When it comes to perfect endings, look no further than Denis Villeneuve's 'Prisoners.'
[Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven't seen 'Prisoners' and plan to go in blind in the near future, we recommend that you skip this article.]
Denis Villeneuve is a master of suspense. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a master of framing. But it wasn't until Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners that the director proved he was also a master of endings.
In a new video essay from One Perfect Shot, H. Perry Horton demonstrates how the final 30 seconds of Prisoners comprise the perfect movie ending. As Horton points out, you can make or break a thriller in its final moments; either the carefully wound strings come unspooled, or they tighten, revealing a beautifully crafted work. In the ending of Prisoners, before the screen goes dark, Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski communicate an entire film's worth of themes and character without the aid of dialogue or any further exposition.
Or, according to Horton, Prisoners is a "slow-burning, taut fuse of a film that finally explodes in its last 30 seconds."
The ending of Prisoners encapsulates Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal)'s character, whose cornerstone is persistence. It's also a great culmination of Dover's character (Hugh Jackman), whose key trait is resilience. Driving both of these men is the theme of ineptitude—for Loki, it's his job and the police department at large, and for Dover, it's his role as a father who failed to protect his daughters. At the last moment, both Dover's resilience and Loki's persistence pay off, alleviating each man of his feared ineptitude. Meanwhile, the ultimate instance of ineptitude on the part of the police department is revealed.
In addition, screenwriter Guzikowski planted Chekhov's gun (in this case, the whistle) in an earlier scene. In the film's final moments, it goes off.
By ending the film before it ends—cutting away before the final discovery/reveal—Villeneuve makes Prisoners a living narrative.