In 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.
There 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…