The old adage goes that a picture tells a thousand words, but this image often exist in either complete or partial isolation.
While the historical context or the authorial intention behind an image can, in varying degrees, contribute to its meaning, the picture is largely offered up to mostly surface level interpretation. Film, however, is a medium that works in almost complete opposition to this; usually presenting its audience with much of the information absent in a still image.
These two mediums, while often overlapping in artistic conception, are two drastically different forms in what they present to an audience. But by combining these two artistic expressions – specifically in choosing to end a film with a frozen frame as George Roy Hill does in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – this final image is assigned special meaning due to its preceding narrative and its placement at the conclusion of a narrative.
Having robbed one train too many, outlaws Butch (Paul Newman) and the Kid (Robert Redford) find themselves on the run from an unrelenting group that will not stop until the pair are dead. Fleeing to Bolivia, they soon revert back to stealing, earning a fair amount of infamy along the way. Before long however, the Bolivian authorities catch up to the pair, surrounding them in a small plaza. Unbeknownst to the two, they are cornered by an insurmountable force as they plan their escape. Ultimately, it will be their end.
But it is following the pair’s eventual emergence from their cover, as they run blindly into the large force assembled, on which the film closes, upon the two, guns in hand firing wildly. Deafening hails of gunfire from the authorities shortly follow, as the outlaws presumably succumb to their fates, while the camera slowly zooms out.
While pulling back from the pair, and as the audio fades, the screen becomes tinged with sepia, resembling an old photograph. Ordinarily, with little time to digest and dissect any given frame that illuminates the screen at any given time, this inclusion of the freeze frame offers such an opportunity. By doing so, it fittingly eulogises what the audience has come to learn of the film’s titular characters.
Inseparable throughout the film, for the outlaws to fall by each other’s side truly exemplifies their relationship. In part cultivated by necessity with Butch providing the brains of the outfit and the Kid, as a revered marksman, offering the brawn, this unwavering loyalty not only stems from a fondness for each other, but, critically, from a life they both hold dear.
Holding up banks and trains, the pair seem to enjoy a loose, almost comedic relationship with the law. Following one such robbery, the two smugly listen to a local lawman failing to assemble a posse to capture them as they casually sit overhead on a balcony relaxing. But with the days of the Wild West drawing to a close, both Butch and The Kid symbolise a time and lifestyle that is itself approaching extinction.
While previously showcasing an uncanny knack for escaping the most unlikely of situations, the playful back and forth that the two maintain while taking cover from the plaza at the end of the film highlights a detrimental unwillingness to change in a world that is already leaving them behind.
Their subsequent bravery then captured in the final frames of the film is one that the audience expects. But to witness the two cowboys unceremoniously gunned down with little room for heroism would seem unjust given similar previous situations throughout the film.
Freezing on the pair before such a fate is realised, the two are spared an unglamorous end, instead immortalised in such an act, something the dissolve to sepia reinforces as the pair both figuratively and literally become a part of history. Without technically witnessing the deaths of Butch and the Kid either, they appear to live on. And as the credits roll, audiences are left to chew on that final image of the two.
Contradictorily offering both a sense of finality and possibility, the freeze frame ending is one sparingly used but can fittingly prompt consideration from its uncommon inclusion. From John Bender’s triumphant raised fist on the football field in The Breakfast Club to Antoine Doniel reaching the sea before turning to look into the camera with a sense of uncertainty in Les Quatre Cents Coups, a still frame closing a film asks a question of the audience: