Unresolved Endings on Screen: The Art of the Lingering Question

unresolved endings picnic at hanging rockIn his book Cinema and Soviet Society, Russian scholar Peter Kenez notes this fascinating piece of artistic anthropology: In pre-revolutionary Russia, it was not uncommon for silent film directors to shoot two separate endings for a movie. A happy ending would be marketed specifically toward the USA and Western Europe, while at home in Russia, the film would have a tragic ending. Think of all those D.W. Griffith last-minute rescuers arriving just a few seconds too late.

A recent post by Curnblog contributor Dawn Oshiro about the ending of The Lunchbox (2013) got me remembering this Russian idiosyncrasy and thinking about endings; how and why they work. I’ve concluded that the typical “scary” ending – Carrie’s arm reaching out of her grave to grab good girl Sue – isn’t really all that scary. It may provide a visceral shock for a moment, and the good ones can continue to supply that shock over and over again, like a low-voltage taser. But it doesn’t stop the heart, or leave you with lingering questions that refuse to abandon your brain.

Scary endings are not the scariest way a storyteller can end her story. Refusing to provide an ending is far scarier.

There are several promises implicit in a storyteller-audience relationship. Any filmmaker knows the gun rule. If a gun appears on screen, it must be fired. It doesn’t have to hit anything (Anton Chekhov covered that 100 years ago) but there must be a release. In this relationship, the storyteller becomes a deity, able to introduce the gun and compel its use. Speaking narratively, the storyteller promises to provide a resolution for the central plot question of the movie. This doesn’t mean there can’t be twists and ambiguities and unanswered questions. But whatever terminology you use, most film stories revolve around one or more characters trying to achieve something. And in most films, we will leave the theatre knowing whether they achieved it or failed. When that does not happen, Friedrich Nietzsche wins. God is dead.

The issue of resolution is not necessarily a toggle switch. It is not simply a question of yes or no. There are many shades of grey, and inventive storytellers are continually playing with multiple moving parts in crafting conclusions, which confound and astonish. Or bore and cause us to giggle. So let me try to narrow in on the varied styles of endings that do not strike me as, well, Nietzschean.

There is the “unanswered question.” Many movies end, either intentionally or not, with unresolved questions. But we tend not to be bothered so long as the central plot question has an answer. We may never learn the nasty thing that Ada Doom saw in the woodshed in Cold Comfort Farm (1968), but that fragment, though morbidly memorable, is not what the story is about. The main plot concerns Flora and her efforts to improve the lives of her relatives on the farm. We do get resolution to that.

unresolved endings prisoners 2013There is the “suggestion of an uncertain next chapter.” When Ben and Elaine sit on that bus in the final frames of The Graduate (1967), they are initially elated. Then, as Simon & Garfunkel serenade them with The Sounds of Silence, the elation evolves into … what? Dread? Fear? Something is happening there, but we don’t know what it is. There is ambiguity, to be sure, and it can be unsettling. But imagine if the movie ended while Ben was still banging on the window, just before Elaine’s orgasmic shriek in answer to him. Then the central plot question – will Ben get Elaine – would be left unresolved and I suspect, it would have been a more disturbing conclusion.

Then there is the “what the hell was that?’ ending. This is probably the most popular ambiguous ending in recent days. In this scenario, we see what happens but we are left to ponder the meaning of what we have seen. The most compelling use of this I have seen comes in Jeff Nicholls’ Take Shelter (2011), in which we see right on screen a resolution to the lead character’s disturbing visions. But we are still left to wonder whether it is real or imagined, and what it means in either case.

The Coen Brothers play with our expectations at the end of movies all the time. In A Serious Man (2009), they offer something very much akin to what happens in Take Shelter. In Fargo (1996), they defy our expectation at the climax when Marge very easily captures the scary Grimsrud without a fight. In No Country for Old Men (2007), they go further. They do supply an answer to the plot question – Anton Chigurth does in fact kill Llewelyn Moss – but it all happens off screen. And I’m sure you can think of many other off-kilter endings, from the Coens and from others, but none of these really disturb me. What I find most disturbing are those stories in which the storyteller simply refuses to supply any ending at all.

The most hotly debated ending of this kind in recent memory probably comes from Christopher Nolan in Inception (2010). You can find analyses of what it all means throughout the internet. I won’t add to that discussion, in part because I wasn’t as wowed by that movie as others were. But I also don’t think that Inception uses this device as effectively as some other movies do. That has to do with genre. Inception is a mind-blowing movie. We are informed throughout that our understanding of reality will be intentionally blurred. So when Nolan cuts away on the spinning/wobbling top that holds the key to the interpretation of what we are seeing, we are certainly left without resolution. But I would argue that since the entire movie featured things of this nature, this ending is not quite as potent a device as it would be in a more traditional narrative.

