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What are some movies whose plots begin with their conclusions?
September 16, 2010 7:39 AM   Subscribe

What are some examples of movies that open with their concluding scene or climax and then work backwards from there?

One of my students is arguing in a paper that the best films conceal the plot's final outcome until the end of the film, and I'm looking for some counter-examples. I'm sure there are multiple movies that start with the outcome or climax and then shift back in time to explain how the characters arrived there; I just can't seem to think of any at the moment!

Thanks, guys.
posted by cymru_j to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Memento immediately comes to mind (since it's "backward").

Fight Club starts with the narrator in the chair with a gun in his mouth (also the end of the movie).
posted by King Bee at 7:41 AM on September 16, 2010


Citizen Kane? It begins with a newsreel about the protagonist's death.
posted by betafilter at 7:41 AM on September 16, 2010


I was going to say "Duh, Momento", but I'm not sure if that actaully does what you want since the entire story plays backwards and the reveal is effectively still at the end of the viewing experience...
posted by twine42 at 7:42 AM on September 16, 2010


Sunset Boulevard
posted by victoriab at 7:42 AM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Inception starts with scenes from the end of the movie, although it is not the definitive end.

....or is it?
posted by ejazen at 7:44 AM on September 16, 2010


Oops, here's the link - Sunset Boulevard
The first scene is William Holden floating face down in a swimming pool.
posted by victoriab at 7:44 AM on September 16, 2010


As with most things film-related, TVTropes is your friend. See How We Got Here:
A type of In Medias Res / Whole Episode Flashback, where the story opens at a point at (or near) the end of the story, and the bulk of the story is spent showing how the character got to this point. See also Back To Front, Foregone Conclusion. Goes very well with Private Eye Monologue. Can often be used as a highly effective Driving Question.
posted by jacobian at 7:46 AM on September 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Double Indemnity
posted by victoriab at 7:46 AM on September 16, 2010


Upside of Anger shows you the chronological "end" of the story, a funeral, but conceals whose funeral it is. American Beauty tells you right up front the protagonist will die soon. Come to think of it, Sunset Boulevard begins with narration by a dead man floating in a pool. Which is awesome.

TVTropes calls knowing the ending beforehand the Foregone Conclusion trope. Lots of examples there.
posted by artlung at 7:47 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


What are some examples of movies that open with their concluding scene or climax and then work backwards from there?

I think Memento is one of the few that actually works backwards, but a lot of movies open with the final, or near final scene and then show the events leading up to that.

Casino comes to mind.

Goodfellas opens with a scene that happens about mid way through the film.
posted by bondcliff at 7:47 AM on September 16, 2010


Pan's Labyrinth.
posted by afx237vi at 7:47 AM on September 16, 2010


I never finished watching it, but it seemed like Mission Impossible 3 did something like that.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2010


Irreversible comes to mind. American Beauty starts off with Lester explaining that he's dead, but the drama comes from not knowing what happened. Irreversible, on the other hand, never has a big reveal or climax after the intense violence at the beginning. (which makes it even more emotionally jarring)
posted by mkb at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2010


A decent number of noir films did this. Double Indemnity is probably the most famous one. D.O.A. used it to be able to tell a story about a man who solves his own murder. Memento as mentioned above is a neo-noir that takes the idea to the extreme by doing the whole film backwards.

I think the reason it is effective in noir is that the protagonists are often doomed or trapped in some way, even if they manage to solve the main dilemma of the plot. Watching the events in D.O.A. knowing that the main character will die even if he solves the case is a very different experience than watching a film where the good guy is expected to drive off into the sunset in the end.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2010


Pulp Fiction sort of does this.
posted by FishBike at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2010


(Oh, and that TVTropes entry, as usual, has way too much stuff. Obviously just any frame story or flashback doesn't count)
posted by mkb at 7:50 AM on September 16, 2010


Irreversible, Fight Club and Memento are perhaps canonical examples.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:50 AM on September 16, 2010


The film Gandhi begins at the last moments of his life and then zips back to the beginning of his career. It's very effective, because you don't want to distracted by questions of what happens to him personally throughout the film. They get that out of the way early and can then focus on the matters at hand.
posted by alms at 7:50 AM on September 16, 2010


Inside Man starts near the end, but viewers don't know that until the final act of the movie.
posted by jasonhong at 7:51 AM on September 16, 2010


All About Eve
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:51 AM on September 16, 2010


Lawrence of Arabia opens with the motorcycle accident that killed him, and his subsequent funeral.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:52 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Irréversible, perhaps?
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:52 AM on September 16, 2010


Cloverfield .
posted by episodic at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2010


Argh, sorry -- really should have previewed that one.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2010


500 Days of Summer starts near the end (the breakup of the relationship), and 80% of the movie takes place in retrospection.
posted by moiraine at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


In my opinion, Betrayal does this exquisitely.

