The closing scene of any film is crucial. The last scene and image should stick with viewers. If done well, it can prove to be a vital cog in a successful film.
In contrast, an unsatisfactory ending can ruin a film. This is especially the case if it feels rushed, confusing, or if the main character experiences no growth or change.
The best story endings conclude the arc of a character’s journey in a satisfying way. This doesn’t mean your characters have to live happily ever after and have all their problems solved.
However, a well-written ending should make viewers feel like the film was worth watching. Because nothing is worse than watching a film with an ending so bizarre it makes you wonder what the point of it all was.
The closing scene should be a satisfying punctuation mark on the story. It doesn’t have to wrap up everything. Indeed, some of the best endings are relatively ambiguous. But the closing scene has to feel definitive. The writer has to purposefully leave the audience with a meaningful message pertaining to what they have just watched.
So let’s take a look at 10 amazing closing scenes and examine what makes them so successful.
The closing scenes discussed in this article cover a range of genres and styles used to end a film. This is to showcase the different ways a film can come to an effective conclusion.
*Due to the nature of the article, there are spoilers ahead!
10 Incredible Closing Scenes
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
For all its mind-bending sci-fi romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes to a close with a beautifully simplistic scene of dialogue.
At this point in the film, the two love interests, Joel and Clementine, have erased each other from their memories. The two listen to the tapes of their former selves explaining all the reasons why their relationship failed. After coming to the realization that they had come to despise each other, Clementine decides to leave.
The final lines of dialogue perfectly encompass what the film is about:
Joel: I can’t see anything I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will. You will think of things and I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.Joel: Okay.
Joel’s simple “okay” shows that although their relationship is doomed to end up the same way, he might be willing to experience it all over again. Or he’s coming to an acceptance; that the relationship can’t start again no matter how much he might want it to. Clementine reciprocates this with her own “okay”.
“Okay” is an acceptance of who they both are, for better or worse.
After this scene, the final image of the film is Joel and Clementine running playfully in the snow in Montauk, where they first met. This seems to be a memory, playing on a loop. It’s the last vestiges of the memories of their relationship, most of which have been erased. It gradually fades, until the film cuts to black.
“Okay” seems to sup up the fatalist message of the film, Joel and Clementine accepting their fate no matter how much they might not want to.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
The end of The Shawshank Redemption gives the viewer a truly uplifting closing scene and drives home the film’s core message.
The Shawshank Redemption follows Andy’s sentence in prison for a crime he did not commit. From then on he experiences the brutality of the prison system. Luckily, Andy shares a friendship with another inmate named Red. And their friendship is what ultimately saves the two of them.
Although freedom seems like a gift, we come to realize in the film that it seems almost impossible to reacclimatise to life outside of prison. With Red having been in prison for forty years, he even states himself that he doesn’t think he could make it on the other side.
But the themes of hope and friendship come to the fore in the ending:
- Red remembers his promise to Andy and visits Buxton, searching for a cache.
- There he finds money and a letter from Andy, inviting Red to join him in Zihuatanejo. Andy doesn’t know if this letter will ever reach Red. And this, therefore, symbolizes the hope at the heart of the film’s message.
- Red breaks his parole and buys a bus ticket. He looks out the window, filled with hope.
- Then, Red walks along a beautiful beach, smiling as he approaches Andy.
It’s an almost dreamy ending, the camera soaring above the glistening beach. Such seeming impossibility has even led some to speculate that the ending is not real, but a figment of Red’s imagination. However, either way, the message remains the same. Whether Red is truly reunited with his friend or whether he’s just imagining it, he has hope. And this is what makes the ending work – the commitment to the film’s central theme.
3. The Florida Project
The ending of The Florida Project brilliantly shifts from a dramatic, heart-wrenching climax to an open-ended childlike fantasy.
Throughout the film, we mainly see the world from the perspective of 6-year-old Moonee. Moonee is a high-spirited kid who is blissfully unaware of the harsh reality that surrounds her as her mother, Halley, resorts to sex work to make ends meet.
In the final minutes of the film, the Florida Department of Children and Families arrives to take Moonee away from her mother and into foster care.
Moonee runs to her friend Jancey’s motel room and bangs on the door. When Jancey asks what’s wrong Moonee finally bursts into tears.
The final sequence:
- Jancey takes Moonee’s hand and the two run away together, the camera shakily following behind them.
- Triumphant music plays as they run past Kissimmee landmarks and through a parking lot.
- Jancey and Moonee run into the entrance of Disney World, passing the crowds of people.
- The camera finally stops as the two disappear into the crowd, running toward the Cinderella castle.
The Florida Project‘s ending doesn’t shy away from the severity of the situation. However, it also uses Moonee’s imagination as a form of escape to again protect herself from her inevitable harsh reality.
