In Praise Of Movies That Just End (Because They Used To Know When To End)

Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece (that I, embarrassingly, had not seen until recently) is just under three and a half hours long. But it doesn’t feel long. And this is something I’ve been noticing more and more over the last year and a half – to the point I’ve been having trouble getting back on the same wavelength with modern movies. Because older movies used to “just end.” The plot would be over and the credits would roll.

Now, a couple of things that need to be pointed out here: let’s define “older movies” as anything that falls between, say, 1935 and 2000. (Even in the ’90s movies used to “just end.”) And, also, there are always exceptions, but what I’m talking about here is the vast majority of movies. Before 2000, the plot would end and the credits would roll. Now, the plot ends and the movie just keeps going. Movies I genuinely like wear out their welcome with three or four endings that has to tie up every loose end – which has the effect of making movies seem really long.

Let’s back up a second. So, here’s what happened: On Friday, March 13th, 2020, New York City was about to shut down and enter a frightening new era. I made a decision that, however long this lasted, I wasn’t going to let this time go to waste. So I decided that every classic movie I’ve never seen, but always wanted to, well now this was the time. I figured, then, I could watch 20 or so. Since March 13, 2020, as of today (with several re-watches thrown in, too), I’ve watched 602 movies. I truly became obsessed. I was determined to do something with this time period. If a day went by that I didn’t add a classic movie to my watched list, I felt guilty about it. But immersing myself this deep into classic films, I started to notice the pattern that movies used to “just end.” And then, now, when I watch new movies, they just keep going and going and going and it’s driving me nuts. Why is this? I set off to find out.

Now, I want to be clear, this is not a statement on quality. None of this is saying, “well, they don’t make them like they used to.” (Even though that may be true, but that’s not the point here.) This is not even about ambiguous endings, though there is some crossover. But I’d argue even endings that aren’t inherently ambiguous still leave a lot up to the imagination, which is a good thing. (And I’m also mostly talking about studio movies. You know, studios – these companies that mass-market movies for profit.) And having immersed myself in so many past movies in a relatively short amount of time, I really think it rewired my brain on how the flow of a movie used to go and, probably, is supposed to go. And, now, how modern movies end is just different. And these drawn-out endings make them feel longer.

Seeking out examples of movies “just ending,” I’m scrolling through my Letterboxd diary and almost every single older movie I watched “just ends.” Let’s pick a few at random (spoilers for older movies to come): There’s a slew of Humphrey Bogart movies I watched, and in almost all of his movies, he’ll say one last line after the plot ends, then immediately followed by “The End.” Oh yeah, Nighthawks, Stallone kills the bad guy, sits down on the stairs to his building, the credits roll. Daniel LaRusso wins the All Valley tournament and the movie freeze frames and ends. The French Connection II ending is truly remarkable how quickly it ends after the villain is shot and killed. Even the aforementioned Seven Samurai, this is a three and a half hour movie and once the final battle is over the movie only takes three and a half minutes to wrap everything up. The plot is over, why would we want to sit there and continue watching this? Movies used to realize this. In The Omega Man, a movie I just watched this week, Charlton Heston hangs on to life just long enough to deliver a serum that could be used to save his friend’s life, as his colleagues head to the hills. Does it work? Do they make it? Well, that’s up to me because once he hands it over the credits roll. (I could list literally 200 more but I’ll stop.) I just can’t tell you how many times I’m watching a screener of a modern movie at home, it feels about over, then I check and there’s somehow 45 minutes left. As opposed to when I’m watching an older movie, that feels nowhere near over, and I check to see the time remeaining and there’s somehow only seven minutes left.

Compare that with Free Guy, a movie I mostly liked but it just kept going and going and decided it had to begin, and resolve, a thread about a love interest that I didn’t even pay attention to during the main plot of the film. In the Heights is another movie I enjoyed, but all these older movies had programmed me to think the film would end after it’s showstopper of a dance number after the blackout. Everything seemed mostly resolved and the stuff that wasn’t, I’d figure it out on my own. (More on that later.) But, instead, there was another 40 minutes left, because literally everything had to be resolved. (Again, this was a movie I liked quite a bit.)

