For this edition, I decided to focus on my favorite closing segments to a handful of flicks. Three of the films on my list, I love in their entirety. As for the other two, one is well done but a bit overrated and the other is a major disappointment redeemed by a ballsy ending. Tread carefully. Here there be spoilers.
As always, let me know your favorites in the Comments section below.
5. The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough thriller was one of the first films to kick start the twist ending craze of the last decade. Following this 1999 flick, you couldn’t pass a Law & Order ad without being reminded, “This one has a twist you won’t see coming’ – meaning you’d have the whole story spelled out in the first five minutes because a challenge like that sends the brain spiraling into such a fever pitch, no television writer could ever keep up. Of course, there have been twist endings and surprise denouements since time immortal, but Shyamalan’s pic, buoyed by a marketing campaign that urged viewers to keep the secret, had everyone guessing.
Everyone but me.
The problem I have is a damn brain that doesn’t know when to shut off. The second I heard there was a twist ending, my mind began running through possibilities. I knew the basic plot outline – little boy sees dead people, gets help from somnolent Bruce Willis.
‘Nuff said. Bruno’s a stiff. My rationale was – if there’s a big twist and the boy’s hanging around with Bruce and his special power is to see dead people, then he must be a ghost.
Well, I went to see the flick and my assumption was confirmed right away. The very first scene features a skeletal Donnie Wahlberg bustin’ a cap in Brucie (or Dr. Malcolm Crowe). We then fade out and pick up several months later. From that point on, I watched the film with different eyes than my fellow opening weekend audience. I noticed all the clever bait and switch machinations that Shyamalan laid out. Outside of Cole, nobody ever spoke to Crowe. A chilly dinner engagement with his wife features the two engaged in one-sided dialogues edited together to give the effect of two disconnected souls. For much of the film, their dynamic plays out like the dissolution of a marriage. It’s really clever on Shyamalan’s part – as the film plays well both ways, independent of its twist.
So even though I knew the twist thanks to my spoil-sport head sponge, I delighted in studying the construction of the film and watching the audience get supremely suckered by that finale. As for my curious cabeza, how ’bout this little arrangement?
All right brain. I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but let’s just let me get through this and I can get back to killing you with beer.
4. John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.
I am a huge Carpenter fan – but he has let me down so much in the last two decades that I have precious little goodwill to toss his way. Carpenter burned bright in the 70’s and 80’s with some genuine genre classics – such as Escape from New York, Halloween and The Thing. Then he lost his groove big time right around the time he started branding every title with his name (i.e. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness – what the hell does that even mean? Was John Carpenter swallowed by Elisabeth Hasselbeck?).
When John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. was announced – with a mega-budget by his standards ($70 million), I had high hopes. Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is iconic and further adventures for this ultimate bad ass just seemed like a no-brainer. When news of the casting spilled out – with Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, and Peter Fonda jumping aboard – it just seemed like pitch-perfect camp casting.
Then the film released and just shocked me with it’s flat, boiler plate execution. The bigger budget seemed to have been wasted in craft services, as the film looked as cheap as every other flick Carpenter released since hitting his half life.
So just when all seemed lost and I had written this off as another 104 minutes sucked from my life, Carpenter pulls out a whopper of an ending. Through the course of the film, Plissken had been charged with finding the President’s daughter (who was lost in the penal colony of California – created when the land broke off the continental United States). His second objective was to locate the plot’s McGuffin – a device which could control a series of satellites in orbit and effectively target various countries with a devastating EMP device – essentially destroying all of their technological advancements.
Anyway, Plissken is successful and returns with the girl and the device. The President takes both then quickly turns on Plissken, saying he returned too late and thus would be executed – essentially looking to cover up this little indiscretion and avoid a stain on the White House. As a Secret Service hit squad surrounds Plissken, he stands stoically and barks a few insults. The Prez gives the order to fire and the men perforate Plissken. Yet, he doesn’t drop. One man approaches a smirking Plissken and goes to tap him with the barrel of his gun – which passes completely through a holographic image of Plissken. A great distance off, we spy Plissken walking away. He pulls out the device and presses the button which triggers all satellites to come on line and aim EMP devices across the entire globe. We spy from space as these massive blasts rake the world, then all goes dark. Plissken has sent the Earth back to the Stone Age. Fade Out.
That’s what I like about Carpenter. At his best, he’s got this great un-Hollywood anarchic spirit that wants to end things messy. Shutting down the world was a potent way to end his parable – and while it’s pregnant with possibilities for future installment, I’m not sure I want Carpenter’s ham hands on Escape from Earth.
3. The Dead Zone
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is one of my favorite King films. Cronenberg is known for excess (with his ‘body horror’ theatrics in Scanners and The Fly) but he dials things down for this restrained character study of Johnny Smith, King’s school teacher pawn who – through a cruel twist of fate – loses 7 years off his life in a terrible car accident but wakes from a coma with the ability to see the future. Christopher Walken plays Smith with a haunted grace. This is Walken a million miles away from the ‘camp’ counselors he plays these days.
