Tom Jolliffe looks at the power a film’s final shot can have…
There are many aspects that will make a piece of cinema stay long in your mind. You give yourself over to a film sometimes. It sweeps you away. Moments leave particularly strong and inedible impressions. One thing that many films will strive for though, is that final moment. That last shot before you cut to the credits or fade to black.
The impact of a memorable or unforgettable final shot can can often be the one thing that sticks in your mind longer than anything else. You’ve invested your time in this film and that final moment must succinctly, and memorably bring to a close your time and in the best cases just leave its mark upon you. If a finale hasn’t quite lived up, or you’re kind of torn on a film, occasionally stick the landing on that final jump can be the difference between something you never want to watch again, or a film which will draw you back to it. There have been a few films that didn’t quite hit me, but a final shot lingered enough for me to re-watch, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God and The Quiet Earth.
It takes me back to Stalker, Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece and final Russian made film. Being billed as sci-fi obviously brings with it certain connotations and expectations. It’s almost interminably slow and doesn’t have the set pieces you might desire from a genre it’s only half placed into (in truth it borders genres, without being inherently anything other than uniquely Tarkovsky). Still…the first viewing left me disappointed. A genre I loved, a film regarded so highly, and I didn’t feel it, but…it left a few marks on me. The visuals, the hypnotic, entrancing feeling, but indeed, the enigmatic and evocative final shot. I’d think back to Stalker regularly, willing myself for a good decade or so, into giving it a second go, often thinking of that end shot. When I finally revisited, I got it and in subsequent viewings, firmly established an unshakeable love of the film.
Indeed, you can have an instant connection with a film. There have been plenty I loved from the outset, which were only reinforced by a final shot which is either just a final slice of brilliance, or a moment that teases and shakes you to the core. Think of the final shot in Psycho (as we focus on a slow creepy smile from Norman Bates), simple yet powerful and haunting. The final shot in Taxi Driver, this calm sequence following the brutality of the finale, and a suggestion that perhaps, finally, Travis Bickle’s psyche has some equilibrium. Maybe he’s found normality. Then a flash, a quick dart of his eyes catching something in his rear view mirror that may or may not be there, with a quick crescendo in its musical cue. No…Travis is still off centre. I loved the blunt and playful cynicism of Brazil, where an ending of hope, which is merely a dream is replaced by the reality that Sam (Jonathan Pryce) has succumbed to his own fantasies. It’s tragic but also oddly hopeful (given he’s happy inside his mind).
You can opt for something that teases. A moment where we’re left to question the true outcome of the story. Maybe it’s the end of The Shining, that delivers a delightfully teasing shot that sees Jack Torrance in a Gala ball picture from the 20’s, as if he’s long been in the Overlook, or had a previous incarnation there. It teases, and it’s vague and it’s playful. The final shot in Blade Runner (Directors Cut) sees Harrison Ford, having picked up the little Unicorn figurine left for him that leaves us with the teasing notion that perhaps Deckard might just be a replicant. Chris Nolan’s final shot of the perpetually moving spinning top in Inception. Is that the faintest judder at the end to signify it’s about to topple? We’re left wondering just whether Cobb is left lumbered in a dream or not.
Other strong endings having a beautiful poetry to them. A certain telling serenity that could be tragic, dramatic or philosophical. Harry Caul, in The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola’s classic paranoia thriller sees Gene Hackman slowly losing a grip on his sanity, culminating in the final scene where he pulls his apartment apart searching for a bug. We’re left with a teasing shot as he sits alone in his ravaged apartment playing serene Jazz on his sax. An oddly voyeuristic camera pan that suggests we’re invading a private and sat moment. He’s calm, he’s now disconnected from that paranoia, perhaps satisfied, but has he recaptured his sanity? Has it gone for good and indeed, is anyone still watching/listening to him?
An ending that really struck me was No Country For Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones recounting a couple of dreams he once had. His subconscious telling him something, but also his life as a lawman, having seen so much tragedy, opens up so many philosophical questions within. It’s a blunt final delivery with Jones’ sad mournful and aged face, as he faces up to his mortality and the futility in trying to understand the action of people like Chigurgh. That ending in itself, as much as the film all round was exceptional, just hit me hard. It’s a significant reason, because I felt I needed to watch the entire film again to appreciate what TLJ was saying (and meaning), that I went back to watch it (at the cinema) the following day and took my brother with me.
Something about the power of an end shot can leave us with the lingering idea that a character will either be alright (the final shot of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club for example), or perhaps we’re left with the feeling they’re destined to continue on a meaningless or potentially tragic path. The final, tragic soliloquy from Withnail in Withnail and I, a signifier of his talents, but also his impending isolation and hopelessness as torrential rain beats down upon his umbrella. I also think of the beautiful, oddly triumphant but fatalistic final shot in Runaway Train. Jon Voight having finally performed an honourable act in freeing Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay’s carriage from the train (heading at full power to an inevitable doom) has his nemesis locked within the train hurtling to fate with him as he stands at the top of the train riding into the distance and out of view. It’s a really good film with this exceptional ending that just sticks with you (not least because the shot itself is just so beautiful).
For an array of reasons, many of these shots, which normally come at the end of a great film (it’s usually rare for a great film to end on an underwhelming note for example) just become iconic. In I suppose the same way a film needs to open strong, it’s important to close strong and at the end of a finale you need a definitive and powerful full stop. Think that iconic final shot in The Godfather as the door closes on Diane Keaton for example. It’s legendary. Indeed, with Pacino in mind, I think of that final moment in Heat. Pacino has bested De Niro in their final gun battle. They hold hands, a moment of mutual respect for their cat/mouse chase having ended. Really poetic and again aided by beautiful photography and great soundtrack. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wrote itself into cinema history for it’s raw, gritty and shocking style, but almost always remembered for that chilling final shot of Leatherface and his chainsaw.
A few more personal favourites? The Terminator (that desolate, allegorical highway with a storm brewing), Fight Club (as a City crumbles before Ed Norton and Helena Bonham Carter), 2001 (Space Baby), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief escapes), Rocky (Yo Adrian), and a final beautiful but bittersweet shot in Ivan’s Childhood with the titular character in flashback, fantasy or afterlife (having died in war) playing and running across a beach.
What is your favourite final shot? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.