Spoilers Ahead (But come on, the movie came out 14 years ago)
Let’s get this out of the way: the ending of Friday Night Lights (2004) is a HUGE bummer. Maybe not as much of a bummer as the book the film is based on, but still a bummer.
A major criticism of the film is that it takes a book that is incredibly critical of the culture surrounding high school football in this Texas town and eschews it in favor of a more palatable story.
Without delving too deep into adaptation theory, I’ve decided to examine the film on its own merits and tell you why it should move on today against We Are Marshall (2006). Although the film does away with these more controversial aspects of the book, the ending places the film in a rare category. The team doesn’t win the big football game. In fact, they lose in heartbreaking fashion. I appreciate this ambition.
Still, the ending of Friday Night Lights is what makes the film so intriguing. The storytellers take the stance that in the end, winning or losing the football game doesn’t matter (quite the stance for a film whose climax is a football game). These relationships are what matter. What happens after matters. What was learned matters. Whether the Panthers win state doesn’t matter at all.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when they come up just short. As Mike Winchell is stopped just shy of the goal line as time expires, Panther players are utterly distraught. They openly weep, or stare off into the night with blank stares, many collapsing to the ground in anguish. Some go to console their teammates. But they pivotal moment here is when Coach Gaines (played by a great Billy Bob Thornton), turns to his wife in the stands. He looks disappointed, a feeling, though, that he’s had before, and they share a brief moment of distant consolation with each other.
Life moves on after football. These players will remember this loss forever, but better things await. Marriage and careers and families away from football are just around the corner for these young men. It’s a really beautiful ending that could bring a grown man to tears.