The ending of a film can be the moment that stays with us the longest. The moment that shapes our impression of the entire movie. Here is a (far from definitive) guide to some of the best endings in cinema, be it simply because they make an impact, show themselves to be especially inventive or have had some kind of ripple effect on movies that have come since.
Night of the Living Dead (1968):
The posse have just shot their way through a bunch of zombies, and main character Ben (Duane Jones) is woken up by the gunfire. He looks outside, only to be shot by the mob who think him to be a zombie. This moment, where a white gang of vigilantes shoot the only black character in the film (and only hero), is a searing commentary on domestic racism in the USA. This came at a time — as critic Mark Deming has noted — when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were still fresh in the American consciousness. The theme of racism has been featured in horror movies ever since, most notably in Get Out (2017). This ending, void of compassion or a satisfying conclusion, is a sucker-punch that is meant to leave its audience thinking critically about the world in which they live.
Taxi Driver (1976):
The ending of perhaps Martin Scorsese’s best film is one that has generated a lot of debate. Having survived a bloody gun battle, Travis (Robert de Niro) finds himself hailed a hero by the press, finally accepted by the woman he has been obsessively stalking, and receives a grateful letter from the father of the child prostitute he rescued. This comes after Scorsese has spent the entire film formulating the decay of Travis’ mind. The finale’s brilliance lies in its ambiguity; has Travis really been heralded as a hero and finally become an upstanding citizen among the filth of the city? Or did he die in that shoot-out, and this entire ending is in fact a dream? A projection of what never was nor can be? The discussion goes on, but the ending confirms Taxi Driver as a must-see experience.
Halloween has influenced horror films for decades thanks largely to John Carpenter’s innovative use of camera techniques and the introduction of common tropes. The ending is one example. Dr. Loomis shoots the masked killer Michael Myers several times and he falls off the balcony. When Loomis checks the ground below however, Michael is gone, and then his breathing can be heard off-camera. He could be anywhere. This is an ending that isn’t really an ending — it is very clearly hinted that the story can and will go on. Asides being an easy trick for beckoning sequels and spin-offs (and Halloween has had plenty of those), it leaves everything unresolved and unfinished. An unsettling ending to an unsettling experience. It is something that has been copied and parodied by countless films since, a testimony to how Carpenter’s work has left a legacy in its wake.
The Breakfast Club (1985):
John Hughes’ classic comedy drama of teenage rebellion and adult ignorance is about as quintessential 1980s as it gets. As the five students near the end of their detention, they write a letter together for their authoritarian headteacher and walk out of their school as changed people. If it sounds corny, that’s because it is, but The Breakfast Club was an unsatisfied cry and a message of hope that roused young audiences of the time, continuing to resonate today as well. The end, telling the headteacher exactly how he views his students and why this is wrong, is a fist- pump moment for anyone who feels disenchanted with how their lives are controlled by others. It’s an ending briefly seen on a TV in Bumblebee, and if it’s good enough for a big yellow robot, then it’s good enough for you.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999):
A tragic and upsetting film that doesn’t get any easier to watch with its ending, but if the whole point is that the film stays with you then this finale does that perfectly. Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) is a young trans man who is discovered to be transgender by his love interest Lana (Chloë Sevigny) and by some of her friends, who later rape and murder Brandon. Almost the entire second half of the film is an exercise in unapologetic frankness, asking its viewer to witness the violence perpetrated against LGBT+ individuals from the perspective of the victim. The fact that this is based on a true story makes the horrible unease of the situation all the more palpable. The finale leaves you empty, drained and with the unmistakable impression that something is wrong with the world. It is a brutal example of making your point heard.
Lost in Translation (2003):
Ageing actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) find each other through a mixture of relationship strains and insomnia, developing an incredibly strong friendship. The end sees Bob leave Japan, but not before spotting Charlotte on the street and going up to her. He whispers something, they kiss and then leave. The kiss is not a romantic one, but is charged with a raw emotion. Described by some critics as a ‘post-romance’ film, director Sofia Coppola with this scene brings an end to a friendship that meant more to both people that either of their romantic relationships. This is the final farewell and closure of something that was the good part of otherwise two alienated lives.
District 9 (2009):
It is no exaggeration to say that District 9 is one of the most believable, gripping and thought provoking science fictions that has ever been conceived. The almost unbelievable character arc of Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) sees him ironically become more human as his human body mutates beyond recognition. The ending is a cliffhanger of sorts; will the alien who Wikus aided come back (and if so, to help or to conquer), or is he gone forever? There is also a beauty in the final moments, where Wikus’ wife is left a flower that, as she says, could not have come from Wikus, right? The end shot is then a fully metamorphosed Wikus crafting another flower out of scrap metal, a beautiful act of creation from someone who previously took joy in discriminatory destruction. Wikus is a changed man.
Toy Story 3 (2010):
If this doesn’t make you well up, you are a cold, cold human being. Woody, Buzz and friends finally have to let go of Andy as he goes off to college, and he opts to leave them with toddler Bonnie. They play with the toys together for a moment before Andy drives off. As he leaves, Woody looks on and simply says “So long, pardner.” Almost the last line of the film, it is accompanied by a crescendo of emotional music and the whole moment, for audiences who grew up with the Toy Story films in particular, is all a bit too much. It makes the previous two movies seem like they fizzle out by comparison, and makes you wonder why a fourth Toy Story is on the way when this moment ends the story so perfectly.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018):
You know where you were when Thanos clicked his fingers. The moment where the giant purple grape showed the universe exactly what he could do. Jaws dropped in cinemas across the world as their favourite heroes, one by one, faded away into nothingness. Few of them are left alive (Iron Man almost expects to die, and if anything looks more broken when he doesn’t) and we are all left reeling at what we have witnessed. The greatest superhero spectacle the world has ever seen delivered an ending that left viewers across the world in a state of shock.
Image: Marvel Studios via Image.net.