I try to keep things topical here at Audiences Everywhere. That’s not always an easy task, with the lightning-fast attention span of internet traffic and the movie news cycle chugging ahead of the weekend releases with a focus on announcements regarding movies whose production hasn’t even started yet. Which makes it all the more noteworthy that I have two reasons of contemporary relevance to introduce this particular subject. Today sees the nationwide opening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest chapter of a franchise whose first installment ended with one of the all-time great final face-slap frames. Reason number two: I just watched a certain Denis Villenueve movie with a closing sequence that has had me disoriented for days (more on that later). Either event licenses a discussion about which films contain the most jarring, effective, disorienting, terrifying, and heartbreaking closing images.
So, that’s two reasons. That’s one more than I need to make a list of the greatest closing film shots of all time, but first… a necessary warning.
SPOILERS BELOW, OBVIOUSLY
11.) City Lights
By the terms of concern in Chaplin’s world, the end of his masterpiece City Lights sees the beloved Tramp and his flower-selling benefactor further apart than they’ve ever been. Yes, she can touch him, recognize him, see his adoring face for the first time. But the chances of their pairing are even slighter here than they were upon meeting. Before, when they had serendipitously crossed paths in the opening act, a hopeless tramp literally stumbling into the world of the blind and desperate floral vendor, they occupied the same wrung of social status. Now, because of the fruits of his comical embezzlement and manipulation, she is a successful business owner, self-sustaining, and he is not just a tramp, but a convict, even his clothes more ragged than they’ve ever been. The first romantic watch doesn’t lend to deep analysis; that sweeping violin score and Chaplin’s unapproachable facial innocence are blinding. But there’s more than just love in this final image; there’s embarrassment, shame, fear. If the same rules apply at the end that were in place at the beginning (and what reason do we have to believe they don’t), The Tramp still has no shot. But painted over all of that, there is the giddy, unkempt, selfless excitement, the joy of having given her sight power enough to overwhelm his shame of being seen.
10.) Take Shelter
This one is a bit deceptive. Those familiar with the film probably read the title of the entry and imagined the stunning shot of Chastain’s tussled bright red hair framed off center to allow an over the shoulder look at multiple tornadoes moving inward from the ocean. But that’s the penultimate shot, the sucker punch in the twist ending. The final shot of Take Shelter is one of narrative realignment. Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah are posed together within the frame of the beach house doors as if a family captured in portrait, with one slight difference. Samantha is pulled forward, protecting, while Curtis holds his daughter in fear. This is a hero’s frame. Take Shelter offers such an engaging look at Curtis’s struggles that it’s easy to miss that there exists a central fighting hero throughout the entire story. The fight is and has been Samantha’s, a domestic battle, wherein she’s accepted familial persecution, social outcast status, physical harm to stay loyal to her husband and family. While the apocalyptic implications of the oncoming storm might mean certain doom for the family, they are also vindication for Samantha’s decision to fight to keep the family together.
9.) The Shining
Kubrick’s version of The Shining is one of unsolved puzzles. Who unlocked the pantry? What’s up with the dude in the dog suit? How in the hell does Scatman Crothers keep that car on the road? So, while it’s fitting that the film faded away with another unanswered question, I can’t imagine any singular image opening up so many potential story interpretations as the dated party photograph on the wall. Is it possible that the image informs some schizophrenic phenomena of projection? Is the picture evidence that Jack’s soul been captured and imprisoned within the seemingly sentient structure? Is it possible that on some different spiritual plane the ghosts of the Outlook are moving in rules of physics beyond comprehension in this dimension? And, to punctuate all of this, there’s the devilish face of Jack Nicholson, his chin tucked inward to make his gaze as menacing as possible, front and center, the host of a hellish party of damned souls.
This one might just be a cheap trick pulled by a slick magician director, but damned if it didn’t set internet forums afire with speculation. The slight wobble of the top makes it even worse. I fell victim to it. I scoured the internet for hours to find some amateur analysis or evidence on which to build a theory that would close the door the movie left open. Do you know how many comments were added to articles to explain theoretical dream physics because of that wobbling toy? There have been made available countless frame by frame breakdowns of every single top spin in the movie. Many point to Nolan’s casting of two different sets of children to play Cobb’s kids as evidence that Cobb has awakened from the dream in the end. But even with all of this, drop this sly little mystery in the wrong room of cinephiles and watch what happens.
