They thought they got away with it
June 24, 2016 11:38 PM   Subscribe

Can you provide examples of movies that end with a particular kind of reveal?

The ending that I'm looking for has a few specific components:
  1. The reveal drastically alters the outcome for one or more main characters, or significantly alters the interpretation of the established story.
  2. The characters are not aware of the reveal, only the audience. The movie ends and the audience is left to work out the implications as the credits roll.
  3. The reveal is entirely visual, such as by shot framing or whatnot. It's not accomplished via dialogue or voice-over.
A hypothetical example:
Two protagonists seem to be headed for a happy ending, having outflanked the bad guys and made off with the prize. They committed some crimes along the way, but they have cover stories for the police who are at their home interviewing them. The police seem to be satisfied with their explanations, and things are winding down. You can tell the movie's about to end. It's time to put the baby down for the night, and the couple excuses themselves for a moment to go upstairs.

While they're alone with the child they remark to themselves at how glad they are to have gotten away with it, and how bad it would have been if [detail blah blah blah] had come up. They have a moment, and the final shot is the happy couple standing over their child, relieved that everything worked out, and as the camera slowly pulls back we see the baby monitor which was turned on the whole time. The cops downstairs definitely heard everything, because it was established prior that they were standing next to the other end of the monitor, and these people have just confessed to awful things. But we don't see any of that. The movie ends with the shot of the glowing power light coming into the frame.
Obviously I'm not a screenwriter as that's hacky as shit. But I hope it conveys the kind of ending I'm referring to here. It changes everything, the characters are not immediately aware of it, and it was entirely visual. (The reveal in this example is the fact that the baby monitor was on, not the incriminating conversation.)

So, can you provide examples of movies that end like that? I'm sure there's probably a lot of horror movies that fit the criteria(*). I'd like to hear of those, but I'm much more interested in movies that aren't in the horror/scary movie genre. Season or series finales of television shows qualify too.

And I'm explicitly asking for spoilers. I'd like to know the mechanics of how the ending works, how it affects what came before, how it's revealed, and how it leaves the audience feeling. Please spoil away with abandon.

(*) This is not about any old horror twist ending though. Twist endings where the characters discover the shocking truth violate #2.
posted by Otto Franz Joseph Leopold von Soxen-Puppetten to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Watchmen - Rorschach's journal is potentially discovered and published, which will spoil Veidt's plan to save the world (#1), the characters are unaware of the journal's existence (#2), and the reveal is done via a shot of the journal sitting on top of the "crank pile" without any voice-over or narrative explaining its significance (#3).
posted by kithrater at 12:03 AM on June 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

The Usual Suspects might fit. Kevin Spacey's character Verbal Kint is revealed to be Kayser Söze entirely in a series of quick cuts, with no dialog. Might not work exactly because Chazz Palminteri's character does seem to be realize what's happening.

For TV series finales, St. Elsewhere has this bizarre ending where the entire run of the show is recast as being in the imagination of an autistic child.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:04 AM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Ocean's Eleven remake: Ocean leaves jail confident he is now free to spend his ill-gotten loot but is already being tracked by two henchmen of Benedict's (#1), he seems unaware of the tail (#2), and it's revealed to the audience only by a shot of the car of the henchmen heading in Ocean's direction (#3).
posted by kithrater at 12:12 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you mind comedies? The final scene of "Murder by Death" is exactly like what you're describing.

The reveal is that the butler didn't do it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:45 AM on June 25, 2016

Citizen Kane, maybe? The reveal of Rosebud is purely visual, and it isn't seen by the characters who were looking for it. The revelation doesn't affect anything for the characters, but it does change how the viewer interprets the story, if only by making it clear how quixotic the whole quest to find Rosebud really was.
posted by baf at 1:16 AM on June 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

In a great episode of Bob's Burgers, the kids end up trapped in an abandoned factory that they had been exploring because it was rumored to contain some sort of treasure. Inside they find a uh, dummy made out of taffy, which Louise befriends, but upon reflection after they escape, abandons it on the beach. As the family walks away, the waves begin washing away the taffy exterior and reveal golden bars inside. No one ever finds out.

