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Smile director Parker Finn unpacks the movie’s many endings

‘Horror audiences have gotten so savvy, so I tried to put myself in their shoes’

Sosie Bacon as Rose in Smile biting her finger as she contemplates her haunting Photo: Walter Thomson/Paramount Pictures
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

In some ways, Parker Finn’s feature debut Smile is a standard horror movie, where a central character (hospital therapist Rose, played by Sosie Bacon) falls prey to a supernatural phenomenon and spends most of the movie dealing with the increasingly terrifying battle to understand, resist, and survive what’s happening to her.

But Smile takes an unusual tack at the end, with Finn’s script going in directions designed to shake off horror fans who think they can see the twists coming. After the movie’s world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Polygon sat down with Finn and asked him to walk through the movie’s ending: What went into it on a practical level, how to interpret what we see on screen, and why he left out one detail that seems particularly significant.

[Ed. note: Ending spoilers ahead for Smile.]

How does the movie Smile end?

Rose first learns about the smiling monster that takes over her life when a distraught young woman named Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey) is brought to Rose’s hospital in a state of near-hysteria. Laura explains that she’s been seeing an “entity” no one else can see, a creature with a horrible smile that sometimes appears to her in the guise of other people she knows, alive or dead. Then Laura collapses screaming, clearly something over her shoulder that Rose can’t see. As Rose calls for help, Laura stands up calmly smiling, and slits her own throat.

From that moment on, Rose keeps seeing Laura, in public and private, smiling at her. She has visions and nightmares that feature other people she knows, smiling and screaming at her. Rose tells other people about the entity, including her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), but they believe she’s having delusions brought on by the stress and trauma of Laura’s death. Eventually, Rose and her ex, a policeman named Joel (Kyle Gallner) discover a chain of similarly grotesque suicides stretching back into the past. The pattern suggests that the entity haunts someone until they’re deeply traumatized, then forces them to kill themselves in front of a witness, who is traumatized by the death. Then the entity starts over with its new victim.

A redheaded bearded man in a sweater sits on a hospital bed in front of pink curtains with the biggest smile ever Image: Paramount Pictures

Rose and Joel find one person who broke the chain and survived, by grotesquely murdering someone else in front of a witness and passing the entity on to that witness. That sets up a few likely possibilities for the end: Rose can either sacrifice someone else to survive, like Naomi Watts’ character Rachel does with a similar passed-on curse in The Ring; she can fail to break the curse and the entity can win, meaning Rose dies in front of someone else who takes on the trauma; or she can find another way to confront and fight the creature.

In the end, Smile has all three of those endings. Rose brutally stabs a terrified patient to death at her hospital in front of her screaming boss, Morgan (Kal Penn). But that turns out to be a dream she’s having while passed out in her car in front of the hospital, and she flees the hospital and Morgan in horror.

Then she drives to her abandoned, disintegrating childhood home, where her addict mother died of an overdose — which Rose potentially could have prevented if she’d called an ambulance as her mother begged her to do, instead of fleeing in fear. The original repressed trauma and guilt over her mother’s death is what drew the smiling entity to her in the first place. Rose faces the creature first in the form of her mother, then in the form of a giant, spindly creature. But she forgives herself for failing to help her mother when she was 10 years old, and sets the creature and the house on fire, symbolizing her willingness to finally let go of the past.

But when she returns to Joel to apologize for pushing him away when they were dating, and admit that he scared her because he was getting past her psychological barriers, he reveals himself as the entity again. Rose realizes she’s still at her childhood home, and never actually fought the entity or left — the entire confrontation she experienced was another one of the creature’s hallucinations. Joel arrives, and Rose runs from him, recognizing that the creature means for him to witness her forced suicide and become its next victim.

Inside the house, the tall, spindly creature rips its face off, revealing something raw and glistening with a series of toothy grins all down its face. Then it forces Rose’s mouth open and crawls inside her. When Joel breaks into the house, he just sees Rose, dumping kerosene on herself and turning to smile at him. She sets herself on fire and dies, completing the chain and setting Joel up as the creature’s next prey.

What does the end of Smile mean?

Smile suggests there are many ways of dealing with trauma, by passing it on (as abuse victims often do by abusing others), coming to terms with it, or collapsing under its weight. But Finn says the intention with the nested series of fake-out endings was to get ahead of an audience that might have been trying to get ahead of the movie.

