Like every good, wholesome date, every film should have a good climax. The climax is important because it so often informs your wider opinion of the film and sticks in your mind when you leave the theatre. I’m a sucker for a satisfying climax, and I can forgive a lot of what’s come before if the ending leaves me red-faced and short of breath.
The Surprise Factor
Horror films often rely on their ability to climax in order to be crowd pleasers. The teasing and tension of the film’s first half should, when handled well, take the audience on a ride right through to a fulfilling finish. Up until one character picks up an axe, The Shining is creepy, nerve-wracking and suspenseful because Stanley Kubrick knows how to make us squirm.
We’re a mix of nervous and confused as we’re drip-fed the story and left to question why Danny talks to his finger or why he sees two dead girls, or if any of that is even real. The action escalates to a dramatic and murderous chase before finishing on an uncertain note, leaving us to reflect in awe on Kubrick’s mastery, knowing we were never in control.
The climax of the terrifically meta slasher flick Scream comes a mere 58 minutes in, as the ghost-face killer aims his knife toward the generic American teen house party. The audience slowly realises serious shit is about to go down, with a score of sneakily swelling strings that builds the suspense, and acting that marks how a character changes from innocent bystander to victim in seconds. With a climax that lasts 50 minutes and keeps you on the edge of your seat with suspense and surprise, ebbing and flowing through periods of action, you’re constantly wanting more. You want to know who is next, you want to know why and you want to know who the hell is killing all these kids.
Blow Your Mindload
Then there are the films that just pull the rug from underneath you, forcing you to question everything you’ve been emotionally investing in. M. Night Shymalan is a glutton for pulling this twist stunt at the end of his films, and has done so with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, you have the brilliance of The Sixth Sense, which builds to the thigh-shuddering climax of learning that a certain, frighteningly unbald guy is not what he seemed to be. It’s a little silly, but completely believable, and M. Night makes it work within the context of the story. Plus, it rewards repeated viewings, as you go back and look for all the signs you missed the first time.
But then you’ve got the terrible collection of moving images that pretends to be film, The Village, where the climax essentially comes out of nowhere, blowing its mindload before you’re even slightly ready for it. The climax does slightly redeem the turd-film that came before it, because it at least indicates that M. Night did put some effort and thought into the project. It’s still a turd, but a turd that makes you go back and think about everything leading up to its everything-is-not-as-it-seems ending.
The Long Haul
I cried way too much at the end of The Dark Knight Rises and – contrary to popular belief – that does not (always) mean there was a problem with the climax. And that’s because Christopher Nolan had done such an excellent job in making me care about his film and the character of Batman as a human with human flaws. But it wasn’t just the sympathy that got me going, it was also that The Dark Knight Rises is a bookend to a very definitive trilogy of films. In a time where blockbuster action series either churn out loud sequel after loud sequel because the money is too good for the director (Michael Bay) to turn down, it is so rare for a series to have a clear dramatic climax thanks to an incredibly strong overarching narrative. People take note: the only stories with good endings are the ones that take the time to build up to it. That’s innuendo for foreplay.
Toy Story 3 is also a fittingly wonderful and heartfelt conclusion to a beloved series about some talking product placements. The dramatic tension is ramped up considerably by a certain scene in a certain incinerator where certain main characters are faced with certain death.
For everyone who grew up with Toy Story, it was near impossible not to choke up as we watched Andy describe his favourite toys to their new owner, and listened to Randy Newman’s goofy yet nostalgic vocal stylings. Over time we came to care so much about the characters and their journey that it kind of stopped mattering where they were going. The climax is always more satisfying when you get there with friends.
Begging For More
Then we have the films that stop short of a satisfying climax, teasing us with a build-up and then killing the mood like your curious roommate who thought he heard “some weird noises in here”. Classic romantic comedy Roman Holiday did something that few romantic comedies had dared to do before by ending with its leads apart. After their day together exploring Rome, newspaperman Joe is dumped by Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Anne, with whom he has fallen in love. Princess gotta princess, after all. It’s the logical ending, but it pains the Hollywood romantic in us to be denied the adequate satisfaction romantic comedies usually bring.
Climaxing is all about structuring a story in a way that satisfies, where the film pivots around a midpoint and folds in on itself, coming to a conclusion that feels whole. It should ideally serve as a response to its opening and fulfil, or at least address, what we’ve been experiencing for the past hour or two. One of my favourite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a structurally daring film, taking place across two different timelines, with stories told both chronologically and backwards. And yet a poignant, quiet and ultimately ambiguous climax emerges at the end of all this chaotic storytelling – two characters in a hallway, deciding to try again. It ends as it began and the Mobius strip-like structure is ingenious and fulfilling. Not every climax has to blow you away, and not every climax will, but the best ones make the whole ride worthwhile.