This was the first film I saw using the reversal dynamic, and it works so well! The final scene is just haunting, so full of hope and longing...
posted by misha at 7:55 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


One of my students is arguing in a paper that the best films conceal the plot's final outcome until the end of the film

Well, the student is kind of right, but is missing the point that sometimes, the "final outcome" is the understanding of how the protagonist got where they ended up. In the Lawrence of Arabia example, the final outcome is that Lawrence is driven mad by his experience, and retires to obscurity and an ironically mundane death for someone that had such a big impact on his world.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:57 AM on September 16, 2010


Evita opens with the announcement of the protagonist's death, followed by her funeral.
posted by hermitosis at 7:58 AM on September 16, 2010


Darn it, everyone took my answers, so I'm gonna second Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, and Pan's Labyrinth. They are all excellent movies that opened with the ending scene and consisted mostly of flashback.
posted by patheral at 7:59 AM on September 16, 2010


The Counterfeiters.
posted by episodic at 8:07 AM on September 16, 2010


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it gets bonus points for the "end" and "beginning" being essentially the same events.
posted by ecurtz at 8:10 AM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge is a short, based on a short story, but it sort of fits what you are talking about.
posted by Danf at 8:11 AM on September 16, 2010


A bit broader than just movies, but it strikes me that the opposite of the idea the student is presenting (more than a movie that reveals the end at the beginning is the opposite), is something like Oedipus Rex, where not just the final reveal but the entire plot, final outcomes, and 'reveals' is assumed to be well known to the entire audience of the play.

The fact that the audience, and Oedipus himself (thanks to the prophecy) know the end from the beginning is a big part of what makes a work like this so powerful. It's watching him go down that path, knowing that he is doing everything in his power to avoid it, but not being able to, that allows the play to powerfully express those human experiences of fate and being under the control of forces far more powerful than we are.

Point is, if it weren't for the 'reveal' prior to the main plot (which in a film is usually a scene at the beginning, but in the case of Oedipus is the fact that he's dealing with a universally known story) those primary themes wouldn't be nearly as powerful.

So, a direct counterexample to your student's thesis that saving the reveal always makes a more powerful film. Sometimes having the reveal up front & then working towards it is what makes it work.
posted by flug at 8:12 AM on September 16, 2010


Saving Private Ryan, in a way.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:15 AM on September 16, 2010


Serpico does this. Starts with the ambulances after he gets shot in the face. Great movie. Al Pacino at his most beautiful. (The book was even better.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:19 AM on September 16, 2010


Walk the Line (not quite the final scene) and Walk Hard.
posted by puritycontrol at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2010


The Usual Suspects
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:22 AM on September 16, 2010


Crash begins with the final scene which is shown again at the end of the movie.
posted by tomtheblackbear at 8:24 AM on September 16, 2010


Milk starts off with his assassination and then goes back to the beginning. I didn't know the life story of Harvey Milk before I saw that movie, and I felt much like your student does as I was watching it. I didn't like watching an innocuous meeting in an office and thinking "that's the guy who kills him". There is something to be said (as flug said above) about having the whole audience know the outcome and watch it as a powerful message, but I remember thinking that I would rather have watched it the first time without knowing the ending. If I wanted powerful, I would watch it again now that I know the ending.

Like The Sixth Sense - once the knowledge was revealed, it was fun to go back and watch the film again to see all the ways they tried to get you to notice the conclusion. If they revealed it in the beginning, not such a good movie.

So, I think you can find examples of both which work for what they are trying to do. The definition of "best" in this case is probably very subjective.
posted by CathyG at 8:28 AM on September 16, 2010


Well, not a movie, but the pilot episode of Breaking Bad uses that plot form.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:31 AM on September 16, 2010


The Machinist does, I believe.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:33 AM on September 16, 2010


"Fail-safe" begins with a man having a nightmare. It turns out to be the final scene of the movie.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:41 AM on September 16, 2010


2 Examples with arguments.

Titanic

In regard to a number of historical fictions, you often hear people say "I know the ending, but I still want to see the story."