7.) The Searchers
After years of search and struggle, Ethan (John Wayne) returns his kidnapped niece to her family. He turns to exit before the family’s celebration even starts to fade. The door is open, revealing a horizon, and we know from every other Western (particularly the Duke’s Westerns) that this is the direction in which the hero will take off. Except, there’s something different about this westward departure. As he moves away from the camera, framed by the doorway, Ethan’s physical form is entombed by four walls of black shadow. Dust moves from the left to the right, sweeps behind his back, and for a moment, Ethan looks transparent, like a ghost. This is fitting, given that now, with his Civil War a thing of the past and his personal battle resolved, there is nothing left of him but a hollowed archetype on which the door is closing.
6.) Breaking the Waves
Breaking the Waves spends most of its lengthy running time ostensibly criticizing religion. It depicts church leadership as cruel (the town church has no bells, indicating a denial of passion in its worship) and deeply misogynist, and its lead character Bess’s (Emily Watson) faith leads her to some very dark and dangerous places. Its final scene, however, gets to the heart of things. At first, the characters hear the sound of church bells ringing, impossible given the fact that they’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The message is clear: Bess has been welcomed to heaven by God. Director Lars von Trier gets even more explicit in the film’s final shot, showing those enormous bells ringing from high above in the clouds. It’s a breathtaking moment because it brings the supernatural into a world that God, by all rights, appeared to have abandoned. It’s not subtle. But it is incredibly powerful.
5.) Planet of the Apes
In an honest measurement that disregards recognition and influence, Planet of the Apes is pretty standard sci-fi fare. The film itself gives little desire to explore the universal or chronological placement of the titular planet and maybe that’s why that final surprise hits so hard. No one was even asking the question for which the final image serves as an answer. But it certainly is a jarring and impactful image, paired with the sudden understanding that the film has been displaying a post-apocalyptic America the entire time, an innovative plot twist incorporating evolution and space time physics. Ultimately, it’s no surprise that this image is one that has inspired countless American apocalyptic films since.
4.) Being There
Being There incorporates a common template: a simple outsider wanders around in a recognizably American cultural moment, providing fresh perspective to what is numbingly familiar. However, the distinct twist here is also the punchline, but then the punchline doubles down on itself with a final twist. The comedic elements of the movie rest upon the perceived misconception of those who interact with Chance and mistake his simplicity for divine or philosophical brilliance. But, in the closing shot, we see an event that suggests that we are mistaken in our assumption of their being mistaken. Perhaps, we were wrong about them being wrong. There is no other explanation for what is symbolized by Chance’s ability to walk on water, and so the question then becomes: What does that mean for the rest of the movie and how we viewed it as an audience?
In 2013, Denis Villenueve closed out his psychological thriller and kidnap drama Prisoners with a perfect shot of a perplexed Jake Gyllenhaal. I count it as my favorite ending to a movie of that year. So, imagine my surprise when less than a year later I watched Villenueve’s follow-up doppelganger mystery Enemy and found that this movie ended with a near identical shot and one that might be even more effective. Like Take Shelter (above), Enemy’s final shot is actually a soft jab knockdown after a devastating sucker punch landed just before. Since the film is relatively new and unseen, I won’t ruin what surprise is found in that final sequence, but I will say that I’ve gone back and studied Gyllenhaal’s face in those last frames for any sort of reactive explanation for the what the hell I witnessed.
2.) A Serious Man
There is little subtlety in the construction of the Coen Brothers’ 2009 tortured character study; A Serious Man recalls the Book of Job more distinctly than an evangelical preacher reading straight from the verse. Larry Gopnik is a man on the receiving end of the wrath of God. The punishing misfortune comes in malicious waves, sometimes so absurd that they seem sent by a bemused entity. And yet, what we know about film is used against us by the sibling directors who manipulate our expectations in the final act. We see an indication that Larry has made it through, that things might look up, and the simple act of changing a grade lends to this hope. And just as it seems the figurative storm has passed, a literal storm announces its presence and intention to destroy Larry’s life completely. There is a humbling weight that hits in the belly at the end of this film, a feeling that the face of God may never show up more clearly in fiction.
1.) 2001: A Space Odyssey
This should be easy. The Star Child. Every one knows exactly what the Star Child means… You know. It’s like… Well… To be honest. Let’s see. Did you know that 2001: A Space Odyssey has two wikipedia pages– one about the film and one about interpretations of the film? So who am I kidding? Your guess is as good as mine.