The only proper end, the one that will carry you out into the world, is the one that comes right where it’s needed — it might be a beat sooner than you’d prefer and certainly sooner than expected.
Good endings create art that topples expectations. When they drag on they unravel, untether everything the film has worked toward.
Lincoln is an achievement. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance — which is astounding — aside, it is a quality piece of filmmaking the strength of which is in its focus on Tony Kushner’s words and the individual performances. The cinematography is beautiful, but not overly flashy or aggressive. It lingers in the rooms, follows the characters actions. It does not force its way into the scene, becoming a character in and of itself. The editing is subtle. Every ounce of construction classic as hell and great because of it; keeping the pace slow and steady, a unique quality in late Hollywood that stresses action and speed.
Near the end, Lincoln makes his way to the theater. He is beaten and weathered. He’s played the house of representatives like an orchestra, and when his butler alerts him that his wife is waiting for him, Lincoln quips, “Am I in trouble?”
He steps away from his cabinet, “It’s time for me to go. But I would rather stay.” With this, Lincoln walks down the hall to his death. This is the end of the narrative, everything concludes, but then the film goes on.
Samuel Jackson brought this up and inspired some ink on the topic:
“I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” he said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”
After Lincoln walks down the hall, his young son, in another theatre, learns his father has been shot. There is followed a vision of the body and an eventual conclusion that allows one to see Lincoln, last devastated, standing tall. But the film does not require these final steps. They bulk up the sentiment and negate the power of those final lines and that hobbling walk down the hallway into shadow.
A good ending is hard to come by. We dream of one for our lives and crave it in our stories. But when an ending is good, when we see on screen when the end should come, it is daunting to permit that moment to pass without hesitation.