Inception obliterates the rules of the known universe from the very beginning. Here then, are five movies from the last fifty years, which wait until the very end to pull the rug – or the resolution – out from under us.

The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)

The original version of this caper film ends on a literal cliffhanger. The goal is to steal the gold and it would appear at the end that the gold has been stolen. But we are left to wonder if Charlie Croker et al. will ever find a way to get the gold off the bus and save themselves at the same time. The fact that this ending was used in a comic film may have mitigated the impact. I don’t suppose anyone left the theatre saying “God is dead.” But it is still unsettling. When F. Gary Gray made an American version in 2003, he used the original film as his first act, and crafted a much more traditional three-act story in which there is clear resolution for everyone involved. Guy Ritchie would have success using a similar device in 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

This is a different style of ending. In a sense, we know what happens to two schoolgirls and their teacher at an outing to Hanging Rock in 1900. They vanish. If we are expecting more, such as an explanation of where they went or why they vanished, we will be disappointed. Theories have abounded ever since Joan Lindsay wrote her book, the source material for the film, but Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green steadfastly refuse to support any such theory. It would be as if you were to make a movie today about Malaysian Air flight 370 and not offer any indication of what may have happened. Good luck getting funding for that. Sofia Coppola would have success using a similar device in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides.

Unfaithful (Adrian Lyne, 2002)

Here’s a twist on The Italian Job back-story. The original French version, Claude Chabrol’s La Femme infidel (1968), actually had a traditional ending in which the murderous husband is caught by the police. Chabrol does not actually show the arrest, but the implication is pretty clear. Lyne, however, has Edward and Connie Sumner sitting in their car debating what to do in the wake of Edward’s crime. In a camera move that recalls Chabrol, Lyne pulls back to reveal that their conversation is taking place just outside a police station. A stoplight leading across a bridge and out of town goes from red to green and back again as the two characters, and the audience, wonder what will come next.

Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

It may have quirky characters and offbeat details, but Payne’s sad rom-com is a very traditional boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl setup. Except Payne leaves out the final piece. If you see this in character terms, the fact that Maya has reestablished contact with Myles after rejecting him, and the fact that Myles has overcome his fears to go knock on Maya’s door, may satisfy your need for resolution. But Payne very specifically denies the reunion. We do not know what Myles – or we – will find when Maya opens that door. Not to obsess on a director, but Sofia Coppola had used a similar device a year before when she withheld an intimate conversation between two characters toward the end of Lost in Translation. Payne’s device is more jarring, though perhaps less poignant. We don’t know if the characters in Coppola’s movie will reconnect at some point, but we do know they are separating when the movie ends. In Sideways,we have no way of knowing whether the final “boy gets girl” will come to fruition.

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Those who have read my stuff before know that I am beating the drum pretty hard for Prisoners. So I’ll keep this brief. In Prisoners, the central plot question is resolved. Girls are missing. At the end, we learn what has happened to the girls. But the lack of resolution in the denouement is so perfect that it overwhelms the superficial plot line. This is a movie about how far we are willing to go when we only have half-truths to go on. When we only have whistles in the dark. Unlike the similarly themed Doubt (2008), which clubs us over the head with that theme at the end, Prisoners does what all good stories do. It dramatises the question for us. The fact that a lack of resolution is so vital to that central theme makes the narrative decision all the more effective.

If you’ve made it this far – through my equation of the storyteller with Nietzsche’s dead God, through references to both Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan in the same paragraph, through my crude allusion to a Katherine Ross orgasm – I know what you are asking. Does this drift toward unresolved endings mean anything? Does it perhaps hold the key to understanding our post-modern identity, and point a way toward more self-awareness and a brighter tomorrow?

Glad you asked. Excellent question, really. And the answer is…



Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

17 thoughts on “Unresolved Endings on Screen: The Art of the Lingering Question

  1. this is a really nice idea for a feature, but if you don’t know of it, you might want to check out probably the ultimate unresolved ending in movies – John Sayles’ LIMBO – which leaves its characters’ fate exactly as the title describes it…
    and on a separate note, I’m pretty sure that Llewelyn Moss is killed by the Mexican cartel members in NCFOM, and not by Anton Chigurh.

