Picking Apart The Problematic Ending of ‘Smile’


After spending two weeks on top of the box office charts, Smile demonstrates once again that audiences hunger for original horror in theaters. Smile contains the DNA of modern genre classics, including The Ring, Sinister, and It Follows as it tells a tale where horror is not only inevitable, but also leaves a swath of destruction and despair as it is passed down from one individual to the next. Smile is the latest in the recent genre trend where “trauma is the monster”. While director Parker Finn delivers a number of terrific scares, chilling set pieces, and an iconic monster reveal, his handling of complex mental issues rubs some the wrong way.

Smile follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon in a remarkable performance), a clinical psychologist repressing her own traumatic childhood by diving headlong into her work assisting patients. At the end of a days-long shift, she meets Leslie, a young woman who insists she’s being followed by an invisible entity that wants to do her harm. Before Rose can calm Leslie or call for staff assistance, the troubled woman manages to break a ceramic bowl and hold a shard to her throat. With her face carved into a rictus grin, Leslie manages to slit her own throat, dying before her body even hits the floor. 

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Soon afterward Rose exhibits telltale signs of acute trauma as she experiences debilitating anxiety attacks, has brief episodes of dissociation around friends and loved ones, and relives the traumatic event as she sees visions of Leslie stalking her in her home. Over the course of four days, Rose further unravels. Her nightmares and fugue-state visions grow increasingly violent. Something kills her beloved pet cat and switches its corpse out for the train set Rose buys for her nephew’s birthday. A trip to the emergency room follows after a particularly distressing hallucination.

She picks at her skin, chews off her nails, and moves around like each forward step takes tremendous mental effort while exacting a tremendous physical toll. Rose uncovers Leslie is just the latest in a long line of people who have died by suicide less than a week after witnessing the act. She contemplates killing off one of her patients in order to pass her curse off to a third party.

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Every step of the way Rose’s support network fails her. Years of cultivating safe, surface-level relationships leave her bereft of almost anyone to offer Rose the vital support she needs at this precise moment. Her fiance is completely ill-equipped and unwilling to make himself available. He already has a foot out the door at the first sign of instability. He pawns Rose off to her former therapist. While I’m Team Therapy, the truth is it doesn’t work if clients don’t engage. It’s clear Rose has evaded all attempts to break through to the source of her trauma: the death of her mother and Rose’s own role in it.

The presence of her psychiatrist leaves Rose feeling agitated to the point where she might actually burst out of her skin. The two obviously don’t share the sort of connection where Rose can open up to what is truly going on. Rose just wants the doctor to give her a prescription. But the doctor won’t write one if Rose won’t engage. Finally, Rose’s older sister has put the past behind her, and her own need to set up boundaries to protect herself and her family leaves no space for her to deal with Rose’s problem. 

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What makes things worse for Rose is she holds proof in her hands that she’s not crazy, that there is something supernatural attacking her after killing a long line of people ahead of her and that she needs help. The events she’s witnessed wreak such trauma that she loses the ability to articulate what she’s learned. Her normally ordered brain seems to collapse into itself, leaving her thoughts scattered among the debris. Rose suffers in isolation as no one believes her or listens to her, which makes her burden all the more difficult to bear. 

It’s not until Rose turns to her ex-partner Joel that she feels supported. As a cop that deals in facts, Joel does not fully understand what Rose experiences. However, he does his best to listen to her, support her, and help her research what exactly is going on. With Joel’s support, Rose comes up with a plan that will either vanquish the monster or at least prevent it from claiming future victims. What follows fumbles Smile’s exploration of trauma and resiliency in a way that feels egregious, if not dangerous. 

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After Rose returns to the childhood home where her mentally ill mother died after an accidental overdose, she confronts the demon in her mother’s form. We learn that the young Rose allowed her mother to die rather than call for help because she was both afraid and angry with her mother. The demon believes this long-repressed revelation will paralyze Rose with guilt, making the task of subduing and overtaking her easier.

Instead, Rose walks away all the more resolved to defeat the monster. Rose realizes she’s put off confronting her trauma for too long, and she now has to face it and come to terms with it. She forgives her childhood self for failing to act, and for giving into her fear. She reminds the trauma monster that if it lives inside her head, then it’s also susceptible to Rose’s strength and resiliency. Rose possesses the cognitive skills and the strength to defeat or at least contain the monster within her mind, metaphorically torching it and her childhood home in a moment of triumph.

