I don’t know how to do a spoiler warning for this, so while I will be as vague with plot specifics as possible, I will be talking about a certain type of ending. Just naming the films will give away something about them. I’ll try to stick to general statements about well-known movies, but I will also be specifically spoiling the ends of The Descent and Brazil, so fair warning.
The most important part of a story is the ending. A great one can elevate a good movie to classic status, whereas a bad one can render that same good movie completely forgettable. One of my favorite endings is Brazil’s, which features an elaborate fantasy sequence that takes place entirely in the protagonist’s mind. Another recent one is Inception, whose final sequence is designed to raise the question of whether it is all taking place in the protagonist’s mind. These are powerful, provocative endings to visionary pieces of cinema, which cemented their respective places in the film canon for decades to come.
Still, if the end of your movie takes place or even suggests that it takes place in the protagonist’s mind, it would probably be improved by just cutting that shit out.
In the last few years “it’s all in the protagonist’s mind” has become an increasingly popular interpretation of any ending that is slightly ambiguous or unexpectedly upbeat. And while everyone is entitled to their own take on a movie, I find that for most of them this only lessens the impact of the ending and makes the whole endeavor feel slighter and less imaginative. As far as “twists” go, this is about the cheapest one there is, and rather than introducing ambiguity, it can all too easily make it feel like the film simply lacks the courage of its convictions. This is why I don’t like the fantasy take on the ending of Taxi Driver or its pseudo-remake Observe and Report, for example, and why playing up the ambiguity at the end of the film version of American Psycho actually makes its satire less pointed*. If you want to present the audience with the idea that the world is fucked up enough that these protagonists could thrive in it, then present the world as that fucked up. Don’t raise the possibility and then pull the punch by suggesting that maybe it isn’t, really.
The movie that specifically inspired these thoughts was The Descent, a very good horror movie that peaks well before it ends. Its most controversial aspect is the ending, or rather endings. In the American version, our heroine escapes from her underground ordeal and, well, is probably still pretty ruined from the experience, but also going to live for the immediate future. The original/international ending has this escape revealed to be a hysterical fantasy on her part, and she remains stuck underground and horribly doomed when the credits roll. Most horror fans think the original ending is clearly superior and the American ending is a cop-out attempt at salvaging a happy ending (which, in fairness, it is). But I’m one of the few who thinks it is superior, even if it exists for the wrong reasons. It might be a chickenshit move compared to the original, but I don’t like it when a movie has a twist that amounts to yelling “psych!”
The problem with ending a movie like The Descent with a fantasy sequence is that it was not a movie about hysterical fantasies until one turned up in the waning moments. Brazil’s ending plays out almost exactly the same, but it also opens on a fantasy sequence and was about how that was Sam’s only respite from the oppressive bureaucracy that rules his life. Inception is all about the ability of fiction** to provide real catharsis, so while it ends by questioning the reality of the final scene, it is simultaneously a statement that the answer doesn’t matter. When a film is about the power of fantasy from the very first frame, ending with a fantasy sequence can be the only fitting way to go.
The Descent does not have these thematic concerns, so its ending functions only as a twist. And the fantasy sequence is a terribly lazy one. The Sixth Sense was a smash not just because it surprised the audience, but because it did so by manipulating their assumptions without resorting to showing them things that were later revealed not to be true. Any movie can surprise me by lying to me, which is what a fantasy sequence does (and why I’ve never been a huge fan of The Usual Suspects). I’m impressed when a movie surprises me with something I should have already known, not when one surprises me by showing me that it previously showed me something that wasn’t “true”. It’s not as if I don’t know that movies aren’t real in the first place, so when a movie shows me something and I “believe” it, I don’t exactly feel stupid when it’s later revealed that it wasn’t “real”. And I want to feel stupid that I didn’t see a twist coming. I want to be made to see an angle I had previously ignored, not to realize that I had overestimated the level on which the storyteller was communicating with me. It’s the difference between a really good, well-crafted joke, one that makes you see things from a slightly different angle, and “guess what? Chicken butt!”
That movies are all elaborate lies is something any 10 year-old understands. But we choose to believe them for an hour or two. We’re buying into the Big Lie up front. My feeling is that if, as a filmmaker, you can’t tell the Lie without also “lying” to me, you’re probably doing it wrong.
*I like all these movies, btw, it’s just that I think they are striking for being difficult and this interpretation only serves to make them easier
**Sure, it calls them dreams, but given how minutely crafted and rigidly rulebound they are, they bear little resemblance to what we actually experience when we go to sleep