The last ten minutes of a film is where you create staying power. This is where buzz is generated. If a movie ends on a low note, viewers are just going to remember their frustrations with the ending. Take a look at the INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL …Aliens? Really?
Needless to say, the buzz around Indy’s last romp was not so good.
Now think back to the first time you saw INCEPTION. Maybe you were in a temperature controlled movie theater. Maybe you were curled up in bed around a laptop. Or maybe you didn’t even see it. But, even for those rejectionists of big blockbuster gold, you know that it was a real mindbender of a film. It wasn’t only the multiple levels of reality (although that helped a ton), but it was also the way the film ended.
The last scene of INCEPTION shows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb reconnected with his children who may or may not only exist in his head. The top, Cobb’s only tangible connection to reality, continues to spin in the foreground as Cobb ignores his totem, drawn instead to his children. In a Soprano-esque cut-to-black, this is where the film ends. The viewer is left with protests of: Wait, but what?
The most interesting movies to watch are the ones that make a viewer think; ideally this inception (intentional pun) of thought furtively enters the consciousness. If a movie creates this dialogue, it creates something outside of the contained movie screen that the viewer can then bring to his or her own reality. It brings something that the audience can engage with and something that makes the viewer want to watch the film again and again. This is the hallmark of truly great cinema.
But, why is the last 10 minutes so important? Can’t these thoughtful moments happen anywhere within the narrative?
If these ambiguities occurred during the middle of a film, they would not hold nearly as much control over the viewer. Imagine if Cobb’s top had continued to spin in the middle of the film. Well, there’s still another hour left and something has to happen. Now imagine how frustrating it would be for the film to continue for another hour without offering explanation, although there are, as always, exceptions. David Lynch has demonstrated success in movies such as MULHOLLAND DRIVE by having this mind-bending occur almost every ten minutes. But not everyone is (or should be) David Lynch.
Some of the most famous films owe their fame to their endings. For example, pretty much everyone has quoted Darth Vader’s famous line (“I am your father.”) from the end of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Furthermore, THE USUSAL SUSPECTS would have been just another heist film until Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint upturns the entire plot at the very end. It forces the viewer to sit back and consider the plausibility of everything that they have just watched. Instead of frustrating the audience, however, the film manages to keep them in the passenger seat as Verbal is seen walking on the street, his limp magically healed.
As for if Cobb’s top fell or not, the answer doesn’t matter as much as the process of questioning, because, after all, does it really matter? In an interview with Wired, Christopher Nolan stated, “The important thing is that Cobb’s not looking at the top. He doesn’t care.”
Now let’s see if you can watch the last 10 minutes of a movie the same way.