This closing scene drives home the film’s intention; to showcase the juxtaposition between the reality of poverty and childlike innocence.
4. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining brilliantly leaves viewers unsettled through its ambiguous ending.
The camera work in the final scene adds a sense of tension:
- We slowly move through the hall of the eerily empty hotel toward a wall of photos. The song “Midnight, the Stars & You” echos and as the camera gets closer, the song becomes clearer.
- We zoom in further on a black and white photo into the center, which shows a room full of people. Jack stands smiling front and center in the photograph.
- The camera slowly pans down to reveal the photo’s date, 1921 – a generation ago.
This ambiguous ending has led to a few different theories as to its meaning. But each of them only serves to enhance the story. Whether it means that Jack’s spirit was absorbed into the hotel or that Jack was reincarnated, both options make the film just that more terrifying.
The Shining’s ending emphasizes the horror of the desolate hotel through its cinematography. But it also builds upon the narrative through the ambiguous final reveal.
More than anything, the Shining‘s end accentuates the strange tone that defines it. It leaves audiences with one last unsettling image, making them question what they have witnessed and the meaning of the eerie hotel they have just spent time in.
5. There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood ends with an intense final confrontation filled with brilliant dialogue and symbolic cinematography.
Throughout the film, Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday have an antagonistic relationship. In the film’s final scene, Daniel tells Eli he’s drained all the oil from his family’s property.
The camera work and writing of this scene do nothing to attempt to justify Daniel’s actions. He bullies Eli in a villainous rant and chases him as Eli pleads for him to stop.
We stay on a wide shot as Daniel hurls bowling pins at Eli. Meanwhile, Eli does not fight back. As he attempts to crawl away, Daniel strikes him on the back of the head with a bowling pin.
From a low angle, the camera stays on Daniel as he’s hunched over and breathing heavily, with a crazed vengeful look in his eye. Even though Eli is already incapacitated, Daniel hits him on the head two more times.
The film ends with Daniel sitting on the floor next to Eli’s bloody body. Daniel’s back is to the camera as he says the last line of the film:
Indeed, he is. “Finished”, however, has several meanings. Daniel is finished in the sense that his quest for power has reached an end. Killing off Eli can be seen as the last thing on his checklist to tick off. But “finished” also hints at this being the end of Daniel’s upward trajectory. The murder he has just committed will surely lead to his imprisonment.
There Will Be Blood ends as it began, with Daniel alone. But where the film’s opening scene shows Daniel at the start of his ambitious journey, the closing scene highlights Daniel’s self-awareness. He has nowhere else to go; he is “finished” and he knows it.
6. Another Round
The 2020 Danish film, Another Round, ends with a rather cathartic and joyous dance number.
After the funeral of Martin’s close friend, Tommy, he and his other two friends go out for drinks and reminisce. It’s a somber occasion, that is until the recent graduates of the high school in which they all teach at drive by. The friends join the students outside in their infectious celebration.
Martin used to be a keen dancer and throughout the film, his friends encourage him to show off his old moves. Martin, however, is a shell of his former self at this time, filled with self-doubt and lost in the monotonous routine of adulthood.
At the end though, Martin’s dance is filled with an honesty that he didn’t possess before. It’s a true form of carefree self-expression. In a stunning sequence, the crowd cheers him as he performs and sprays him with champagne.
The final shot of the film is a freeze-frame of Martin joyously leaping into the water. He looks as if he’s about to fly. Another Round‘s ending seems to represent the juxtaposition at the heart of the film, which takes a relatively even-handed look at the effects of alcohol.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing the destructive nature of drinking alcohol. But it also doesn’t shy away from showing the joy it can unleash. And in this final sequence, we see the slightly ambiguous nature of this even-handed approach.
What are we supposed to take away from Martin’s joyful dance? Is it showing the positive effects of alcohol by showing Martin’s unleashed joy? Or is this another step on a slippery slope? This confusion seems to be the point, imploring us to not come to any firm conclusions but instead, to be swept up in Martin’s freedom.
Casablanca‘s iconic ending delivers memorable dialogue and brings a romance to a fitting, bittersweet end.
The dialogue, cinematography, performances, and music are spectacular in this scene. All of these elements combined make for a beautiful goodbye between Rick and Ilsa.
- It also subverts the viewers’ expectations since Rick does not end up with Ilsa. Instead, he tells her that she belongs with Victor.
- However, Rick’s story isn’t over yet. He decides to intervene and shoot Major Strasser to ensure that Ilsa and Victor get away safely. It’s another act of selflessness, even though Ilsa is already gone.
In the final moments, Rick and Louis walk off into the fog as the music swells. The film leaves us with this closing line:
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The stand-out element of Casablanca‘s closing scene is its snappy, moving and iconic dialogue. The dialogue is, in part, so memorable because of the way in which it concurs with the action at hand. Sweeping romance and action meet with witty, smart dialogue. It’s an ending that shows the power of leaning into the story’s essential tone.