I reached out to a few prominent screenwriters/filmmakers to ask them if I was off base. These are people you have most likely heard of who have made movies you have most likely seen. What I found was I was getting two sets of answers. I was getting “on the record” answers that kind of insinuated I was making too big a deal about this. Then I was getting “off the record” or “on background” answers that were much more interesting and honest and made it sound like, yes, I was correct. So what I did was I told everyone I wouldn’t be using their names and would just publish everyone’s quotes on background because I’d rather have the interesting, more honest answers.

The unanimous consensus, and most obvious answer, is movies feel too long now because they have to set up potential sequels. Movies can no longer “just end” and leave some loose threads up to the viewer. Everything has to be resolved in order to set up the next story. “Movies now complete the ending so much that they actually start the next thing,” says one prominent screenwriter. “So many movies now end with the beginning of the sequel.”

“I think, on a practical level, when we’re talking about studio filmmaking,” says another screenwriter, “we’re talking about a given film not being just its own thing, but often the vehicle that sets up a franchise. And when you’re working like that, there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in the first entry. Yeah, whatever journey you’re on has to end, but it also has to spark what comes next.”

One of the reasons I cut this off at 2000 is the Lord of the Rings movies, because Return of the King seems to be the Big Bang of a movie that is the opposite of “just ends.” And people were not used to that then, to the point everyone noticed it went on forever after the plot was over. Now, I’m no so sure people would notice. It’s just like every other movie now. Almost every movie goes on way too long after the plot is over.

“Well, I think it has a lot to do with CinemaScore and the testing process,” says a screenwriter. “Movies are looking for that little boost at the end to get that final impression up a bit right as people leave the theater. That’s why post-credit sequences work. You can see that movies that end ambiguously score lower in testing and on CinemaScore. So the longer endings remove all ambiguity.”

He continues, “There is a screenwriter guru person. She says people don’t care about victories; they respond to people celebrating the victories. That’s what makes audiences happy. Hence the medal scene at the end of Star Wars. That’s what gives people joy, not the Death Star exploding. I think maybe we’ve overlearned that lesson.”

And that medal ceremony scene at the end of Star Wars? Do you know how long that scene is? It’s one minute and forty seconds long. That’s it. Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star and they wrap everything up in a tidy scene less that two minutes long. It’s perfect. Compare that to the ending of The Rise Of Skywalker that I think is still going. Every little thing had to be resolved, even Chewbacca finally getting a medal from this aforementioned medal ceremony. Think about watching the first Star Wars in a vacuum in 1977, without all the sequels that would come later. Do we think Han will stick around? Darth Vader got away, what’s he up to? What happened to Ben, why did he just disappear? This created discussion and it created a more satisfying experience because, we, the viewer, could think about those questions and it made us think about the movie more. Now, all that stuff has to be addressed. If Casablanca came out today, It wouldn’t end with Ilsa flying away. We’d have to hear all of Rick’s thoughts about Ilsa flying away. Rick, back at his bar, telling Sam all about his plan to get Ilsa back. Just going on and on and on after the plot is long over.

“Sometimes it’s great to let your imagination run without being pointed in a certain direction,” says, you guessed it, a screenwriter. “And sometimes it’s important to know. But I think writers and directors were given permission by audiences to explore what happens to these people once the cameras stop rolling. Sometimes that’s a good question to answer, and doing so has serious impact. Sometimes it’s a terrible idea and you shoot the foot off everything you worked so hard to achieve.”

Movies feel long. This is a constant complaint. But I truly believe it has nothing to do with length. Older movies are also long. (Again, I just watched a three and a half hour movie and it did not feel long.) It has to do with the modern movie tying up every loose end, leaving nothing to the imagination, taking long victory laps, and setting up future movies. All for the promise of a slightly higher test score and setting up the next movie. Because of this, movies don’t “just end” like they used to. And we are worse off for that.

And here’s one final thought about this from, yes, a screenwriter, “Here’s how execs and producers think: If an audience leaves a theater unhappy with the ending, they’re going to tell people the movie was unsatisfying. And what they don’t understand is that an initial snap reaction to a movie is one thing. And that a happy ending looks and feels great in the moment. But it often means less over the long haul. But they only react to what’s on the cards. And they think that people are going to walk out of a movie where the protagonists don’t outright ‘win’ and tell all their friends the movie sucked. That’s almost never how it works. And you want people to have an experience, not just feel placated. Sometimes life is messy. Sometimes shit ends terribly and it doesn’t invalidate what led you there. Sometimes it’s better to just say thanks and get the fuck out. But so often that’s an organic thing. And so often the testing process squashes that out of fear.”

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.