Catcher in the Rye

Another counter-argument would involve movies that focus more on character development than on events. Catcher in the Rye is an example - the events aren't as important as the unfolding of the character. I haven't seen the movie, but the book starts out with (paraphrased) "Let me tell you what happened before I ended up in this psych ward."
posted by jander03 at 8:46 AM on September 16, 2010


Cinema Paradisio
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:51 AM on September 16, 2010


Secret Window kind of works like this. (I think, anyways. Been a long time since I seen it, but it's the first thing that popped in my head.)

Vantage Point kind of works like this too.
posted by royalsong at 8:55 AM on September 16, 2010


Catcher in the Rye

... I haven't seen the movie...


There's a movie of that? Are you sure?
posted by Ratio at 8:56 AM on September 16, 2010


The Monkees' Head starts with its concluding scene and works forwards from there. Or sideways. Anyway, it's a big loop.

Whether it belongs on a list of films that has the word "best" anywhere near it, well, that's an argument for another thread.
posted by Devoidoid at 9:04 AM on September 16, 2010


Betrayal literally starts at the end and then works back in time to the beginning.

Fallen starts at the end and then flashes back.

Carlito's Way is another one.
posted by cali59 at 9:06 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lolita
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:06 AM on September 16, 2010


Pay it Forward has two story lines, one moving forward and one backward in time, that meet in the middle at the "climax".
posted by rocket88 at 9:15 AM on September 16, 2010


Time Crimes will twist your mind into knots...similar to Memento or Primer
posted by victoriab at 10:18 AM on September 16, 2010


What about Titanic, Milk and the many, many films where the audience is expected to know the outcome because it involves a historical event or widely familiar tale?

In reference to Salvor Hardin's mention of Breaking Bad, a lot of TV episodes have this format. There's a pretty hilarious episode of Firefly where we open with a shot of Mal, naked on a rock in the desert, saying "I didn't think it would turn out quite like this..." (paraphrasing). Then the rest of the episode shows us what happened to get him to that point.
posted by Sara C. at 10:20 AM on September 16, 2010


Michael Clayton does this, if I recall correctly.
posted by cosmic osmo at 10:30 AM on September 16, 2010


Blowout with John Travolta.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 10:31 AM on September 16, 2010


Nthing the movie Betrayal.

The idea of telling a story in reverse was used in one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes which stole the episode title from the movie.
posted by marsha56 at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2010


Oh, I forgot my favorite -- Romeo is Bleeding.

The movie opens with bloodied and battered Gary Oldman driving a car while getting the life choked out of him between the beautiful curvy thighs of a woman wearing stockings and garters.

Then a freeze frame.

"Let me tell you how I got here."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:17 AM on September 16, 2010


"Fail-safe" begins with a man having a nightmare. It turns out to be the final scene of the movie.

12 Monkeys does this too.
posted by patheral at 11:31 AM on September 16, 2010


Mr. Arkadin

Geez, IMDB just did a redesign and it looks terrrrrrible.
posted by Dmenet at 11:31 AM on September 16, 2010


Inception starts with scenes from the end of the movie, although it is not the definitive end.

Did you mean Intersection?
posted by tamitang at 6:24 PM on September 16, 2010


Gareth Edwards's soon-to-be-released Monsters.
posted by hot soup girl at 7:18 PM on September 16, 2010


The Killing by Kubrick.
posted by gregglind at 6:27 PM on September 19, 2010


It's been more than 10 years since I saw it, but I'm pretty sure Eye of God does this.

Also: not directly relevant to your student's paper, but Tom Stoppard has talked about the effect it has on audiences knowing how something's going to turn out. He's written a lot of stuff with important surprises at the end ... and the first time he worked with a company staging a revival (I'm pretty sure it was a revival of The Real Thing), he realized that many audience members would have seen the original, and wouldn't be surprised ... and that that's okay. It's the journey as much as the reveal that matters. Otherwise, we'd never go see the same Shakespeare plays again and again.
posted by kristi at 8:38 PM on September 22, 2010


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