The film, like the novel, focuses on Smith’s struggle to regain his life (including a lost love) after awakening. He views his precognitive abilities as a curse. While the film has touches of the supernatural and horror – including a tense episode surrounding the hunt for a serial rapist – it is largely a drama.
Around the midpoint of the film, we are introduced to Martin Sheen’s Congressional candidate, Greg Stillson. At a campaign rally, Smith inadvertently shakes hands with a stumping Stillson and gets a terrifying flash. Years later, Stillson will be President of the United States. The world is on the brink of war and in a frightening display of power-mongering, Stillson gives the order to unleash hell, entering the key code for a nuclear salvo aimed at Russia.
The film then follows Smith’s obsessive drive to stop Stillson, culminating in a finale where Smith sneaks into the church where Stillson will deliver a campaign speech. Smith finds a perch in the balcony and waits with a high powered rifle. Eventually, the masses funnel in (including children) and Smith readies himself. As Stillson takes the stage, Smith gets ready to fire but an aide notices Smith and alerts security. Stillson spies Smith with the gun and in a fit of panic, grabs a child as a human shield. At that moment a photographer is seen snapping away. Smith is ultimately shot and crashes to the floor. When Stillson and his aides go to investigate the scene, they find Smith moments from death. Smith grabs Stillson’s hand and gets a new vision. Stillson is alone in his quarters – finishing a drink. He reaches down for a loaded gun and places it in his mouth. We hear a gunshot and blood splatters on a nearby Time magazine which features the shot of Stillson holding the child. The headline screams ‘STILLSON FINISHED.‘ Smith looks Stillson in the eye, says “You’re finished” and then dies.
William Somerset: This isn’t going to have a happy ending.
Seven is one of those movies that haunted me for days after seeing it. Director David Flincher did such an amazing job at capturing mood and atmosphere – setting his tale of the hunt for a bizarre serial killer enacting the seven deadly sins in a sin city desperately seeking cleansing in never-ending baptismal showers. The film just slithered upon you.
It’s that protracted finale that really got me – everything following the uncredited revelation of Kevin Spacey as John Doe. Doe walks into the police station, his hands bloody from having skinned his finger prints, and offers to confess to the crimes. He says he’ll show the cops where they can find his final murder scene and accompanies them on a fateful trip into the desert.
There they sit, and we wait, as the oppressive heat and tension settle in. Suddenly, a van is spotted in the distance. We’re unsure what’s going to happen. Is this a rescue attempt? A big time Hollywood shootout? Pitt and Freeman’s characters, Mills and Somerset, are nervous. They order Doe to the ground. Above, a police helicopter monitors the developments. Finally the van arrives and a scared delivery driver exits with a box.
Here comes Gwyneth’s head in a box.
Gwyneth Paltrow, the one lone burst of sunshine in a dark, dreary film, played Mills’ wife. In just a few short scenes she sketches a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman choked by fear of the big scary world around – of the city that threatens to swallow her husband – of bringing a child into a world that is beyond redemption. In one poignant conversation with Somerset – she reveals that she is pregnant and is hesitant to tell her husband because she is petrified to bring a baby into this world. She is considering abortion. Somerset imparts sage advice – “If you decide to keep this baby. You spoil it with every inch of your life.” Paltrow breaks down into great sobbing tears – tinged with hope.
Which is what makes Doe’s final sin – the culmination of Wrath – so heartbreaking. Somerset opens the box and spies (off camera) what we suspect is inside. Mills continues to bark “What’s in the box?” In classic Hitchcock fashion, Fincher does not show us. But we know. So does Somerset. And soon, Mills. And it’s at that moment of realization that Mills becomes Wrath.
And the bad guy wins.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark jockeys for top slot among my favorite movies with a close cousin. Jaws is always there and when Jaws isn’t in first place, its nipping at Indy’s heels. These two films consistently shift because they are so tied to my childhood. It’s these films and others like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that teased my imagination and set fire to this love affair with celluloid that I’ve had since I was a little boy. Hell, I was dubbed Movie Man by my Aunt and Uncle at a very young age. Spielberg had a hand in that.
The ending for Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most pitch-perfect final shot. Following Indy’s inquisition with federal agents who have secured the Ark of the Covenant, Indy meets up with Karen Allen’s Marion on the marble steps of a government building. Indy looks downtrodden and Marion offers to buy him a drink. “You know, a drink?” Indy perks up a bit, but is haunted by the agent’s words:
Major Eaton: “We have top men looking at it.” “…Top men.”
We then cut to a massive warehouse dotted with crates which seemingly stretch for miles. Down a center aisle, a lone forklift travels the length of this structure. The forklift arrives at a destination buried in the heart of this cavernous catalog and deposits a crate containing the Ark. The camera pulls back and we realize very quickly that the Ark is once again lost for the centuries.
There’s just something about that final shot that gets me. I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories in film and the fact that somewhere in the US lies evidence of the Ark and the Roswell space crash and the faked moon landing just gives me such a great charge. Hell, it’s a common fact that Jimmy Hoffa is laboring away in the bowels of the Social Security Administration.
The sands of time may not have been able to conceal the Ark of the Covenant – but they have nothing on good old fashioned government bureaucracy.