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Except it’s not a triumph by a long shot. Rose drives back to Joel’s house and pours her heart out to him. She tells him why she’s always kept others at an arm’s distance, how the trauma of her childhood has scarred her. Then, she asks if she can just stay with him. When Joel replies with a creepy grin, Rose and the audience realize she hasn’t defeated the monster at all. In fact, she hasn’t even entered the house to confront it.

The whole scene played out in her imagination, a false memory planted there by her tormentor. A determined Rose rushes into the home, but when the demon shows its true face, Rose freezes, which allows it to crawl into her body through her mouth. The final moments of the film see Joel rushing in too late to stop Rose from immolating herself. Her apparent suicide passes the trauma on to him and keeps the cycle going. 

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I love so much of what Smile offers as a horror movie. But as a clinician, I can’t help but cringe at the image of trauma so overwhelming a person that they have no choice but to let it overtake them. The message Smile’s ending sends out is that facing up to your trauma is too overwhelming a task, and it will obliterate you. Don’t even bother. Turn around now. It frustrates me to the point of screaming to watch Rose not only stand up to the memory of her mother sputtering her dying breaths but also offer compassion and forgiveness, only to see it’s a giant fake out.

Maybe Rose fails because she’s spent so much time swatting aside her own trauma by diving headlong into everyone else’s. Even then I hate the idea that this woman who has dedicated her life’s work to helping others overcome their demons so quickly falls victim to her own. If a person who has all the training, education, and coping tools at the ready can only end her trauma by literally lighting herself on fire, what sort of chance do you or I have? 

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It’s not like I don’t get the impulse for a horror movie to end on a grim note that leaves the audience slinking out of theaters filled with existential dread but also craving the next chapter of the story. Sometimes you gotta have that downer ending. The thing is, Smile doesn’t have to end with Rose’s annihilation to be a success. The movie could have ended two minutes sooner, with a grinning Joel promising Rose he’ll always be with her. Not only would it have been more chilling, but it would also serve as a strong reminder that the remnants of trauma remain even after we think we’ve beaten it. Facing down the long-dormant memory of her mother doesn’t mean the work has ended.

I will chew endlessly on the thought of a seemingly well-adjusted Rose enjoying her morning Corn Flakes when some innocuous trigger sends the Smile demon rushing back, all “boogity boogity” and teeth bared, armed with lovely new repressed memories for Rose to process and move on from. Give me that possibility and I’m the first in line for Smile 2.

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It stands to reason that if you’re reading a piece on Smile and how it handles trauma, then you have at least a passing interest in mental health. There’s a good chance you have had the kind of experience with a therapist where the part of your body that repressed trauma lives finally unlocks and the floodgates open, leaving your dead-ass exhausted self to pick up, reassert, and reconfigure the pieces afterward. In sessions with clients, we’ve likened each repressed anxiety to a softball-shaped stone that gets tossed into the invisible satchels we carry with us at all times. The weight of each of those imaginary stones. Carrying those rocks day after day can make common occurrences like getting out of bed to face a new day feel like a goddamn triumph.

Maybe it’s sappy and unrealistic but we need to believe that the things we do to get rid of those stones: the therapy, the journaling, the mantras, mindfulness exercises, the all-night crying sessions with friends; the price we pay in pain needs to be worth the reward of lessening the burden a little at a time.  

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I can’t help but compare the ending of Smile to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven intended to end his masterpiece with Nancy discarding her fear and vanquishing Freddy after turning her back to him and draining him of his power over her. Craven envisioned Nancy climbing onto Glen’s car and driving to school with her no longer deceased friends while her reincarnated mother waves goodbye to them. Executive producer Bob Shaye, smelling the potential for a financial windfall with sequels, insisted Craven reshoot the ending with the suggestion Freddy had not been defeated at all, and would return soon to haunt teens and moviegoers in their nightmares for years to come.

Smile’s ending, where the monster hoodwinks our protagonists before consuming them and passing trauma along to its next target, feels geared up for the sequel. Commerce supersedes wellness. With the continued big box office for Smile, it’s not difficult to imagine we’ll be seeing more entries in the next few years. 



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