I think the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark counts here too, where the Ark of the Covenant is said to be under study by "top men". Although Indy seems skeptical, he never gets to see what the audience sees, a worldess sequence where warehouse workers box up the Ark and put it away presumably never to be found again. All that adventure, danger, etc. for nothing.
posted by skewed at 1:23 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Prisoners (2013)
posted by Kwadeng at 2:22 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sorry, this is a horror movie, but it's one of my favorites. The UK ending for the movie The Descent is a bit like this. Sarah and the audience believe she has escaped the cave as the sole survivor and is on her way home after her ordeal. Then there's a stupid jump scare where the ghost of Juno appears in her car and then there's a cut to Sarah still in the cave, apparently waking up from her dream of leaving. She sees and hears her kid with a birthday cake and seems to be trapped in this false reality, but the audience knows that she's still in the cave, hallucinating, and it's very likely that she's going to just die down there after experiencing and inflicting a huge amount of trauma. (Marshall, the director, has also admitted that he makes several deliberate misdirects to force the audience to wonder if the cave crawlers actually exist at all.)

Fallen doesn't *quite* qualify, but it has an interesting reveal ending. The main disqualification is that the movie is narrated throughout, but the reveal isn't explained by the narration--that's all visual. In the beginning of the movie, the narrator, Hobbes, tells the audience that this is the story of how he almost died. At the end of the movie, Hobbes shoots John Goodman (can't recall his character's name) because he is possessed by a demon and Hobbes himself has taken poison to prevent the demon from being able to jump bodies. The idea is that this murder/suicide will kill the demon for good. So Goodman dies, Azazel jumps into Hobbes, and then Azazel-Hobbes goes crazy looking for a new body to inhabit in the middle of the woods. Then Hobbes falls over dead believing that he has won the day. Then we see a cat running off and the narrator sort of snarkily says something like, "I told you that this is how I almost died." At that moment the audience realizes that Azazel has been the narrator all along, that he has survived by leaping into a stray cat, and that poor Hobbes died believing that he had triumphed over an ultimate evil but actually failed utterly.
posted by xyzzy at 3:45 AM on June 25, 2016

Divorce, Italian Style does this well - the Wikipedia synopsis has the spoiler.
posted by Paragon at 4:37 AM on June 25, 2016

Blood Simple, maybe? The audience knows who the attacker in the apartment is, but Frances McDormand never sees him and assumes that it's her husband. It's not exactly a reveal, since we see M Emmet Walsh through the whole movie.
posted by booth at 4:57 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ocean's Eleven remake: Ocean leaves jail confident he is now free to spend his ill-gotten loot but is already being tracked by two henchmen of Benedict's (#1), he seems unaware of the tail (#2), and it's revealed to the audience only by a shot of the car of the henchmen heading in Ocean's direction (#3).
Are you sure? I thought as he comes out of the Prison Ocean asks Rusty where they are and he says something like "grey sedan, two rows back"
posted by fullerine at 5:01 AM on June 25, 2016 [13 favorites]

fullerine: Nothing like that in the script.
posted by kithrater at 5:09 AM on June 25, 2016

Kithrater, at 30 seconds on this clip, Ocean asks "where are they?" And Rusty replies "silver sedan, back row, 10 o'clock."
posted by cabingirl at 5:39 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Inception? I seem to recall that Cobb leaves the top spinning when he goes to see his kids.

Big Trouble in Little China has the classic cheesy example of this. Jack Burton has left the entire crazy episode behind, but the audience sees in the last shot that he's not alone...
posted by selfnoise at 5:40 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Inception? I seem to recall that Cobb leaves the top spinning when he goes to see his kids.

The last shot of Inception is intentionally ambiguous — the top wobbles but doesn't fall. But other than that this is pretty close to what you want.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:43 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

TV Tropes, as always, is on it: The Ending Changes Everything
posted by thomas j wise at 6:44 AM on June 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Memento, when you find out that he has set himself up to unknowingly murder the wrong person.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:06 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Graduate. After Ben's outburst gets Elaine to abandon her husband-to-be at the altar, we see the two of them riding the bus together, side by side but not looking at each other, each with a "what have I done?" look on their face. May not exactly be what you're looking for.

The Truman Show has a reveal in the middle, not the end, that is some powerful meta-cinema. We start with a closeup of Truman sleeping, inspirational music playing. We pull back, and we see that what we're seeing is a giant screen (on the movie screen). We pull back some more, and we see Christof, the director, calling out music cues, and we realize that our emotions are being transparently played.
posted by adamrice at 8:46 AM on June 25, 2016

Blade Runner, for some values of "Blade Runner."* The origami unicorn in the final moments, combined with the unicorn dream sequence earlier, raises the possibility that Deckard himself is a replicant whose Vangelis-scored internal life was implanted.