    • Excellent call on Limbo, Leigh. You’ve got me wondering why I forgot it. My only thought is that since Sayles subverts our expectations of the narrative throughout the movie, rather than just at the end, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. But it still is a pretty clear example of what I’m trying to talk about. I should probably watch No Country again. I remember the Mexicans driving away, but I also remember Anton being there, though I guess that was later and was about the money. Since they chose not to show the murder, I suppose it’s open to debate, but you’re probably right. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. I love “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, but I am very careful who I share it with. Some people get very angry with the ending, or lack of one. I’d also like to add “Diabolique” to the list–by the end I was entirely unsure who had been playing whom.

    A lot of people hated the ending of my first novel, Catskinner’s Book, because I didn’t wrap up everything in a neat package.

    • Thanks Misha. I posted this response to the wrong article the other day. I suppose that the way movies and novels work on an audience differs, but in one sense, when we sit down to engage in a narrative in any form, we have some similar expectations. I think we evolved a taste for stories because they offer us a way to control our largely uncontrollable lives. When the storyteller doesn’t provide closure, it can be really disconcerting. But I guess it’s like any artistic endeavor: if you do it well, it works. And they’ll always be at least one snob who says “I liked (insert obscure, usually French, artist’s name here) better.”

  3. Ha! I see what you did at the end there. You’ve got me really curious about “Prisoners,” especially since I was quite a fan of “Take Shelter.” I’m having trouble thinking of films with ambiguous endings that I actually liked, but I did appreciate the ending of the book “Norwegian Wood.”

  4. I love the tension and questions that come with an unresolved ending, while realising that it makes others very uncomfortable. My wife flat-out refuses to acknowledge the ambiguity in the ending of Nolan’s last Batman film, which for me is one of the absolute highlights of Nolan’s work. Is Wayne really alive, or is this just an old man deluding himself into seeing the exact vision he always wanted to see? It’s something they could only get away with in a superhero film because so many people could take comfort in not seeing that ambiguity.

    • I suspect you’re right, Andrew, about fantasy films having their own set of rules. It’s far easier to accept that Bruce Wayne figured a way out of an impossible situation because of the way reality has been manipulated throughout the series. I’m struck by how much a single image can change our perception at the end of a story. I remember how much I wanted Terry Gilliam to leave us looking at Sam’s dream world at the end of Brazil. I would have still known he was strapped in a chair somewhere, having lost his mind, but seeing his imagined world as a final image would have changed my entire perception of that ending. Maybe I’m a sucker for happy endings.

  5. An interesting read as always Jon. Remember the schoolgirls in straw hats wandering out into the light near the end of ‘Close Encounters’? I am sure that was one solution to ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’…
    Unlike Bruce, I like mysterious and unhappy endings. Life rarely has a happy ending, after all.
    Regards as always, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Though very few of us are privy to the details, we all know how our own life stories will end. I suppose that’s why we are so drawn to the endings of movies, happy or sad.

  6. Hee, hee! Great ending to your article, Jon … or was it? This is an interesting subject, almost a conceptualist “what if?” question being posed about endings that don’t really provide a resolution. One of the most disturbing endings I can recall is the one to Time Bandits, in which the boy’s parents explode after touching a piece of “evil,” and the child is left alone. The viewer is left to speculate about the kid’s fate, and though it’s a fantasy, the movie doesn’t provide substantial links.

    You make a good point about The Graduate, too, being relatively ambiguous, though I wonder if there are more films with resolutions that are ripe for speculation as well–such as Kind Hearts and Coronets: did he or didn’t he get the chance to retrieve his memoirs? I supposed many great films can be open to this kind of musing; movies done well always provide the opportunity for interpretation.

    • Thanks, Simon. I have no problem arguing or contemplating the meaning of ambiguous endings. If done well, that can be lots of fun. Movies that refuse to provide any ending really seem to bother me, though not necessarily in a bad way. Dawn had referenced the ending of The Sopranos in her article. That really angered people because they felt closure was part of the contract.

  7. Great article, Jon. Immediately made me think of ‘The Pledge’ – a personal favourite.

    People might be interested to know that both the novel and film of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ generated quite a bit of ‘Blair Witch’ like controversy at the time locally. There was much debate over whether or not the events depicted actually occurred. While the author refused to engage with the question, there are no historical records to support the claim that this is a true story. Of course, none of this stops large numbers of tourists from visiting the scene of the crime to this day 🙂

    Either way, it’s a beautiful part of the world when you get there!

    • Thanks James. As I understand it, it’s virtually certain that Joan Lindsay invented the story, perhaps very loosely based on one or more old myths. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Still a very eerie, evocative movie.

Leave a Reply