The Coda In Film; Bourne, The Director's Escape Route And The Perfect Thriller

Editor's Note: Film Intel and the site's reviews in particular always strive to be completely spoiler free and will continue to be so for the entire life cycle of the site. However, as this is an editorial essay discussing, amongst other things, the final moments in the trilogy of Bourne films it will, out of necessity, entail a detailed discussion of how all three films conclude. For avoidance of doubt the three endings discussed with multiple and significant spoilers here are; The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Sumpremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, spoiler-free reviews of which can be found here, here and here. Anyone wishing not to read a discussion on the narrative conclusions to these films is advised to skip today's article. We'll let you. Just this once.

Bourne and 'friend'.

At risk of winning the 'stating the bleeding obvious' competition by a country mile and several furlongs: how a film ends is incredibly important. If you have your hero and heroine finishing your piece as a happily married couple whilst turtle doves flutter around and an angelic choir intones Ode To Joy whilst riding on the backs of friendly dolphins, you're going to make your audience throw up into their now empty popcorn holders. If you kill your megastar in the final frame, you're likely to leave them in tears.

Ensuring your audience leaves delighted with what they've just seen and that your narrative concludes satisfactorily is often a balancing act, a carefully judged equal weighting of story-based smarts to audience friendly denouements.

Having recently re-watched The Bourne Trilogy, something sprang out which had previously passed by un-noticed: the use of the coda in film-making and in particular, in this group of films.

The coda I'm talking about isn't the coda referenced in Wikipedia's entry on the post-credits scene but actually one that has more in common with the musical version of the coda defined by as 'a more or less independent passage added to the end of a section or composition so as to reinforce the sense of conclusion'. In film terms: a scene or scenes which are included at the end of the film but which do not necessarily serve or advance the narrative to any great degree.

A musical coda, yesterday.

Take The Bourne Identity for example and as a logical starting point. The actual conclusion to the story happens in and around the Treadstone safe house where Bourne meets Conklin face-to-face for the first time. Bourne remembers his past life as a Treadstone operative (thus, at this point in the series, definitively discovering The Bourne Identity) and disappears into the night whilst Conklin is subsequently assassinated by another Treadstone operative on instruction from Abbott who then orders the closure of the operation and confirms this to be the case in front an official committee. Job done.

Only it's not job done because we get one final scene; a coda, if you will. We cut to Marie who Bourne had previously parted company with somewhere in the middle of the third act. She's pottering around a scooter hire shop when a figure appears in the doorway. Who could it be? Why, it's Bourne of course and after a moment lingering on both characters the camera zooms away from the shop and we cut to the end credits.

The point here is that this completely changes the tone of the film. If director Doug Liman was to end with the actual narrative conclusion of the story - perhaps with an additional shot of Bourne walking away from the Treadstone building all on his own - then the soaring high note, the warm fuzzy feeling, generated by seeing the two protagonists together again wouldn't exist and The Bourne Identity would be in possession of a completely different tone altogether. Liman wants to have his cake and eat it, wants Identity to be both attractively dark throughout and pleasingly positive in its ending.

Marie; 'changing the tone'.

The same 'trick' is repeated by new director Paul Greengrass in Identity's sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, only this time the film attempts not one but two extensions to its narrative end point after Abbott has shot himself and Bourne has escaped Kirill. The first is understandable as it sees Bourne visit Irena, the child of his first victims, thus wrapping up a sub plot that has run for much of the film. Having said that, there's nothing particularly satisfying about Bourne's visit and it doesn't serve to progress the narrative to any discernible degree. Greengrass' aim with the scene seems to be to reinforce the mantra that Bourne is not merely a killing machine (like Kirill) but is a real human being with real feelings, including remorse. If that is the case however, then surely the same was shown with Bourne leaving the scene of the Kirill accident, thus rendering the Irena meet-up largely pointless.

The second coda is altogether more obviously out of place and included for reasons outside of the narrative scope of The Bourne Supremacy. For one thing, the time line is widely different to that of the rest of the film; Bourne is seen somewhere outside of Pamela Landy's office, presumably located in Washington, when in fact the last place we saw him on screen was within Russian borders. Bourne talks to Landy on the phone before the latter reveals bits of his true identity and Bourne in turn reveals that wherever he is, he can see Landy.

The sequence is quite obviously sequel-bait. Greengrass (or perhaps more likely, the studio) want to reveal that there may be more to his identity than both Supremacy and Identity suggested and they do so by including a coda which falls outside of the narrative arc of the film. The coda here acts not as a get out clause to manipulate the tone of the film but as one which locates it well within the strategic realms of a trilogy; arguably the first and only time that the series plays up to the ideas of a franchise and attempts to sell itself as such. The advantage of including this notion in the coda is that Greengrass need not bother with it anywhere else and Supremacy - the whole series in fact - is better off for its lack of self-referential, expositionary, dialogue.

The perfect thriller?

It's notable that in the final film of the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum, the returning Greengrass doesn't include a coda. There is a pause on the final scene as we, the watching audience, wonder whether Bourne is dead in the water or simply playing dead in the water before he springs to life and swims away. The absence of any additional scene after this moment (the fact that we don't conclusively see Bourne exit the water alive and well for example) is evidence of both the fact that Greengrass is confident enough in his narrative to allow the audience the honour of drawing their own conclusions and of the fact that Ultimatum is the most complete film of the series. Whilst the other films resorted to a get out clause - a single scene that had wide-reaching consequences for each - Ultimatum doesn't need to or have to; it's narrative arc is more than enough to satisfy and excite without a clumsy appendage. It is, quite possibly, the perfect thriller.

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