Note To Film Makers: Endings Matter

Whether it’s the screenwriters, the directors, or the studios – in too many films, someone doesn’t have the balls to finish the convincing, gritty ending that we’ve all been waiting for.

It happens time and time again, a fantastic premise, solid acting, characters that deserve a birth certificate… And then something happens. Somebody interferes. The flow of the movie is interrupted and all excellence scatters on the breeze. Plot holes appear, undermine the integrity of the film, and the whole story subsides, swallowed up in to the depths of the bargain basket and newspaper freebees.

What am I talking about? Some examples off the top of my head; Fracture, Murder by Numbers, Law Abiding Citizen, three films defined by four men of infinite genius, whose devious schemes are nigh on perfect in planning and execution, and yet each is brought down by petty contrivances or deus ex machinas, (usually as simplistic as bad luck).

Then think Se7en. The concept was bold and terrifyingly brutal and arguably it’s one of the best crime thrillers ever created. Why? Because it stuck around even after the final shot (pun intended). The inevitability of that final deadly sin, the sudden violence, the chord it strikes with everyone watching, knowing: “that’s what I would do”. I defy anybody to suggest they would act any differently to Brad Pitt’s character, Detective Mills, as the head of his wife is presented to him in a bloody box. Really, who wouldn’t pull the trigger in anger and hatred at her killer in those initial few seconds after the gruesome revelation? David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker were unafraid to do what so often needs to be done. Let the bad guy win. It’s an unforgiving climax that is memorable and moving because it is real. It is haunting because John Doe (played artfully by Kevin Spacey) succeeds.

Of course, there’s a happy alternative. Let the bad guy lose but back it up with something substantial, some irrefutable reason for their failure. Besides being disappointing, it’s insulting to an audience to spend a film building the character of a criminal mastermind, only to reveal, in some kind of clumsy twist, that he overlooked something elementary, or was dealt a duff card by the hand of God etc. etc.

On a lighter note of the same theme, The Inside Man, Spike Lee’s heist thriller was so entertaining because the robbers got away with it. It allowed you, even welcomed you to share the satisfaction of their success, and that was a joy that stayed with you long after the film finished. My point being that such endings mustn’t always be depressing.

Let me put it like this: if you make an audience root for the bad guy, you’re only going to disappoint them when you set him up to lose. If you create a perceptive villain that overlooks nothing, the audience won’t believe you when he slips up. Be true to the stories you create. People want film making that’s honest, plausible within it’s own context, and unafraid of controversy. Film needs to provide two things, entertainment, and art. With one or the other you’ll usually get by, but land both and you’ve created a masterpiece.

With the rant over, here’s two such masterpieces I’ve seen this year: The American, and The Secret in their Eyes.

The Fish Child – an example of a genre

I’ve just watched The Fish Child in order to provide a review for smellofnapalm.com and I found it epitomised something I’ve encountered before in films of this type. They are atmospheric, artistic, very well directed and produced, and yet I struggle with their overarching aim. You see, when you trip to the cinema to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, you can be sure to some degree of what you’re going to get. It may be shallow, it may be violent, it may be shocking or thrilling, or it may be none of these things, but you will know that it has one goal: to entertain.

The problem I have with films like The Fish Child, and there are many of them, is why am I watching them? What do they want from me?

It is hard to say they aim to entertain; a comedian entertains, a car chase entertains, even a feisty scene between celebs entertains, but frankly, a film in which the protagonist is a teenage lesbian in love with her maid whose father impregnated her as a child, who then gave birth as a very young teen, drowned the baby and left it in a lake, and after all that ends up in a female penitentiary, is not entertaining – it’s fucked up. And I’ve slimmed it down.

So if they’re not entertaining, and they’re not educational (other than from a film making perspective), what is it about them that makes them worth watching? I find it comparable to art. Think of looking at a warped, unpleasant painting. Something disturbing that you definitely wouldn’t want in your living room. It exists as a statement from it’s creator. ‘This is what I was thinking about, this is how I feel, this is what I want you to know I’m conflicted by…’ Art makes some sort of proclamation. You’re looking at it and you can’t find anything to like, and yet you are moved in some way. You feel affected, as if you’ve emotionally developed since experiencing it. The thing is, a painting or a poem can do that to you in a matter of seconds. Is it worth spending two hours watching a film to achieve the same sensation? I don’t know.

Perhaps you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about and you love this kind of film, or maybe you think you know the answer…either way, I’d love to hear opinions in the comments below.