When a Movie's Ending Defies Expectation

A powerful movie can leave you thinking about it for days. Sometimes we watch things that are perfect in every way, maybe it’s the casting, the directing or the soundtrack. Whatever it is we are enthralled and submerged into that specific movie’s world.  

The hook that causes people to fall in love with certain movies is down to the fact that they in some way cause us to sympathise. People love to watch a character who appears downtrodden succeeding with unimaginable glory. 

But what about a movie so revolutionary and different that not only defies our predicated expectations but leaves us watching the credits roll with open mouths trying to think of how we missed the clues? 

The critically acclaimed Primal Fear starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton is worth mentioning. Gere plays the egotistical lawyer Martin Vail to Norton’s softly spoken Aaron Stampler who is accused of a heinous crime.   

The movie is extremely well acted and contains clues which send the audience in a completely different direction. Vail claims that Stampler could not have committed the crime intentionally as he was suffering from blackouts in which another persona took over more commonly known as dissociative identity disorder. 

Vail successfully manages to win the case for his client and instead of going to prison Stampler would be sent to a hospital to help him cope with the disorder. The audience feels that this kind, quiet and sensitive young man who has been mistreated in life has finally been vindicated.  

But in a stroke of genius the final scene shatters the sympathy and whole hearted belief of the audience in this man into a million tiny pieces. He truly is the villain, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, a cold and calculated killer. He put on a pretence that he was being controlled by another personality, when in fact he was in control at every moment. Weaving a web of lies around those around him and the audience themselves. 

This movie has no positive outcome, the audience does not see this man pay for his crime. A movie which goes against tropes and provides the audience with something they were not expecting is true film making.  

We are so used to seeing everything work out in the story and the good defeating the bad that when this does not happen, we feel slightly wounded.  

In a piece written for Psychology Today a study by psychologist Tim Smith is mentioned. He argues that through specific and deliberate decisions in a movie’s creation something called attentional synchrony occurs. These artists tweak and cultivate situations to create a fixed image of what they want the audience to think in a particular moment.  

The audience feels duped yet satisfied at the same time. We think back and see that of course clues were provided but we as an audience were too concerned with the wellbeing of the weak-willed and polite man who appeared completely and utterly innocent.