“Horror audiences have gotten so savvy, so I tried to put myself in their shoes,” he says. “What would I be expecting? What would I be anticipating? And I tried to subvert that and do something that might catch them off-guard, and kind of flip them on their heads.”

Sosie Bacon as Rose running from a burning building at night in Smile Image: Paramount Pictures

At the same time, the “It was all a dream” ending is a notorious fake-out in movies, so Finn had to make sure he justified that route early on, by making it clear that the creature could provoke elaborate hallucinations in its victims — and that it specifically used those visions to manipulate their behavior and heighten their fear.

“The movie all along teaches you how to watch it, and teaching that you can’t trust Rose’s perception,” Finn says. “It’s in the DNA of the movie to mess with the viewer a little. So I wanted to really pay that off with how the movie ends, how what might feel like an ending might not be an ending. I leaned into that. From early on, I knew I was always interested in following the story to its worst logical conclusion. But I also wanted to have an emotional catharsis. So I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. Hopefully [the ending] delivers on that.”

Finn says he’s looking forward to viewers picking the movie apart, asking questions about what’s real and what isn’t. “But I also really love the idea that if something is happening in your mind, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not,” he says. “For that person, the experience is real.”

What happened to Rose’s father?

The film’s opening sequence pans across a series of portraits of Rose’s family, with her mother, father, and her sister Holly all happy together. Then Rose’s father disappears from the pictures. It’s unclear whether he died or abandoned the family. Viewers could theorize that whatever happened to him set off Rose’s mother’s decay and led her to spiral into depression and addiction — but it could just as well be possible that he fled because he couldn’t deal with what was happening to her and how her mental health was breaking down. Finn says it was important to him to leave it as an open question.

“I wanted Smile to pretty much be a mother-daughter story. There’s so much in the idea of [Rose’s] isolation, of it being just her and her mom, alone. I like that there’s the tiniest hint that there was a father, clearly, at some point, but it’s deliberately ambiguous.”

Finn says that too much detail about what happened to Rose’s father might have shaped viewers’ expectations or responses in ways that he didn’t want to bring into the story. “I didn’t want it to have undue influence,” he says. “Just the absence, that was the important thing to me — that the absence spoke volumes and really amplified the mother-daughter relationship.”

Connections between Smile and a short that inspired it

Finn previously made a short movie set in the same world, Laura Hasn’t Slept, which was meant to debut at SXSW in 2020. The festival that year was one of the first events to be shut down due to the spread of COVID-19, but Finn was still able to make a deal with Paramount to make Smile based on the strength of that short.

Unlike some short films that evolve into features, Laura Hasn’t Slept doesn’t tell the same story as Smile. “I like to think of them as like spiritual siblings,” Finn says. “Pieces of DNA from the short film are threaded through the feature, and little Easter eggs here and there. And then Caitlin Stasey, who plays Laura Weaver in Smile, is the titular Laura in Laura Hasn’t Slept as well.

A woman smiles with devilish glee in Smile Image: Paramount Pictures

“While the two roles, there’s a parallel running through them, they go in quite different directions. So I think it’s very fun. I’d be curious for people who have seen the feature first to go back and watch the short. They might see how the feature could almost be a sequel to the short.”

Audiences currently can’t see Laura Hasn’t Slept — it isn’t available for streaming or purchase at all — but Finn expects that to change soon.

“Paramount’s got it,” he says. “It will be coming back into the world soon. I think they’re gonna try to make sure that it’s out there and accessible in a lot of different ways.”

Will there be a Smile 2?

Finn doesn’t immediately have an idea for a sequel, at least not one he wants to admit to. “I wanted the movie to really exist for its own sake,” he says. “I wanted to tell this character’s story. That was what was really important to me. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of Smile. But certainly as a filmmaker, I never want to retread anything I’ve already done. So if there was ever to be more of Smile, I’d want to make sure it was something unexpected, and different than what Smile is.”

Instead, he’s currently developing other horror projects. “I’m working on a few different things, but nothing I’m talking about yet,” he says. “But genre and horror is always my first love. And I want to make genre films that are character-driven, that are doing some sort of exploration of the human condition, and the scary things about being a human being. That’s the stuff I really love. And if I can take that and twist it up with some sort of extraordinary genre element, that’s the lane I want to live in.”

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