Since the black-and-white beginnings of Christopher Nolan’s hefty career, he has taken sadistic pleasure in leaving us with closing scenes that have been specifically designed to drive us mad with speculation long after we’ve staggered out of the cinema.
Of course, not all his endings have been confounding. Some have simply been utterly brilliant. With Dunkirk opening this week (bets, anyone, on how it ends?), let’s revisit some of Nolan’s epic denouements.
5. Memento (2000)
How do you end a movie with no beginning? By giving it no ending. Memento is one big WTF moment, with the past and present carved to shreds and spliced back together with a kind of madness only Nolan (and perhaps Michel Gondry) could subdue.
And what better way to keep a lid on the crazy than to have Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) restart his arduous, but ultimately futile quest for justice by arriving at the scene that kicks the entire plot into gear and firmly questioning “So, where was I?”. Leonard’s memory loss has driven him in circles, caused him to commit murder and steal, and now provides his life with an endless cycle of delirium. It’s a perfectly sharp and maddening close.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight’s ending upholds the moral integrity of its mysterious hero by confirming once and for all that Batman serves no one else but the entire city of Gotham. Unlike Superman or Marvel’s Iron Man, the Caped Crusader isn’t concerned with fame or recognition, and proves his loyalty to the people by taking the fall for a series of murders he didn’t commit, all in an attempt to salvage the pristine reputation of the victims’ true killer. It’s this kind of self-sacrifice (rare for a superhero of any kind) that prompts Commissioner Gordon’s immortal words “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it”. And take it he does.
3. The Prestige (2006)
If The Dark Knight’s ending was tragic, the final shot of The Prestige is like the discovery of a mass grave (which it kind of is). Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two outstanding stage illusionists, have engaged in a deadly cold war, until Alfred unveils an impossible new act that has Robert reeling in the aisles. Robert descends into the murky depths of obsession and devises a solution that’s even better than Alfred’s humble trick, except no one, not even Robert, could’ve predicted the enormity of its consequences. The film closes with a gruesome exhibition of the scale of Robert’s sacrifice: He has to die every night for a few rounds of applause.
2. Inception (2010)
Whether you treasure or despise Inception, you were probably writhing in frustration when it ended. The top wobbled! It did! And yet no one knows for sure, maybe not even Nolan, if Dom Cobb’s climactic redemption and return to his children was all just another dream layer.
Inception’s classic ending works because we buy the rest of the movie and are literally begging for Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) to succeed. We learn that the top spins eternally in a dream, and so when that final shot lingers painfully on that irritating totem, our eyes are peeled and our senses heightened. It’s masterful manipulation from a truly devilish filmmaker.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins ends in complete perfection, not just as an origin story for the Dark Knight, but as the first chapter of a brilliant trilogy. Set on the rooftop of Gotham’s police department, it introduces the Bat Signal, teases The Joker, establishes the fragile but necessary relationship between James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Batman (Christian Bale), and sublimely encapsulates all that Batman stands for when Gordon confesses “I never said thank you”, to which Batman simply says “And you’ll never have to” before the music swells and he leaps off the ledge into obscurity. Perfection.
Images courtesy of Buena Vista International & Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, Roadshow Films & Warner Bros Entertainment Australia