films: one character dislikes the other but can’t get away from him no matter what, the hijinks get increasingly crazy and the inevitable acceptance and understanding of one another comes late in the piece.
But Hughes had a trick up his sleeve, one that almost completely transforms the movie from a comedy to a tragedy.
Once Neal (Martin) and Del (Candy) go their separate ways, Neal reflects on the past few days and begins piecing together a few things Del has said. He returns to the train station where they parted to find Del still there; he hasn’t gone home to his wife as he said he would.
The twist is that Del’s wife has been dead for years and Del himself is a lonely travelling salesman with no where to call home. Candy’s performance in this scene is perhaps the best of his career, heavy with defeated sorrow.
Neal – intolerant of Del for so much of the movie – insists that Del comes home with him for Thanksgiving. The movie closes with the pair arriving at Neal’s house, both warmly greeted by his family.
It is a sweet ending to a tragic twist that elevates Planes, Trains And Automobiles to classic status.
The Usual Suspects
When it comes to twists at the finale, it’s hard to beat The Usual Suspects.
This crime thriller is set around an almost mythical figure by the name of Kaiser Soze, a master criminal who lives in the shadows and whose true identity is unknown.
Kevin Spacey plays a meek and disabled petty crook who is being interviewed by a detective investigating a mass killing and explosion on a boat. Spacey regales the detective with a twisting tale of how he and his crew were unwittingly employed by Soze.
The big reveal comes at the end when it seems one of the crew members (Gabriel Byrne) was actually Soze himself. The viewer believes this is the big moment of the final act, the unmasking of the mysterious Soze. It is explained in just enough detail to convince the viewer: Keaton (Byrne) is Kaiser Soze and it is suggested he survived the violence on the ship.
End of story?
No, for the famous twist comes in the final minutes as partially-crippled Spacey leaves the police station and we discover that he himself is actually the infamous Kaiser Soze.
The slow reveal as the detective realises everything he has just been told is a lie is executed to perfection: even a smashed coffee cup on the floor hammers home another nail of sudden revelation.
It’s an ending that has been often imitated but never bettered.
Another great ending featuring Kevin Spacey (before the truth of his off-camera activities rightfully ended his career) is the serial killer film Se7en.
The movie features Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as detectives investigating a killer who is basing his kills on the seven deadly sins.
Late in the action John Doe (Spacey) turns himself in and confesses to the killings, although only five murders have occurred.
He promises to lead them to the last two murders but takes the detectives to the middle of nowhere. A box is delivered to the spot and Mills (Pitt) is horrified to learn his wife’s severed head is inside.
A deeply distraught Mills is then provoked by Doe into shooting him dead.
It is a dark, horrific movie that keeps surprising right until the end.
One of the greatest surprise endings of recent times, Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as US Marshal Teddy Daniels investigating an escaped mental patient wanted for murder.
His investigation leads him on a wild ride throughout the mental hospital before it is revealed that Daniels himself is a patient of the institution named Andrew Laeddis and the murder investigation was an experiment to try and wake him from his delusion.
Failure of the experiment means a lobotomy for Laeddis, who was institutionalised for murdering his wife after she killed their two children.
The sombre ending takes a turn for the ambiguous when Laeddis asks “is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?”, suggesting he may be aware of his condition and is choosing to have the lobotomy to escape the memories of his past.
The Shawshank Redemption
Seemingly on everyone’s all-time best movies list, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy (Tim Robbins), a man wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife.
Based on a story by Stephen King, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it great. From a film making perspective, it is almost flawless in its pacing and progression. The characters are believable and complex, the casting is spot-on and the overall execution of everything from the cinematography to the editing is superb.
The “redemption” of Andy comes late in the film as he dramatically escapes from Shawshank and heads to Mexico with the corrupt warden’s money. His inmate friend Red (Morgan Freeman) joins him once paroled and they reunite on a bright, sunlit beach, a stark contrast to the bleak grey penitentiary walls that are the backdrop for the bulk of the movie.
There’s no great twists or turns, it’s just a wholly satisfying conclusion to Andy’s story as his ingenious escape plan is explained. It’s a happy ending for a character who truly deserved one and it’s beautiful to watch.
Planet Of The Apes
It’s been referenced and parodied so many times it’s easy to forget how iconic the ending of the original Planet Of The Apes is.
Charlton Heston starred as an astronaut who crash lands on an unknown planet and discovers it is ruled by intelligent apes who keep humans as slaves.
The twist comes at the end as Heston comes across the washed up remains of the Statue of Liberty and realises the planet is actually Earth.