*(There have been a lot of different cuts of this movie, some of which omit the unicorn stuff or handle it differently.)
posted by miles per flower at 8:57 AM on June 25, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey?
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:09 AM on June 25, 2016

Kind Hearts and Coronets is told through the framing device of the memoirs of the protagonist, who has murdered seven or eight people (though NOT the person he was convicted of murdering), and who writes his memoirs while awaiting execution. A last minute reprieve seems to lead to a happy ending... until he realizes that he has left his memoirs (giving full details of the murders he DID commit) behind in the jail cell...

This film, which also inspired the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, is a deserved classic and worth seeing even if it doesn't quite meet what you're looking for. Alec Guinness plays most of the murder victims.
posted by ubiquity at 9:14 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the plotlines of Traffic ends like this. Catherine Zeta-Jones and her husband believe they are now safe, but unbeknownst to them, Don Cheadle has bugged their office. Last shot: the bug under a desk.
posted by Threeve at 9:30 AM on June 25, 2016

The little girl who lives down the lane.

Only, it reverses your premise: She totally gets away with it.

Her terminally ill father left her with a "sedative" to give to her abusive mother before he commits suicide. The sedative turns out to be poison. When the body is discovered by a snoopy landlady, she ends up dying accidentally. When the local pedophile discovers both dead bodies and blackmails Rynn, insisting on a relationship, she goes to make tea for the two of them and poisons her own cup because she would rather die. Not trusting her, he switches the two cups of tea. She keeps her mouth shut and he begins to die while stroking her hair.
posted by Michele in California at 10:51 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Possibly one of the most subtle examples of this is Michael Haneke's Cache, which centers around the mystery of who is sending the creepy videos that are tormenting the movie's protagonist. The last shot, under the closing credits and easily overlooked by viewers who are not paying close attention, shows two characters (who have no reason to know each other) meeting up, with the implication that they may have conspired to arrange the shooting and sending of the tapes. Roger Ebert goes into more detail about the theory here.
posted by carrienation at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Don't tell mom the babysitter is dead ends with the two guys from the mortuary paying their respects at the babysitter's grave. They got the money she had on her. It is never made clear if it was money the mother supplied or if it was her own money or both. But if the kids had just looked through her stuff and kept the money before dumping her body and steamer trunk at the morgue, the entire movie would have never happened. No job would have been necessary, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 11:17 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Peter Sellers in After the Fox gets away with it/doesn't get away with it in a very silly manner.
posted by scruss at 12:20 PM on June 25, 2016

The end of Being There involves Chance, a gardener whose simple, mundane observations are taken as profound truths by those he encounters. He becomes celebrated for his wisdom and even drafted into politics. We, the audience, see through this, and recognize the gardener is a nice guy but a simpleton who has no interest or awareness of anything beyond himself. It's just a case of people looking for deep meaning where it doesn't exist. But in the last shot, walking off on his own, with no one else around, and making no big deal about it, he walks on water.

I think this counts as Chance isn't really aware of what is happening as unusual, and no other characters find out. But it forces the audience to reconsider the entire story. Is Chance just a unpretentious simpleton, mistaken for something great, or is he actually as great as people believe because he is so simple?
posted by skewed at 12:51 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Diabolique has three different twists at the end and I think the last one qualifies.
posted by katieanne at 1:15 PM on June 25, 2016

War, Inc. definitely qualifies. I also remember a Star Trek Next Gen episode with Moriarty thinking he's escaped in a shuttlecraft, with the final reveal being that it's all a simulation.
posted by sapere aude at 1:43 PM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The classic Futurama episode "Jurrasic Bark" ends with a non-verbal reveal to the audience that the characters are unaware of, which makes it one of the most tragic TV episodes ever. It's not so much "he would have gotten away with it" as "if only he'd known," but I think it fits your criteria.
posted by ejs at 3:48 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was thinking of Cache too. There are two things I think worth pointing out about the reveal there that make it especially shocking to the viewer:

First, it's done in a way that doesn't draw attention. The two characters meet and talk, but they do it kind of in the background. By the time you notice them, they've probably been there for a little while, which gives you the uncomfortable sense of realizing that you failed to spot something important. It's like suddenly realizing that there's a stranger in the room with you when you thought you were alone.

Secondly, the implications are non-obvious. The main thing the meeting shows you is simply that there's a connection between two characters that you were unaware of. Now, the ending of the film before that point is ambiguous, and doesn't resolve the main mystery of the story, of the stalker's identity. But the viewer has by that point developed an idea of what the story is about and what the possibilities are. That final shot, though, shows you that there's an entire layer to the story that you've had no access to whatever. It's a shock not because it gives you a new understanding of the story, but because it destroys your previous understanding without putting anything in its place.
posted by baf at 5:36 PM on June 25, 2016

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