Moreover, Casablanca‘s ending doesn’t go out of its way to end neatly. We hanker for more. Even the dialogue does this alone, using words such as “beginning” to highlight that this isn’t just the ending of something but the start of something else.
In contemporary times, this kind of ending might leave audiences clamouring for a sequel. But instead, in lieu of seeing more, we’re left with the feeling of wanting to see it all again, if just to catch up with the sweeping magnitude of it all.
8. The Graduate
The Graduate masterfully puts a twist on the runaway bride trope by ending the film with a moment of uncertainty.
In a tense scene, Ben interrupts Elaine’s wedding and the two of them have to quite literally fight off the mob of angry wedding guests to escape. As Ben barricades the door with a cross, the two joyously run away and onto a bus.
Soon after they sit down, the exhilaration fades. As Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” plays, their smiles disappear and shift into stoic, contemplative expressions.
While we’ve expressed the importance of character growth in endings, this scene suggests that Elaine and Ben are just as lost as they were at the beginning of the film. However, the sheer act of the two of them disobeying their parent’s expectations suggests that this decision is merely the beginning of their growth.
This closing scene is a great example of how a simple change in expression can convey a range of emotions without the character uttering a single word. After the rush of excitement in the two of them escaping the wedding, we and they are left thinking, “Now what?”. And a devastating, sudden change in emotion is all that conveys this, brilliantly represented by the two actors.
Pixar’s Up comes to an emotionally heartfelt end. More importantly, it depicts the growth of the main character, Carl Fredricksen.
- It’s Russell’s wilderness explorer graduation. And the kids before him receive their badges with their fathers standing beside them.
- Russell stands alone. When it’s his turn to receive his badge, he looks out to the audience.
- Russell’s eyes light up with joy as Carl approaches him. Carl then bestows him the highest honor, a grape soda pin entitled, ‘The Ellie Badge’.
The ending is a perfect conclusion to these characters. Carl is able to fill a role that was missing in Russell’s life and honor his dedication as a wilderness explorer.
While it may seem like the gift of the grape soda pin is a small gesture, it has major significance in Carl’s life. It belonged to his late wife, Ellie, and Carl’s gesture indicates that he is finally able to invite love into his life again.
The final image of the film is the Fredricksen house sitting on top of paradise falls, fulfilling Ellie’s dream. This concludes each of the character’s arcs in satisfying, heartfelt ways.
Up‘s ending brilliantly shows how a character action can represent a significant character change and character arc conclusion. Carl pinning the badge on Russell isn’t just the sum of its parts, it’s Carl finally moving on from the consuming grief for his wife. It’s the start of the next stage of his life, the conclusion of this particular arc.
Moonlight‘s closing scene uses stylistic color and ends on a powerful final image to convey the main character’s emotional state.
The story depicts the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of Chiron as he struggles with his identity and sexuality. In the final act of the film, Chiron reconnects with an old friend, Kevin, the only man he’s ever kissed.
Now both adults, the two talk of their different lives. After a moment of silence Chiron has a moment of true vulnerability and honesty:
“You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.”
Kevin smiles and the scene cuts to Chiron resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder. As Kevin and Chiron share a tender embrace, the scene cuts back to the beach, with Chiron’s younger self, Little, looking out to the ocean. The camera moves closer to him, and Little turns back toward the camera before it cuts to black.
Returning to that moment with Little turning back signifies a strong message: that Chiron’s inner child is healing, and that he’s closer to embracing his identity and sexuality. For all that Chiron has been through, he’s still that essential child self – vulnerable, open-eyed, caught in a moment.
Overall, Moonlight‘s stunning cinematography invokes a certain mood. And in the final scene, it’s utilized to represent a monumental moment in the protagonist‘s life. The ending, whilst abstract, rings true, in line with a film that overall takes an impressionistic look at a character’s personal development.
All the above endings leave the audience with a shudder. They not only successfully conclude the story at hand, but they also leave the audience carrying something of the story with them.
Primarily, they achieve this effect because they feel intrinsically linked to the film’s core message, theme and/or tone. They act as a final chime of the story’s essential essence.
This is the power of a truly great closing scene. It’s a moment where everything makes sense, even if, technically, it doesn’t. The ending might be ambiguous and we might not know where it will head next. But a great closing scene will leave us in no uncertain terms as to what the film we have just watched was all about. We might not even have fully grasped this throughout the film. But the closing scene is where suddenly and crucially, we get it.
A satisfying closing scene is the sign of a confident story and a confident storyteller. And making sure your closing scene is in tune with your story’s core message is the most crucial step in conveying this confidence.
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This article was written by Gracie Vicente and edited by IS staff.
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