Warning: The following post is extremely reliant on SPOILERS for recent films. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
The year 2007 was, by all accounts, a transformational year in Hollywood cinema, a year in which films which challenged narrative and filmic languages were not only critically acclaimed but even commercially successful. The most obvious film technique whose popularity can be traced to that spate of movies is the ambiguous ending.
I remember sitting in the theater for No Country For Old Men and being absolutely riveted. Moments of agonizing tension met moments of sincere, even beautiful, brutality. When Tommy Lee Jones’ character delivered his monologue about his dream, wherein he chased his father on horseback, and the film suddenly cut to black, there was a stunned silence in the theater.
Then, from the back, a lone, clear voice: “That’s it?” And the whole audience laughed.
Now, I found the ending incredibly moving, but I didn’t really hold it against that impatient viewer in the back of the theater, because I understood the frustration. There isn’t a clear comeuppance for the film’s villain, no redemption for Jones’ cop, the film’s main character was killed; for those hoping for some sort of easily understood moral or conclusion, it was a bit of a let down.
But where No Country For Old Men succeeded through this ending was narrow itself to telling one story, and when that story had delivered its message, it had no reason to carry on. It took the audience far enough to presume what might happen next within the context of events, and let the film’s rather complex meaning hang open for people to contemplate.
It sounds pretentious, and maybe it is. But that quick ending gave No Country For Old Men its status in the pantheon of classic films.
Even that year’s other major art-house classic, There Will Be Blood, despite its length, ended with a quick cut to black, with Daniel Plainview lying in the pool of his rival’s blood and saying “I’m finished.”
Like No Country, There Will Be Blood told what seemed a very long story about a man’s rise and fall, but narrowed itself into a clear focus on one particular narrative: Plainview’s battle with, and manipulation of, religion for his own gains, which ultimately left him wealthy but spiritually wicked. The audience didn’t need to see Plainview hauled off in handcuffs for murder, or see him wrinkle and age with his money withering away until he died, because that wasn’t the point of the film, and wouldn’t aid its message. The audience could guess at the plot, but what was important was the effect.
Since then, ambiguous endings have been all the rage. But to what extent are ambiguous endings important to a film’s story, and to what extent are they simply a trick to seem more elevated?
Two of 2010’s best films, The Social Network and Inception, utilized the ambiguous ending to different degrees of success.
The Social Network concludes with Mark Zuckerbeg sending a friend request to the girl who dumped him. and cuts out with him refreshing the page again and again to see her response. Inception, meanwhile, famously ends with the spinning of a top, a sign which, in the film, is used to tell whether someone is dreaming or awake, in this case hinting that the last minutes might have been a dream.
Each ending is impactful, but for different reasons. The Social Network ends with a string of hope; had they showed what I at the time argued as a stronger ending, which is that the girl denied his request, it would be an indictment of the personality of the main character. Leaving while Zuckerberg is seeking some redemption, endlessly refreshing his hopes with each click, leaves a possibility for growth, for change, for happiness, that alters the message of the film to imply a future of possible positivity.
Inception’s ending hits hard because it’s so shocking; the idea that everything we’d witnessed was a dream is both heartbreaking (because DiCaprio’s character really can’t go home after all) and a bit frustrating (because if all that was a dream, that was two-and-a-half hours about nothing).
But Inception‘s trick ending was just that: A trick. Director Christopher Nolan explicitly stated that the film originally ended with the top falling down and leaving the happy ending intact, but that he cut a few seconds before to leave the ending more haunting. Does it have a clear narrative purpose, or is it just trying to be cool?
Let’s consider some films that came out in 2011.
Martha Marcy May Marlene was hyped in indie film blogs before its release because of its purportedly complex blend of reality and mental instability that made it a challenging, extremely chaotic narrative. What the film turned out to be was a slow, very tense, beautifully shot head-scratcher, made all the more confusing, and even a little disappointing, because of an extremely abrupt ending.
The film ends with Martha taking a swim in a lake before seeing a man in a white t-shirt on the opposite shore. She swims away, scared, presumably, because he might belong to the cult she’d been escaping from and have been sent to kill her. So she and her sister and her sister’s husband climb into a car, driving to a mental health facility where Martha can receive treatment. As they drive, a man in a white t-shirt runs in front of their car, then into a parked SUV behind them, which begins to follow them.
And that’s it.
There is no indication, beyond our conjecture as an audience, that the man in the white shirt was indeed sent to kill or kidnap Martha. There’s no indication that the SUV follows them to the destination, or if it runs them off the road, or if it simply turns onto another road and is revealed to be an innocent person made sinister by Martha’s imagination.
So what’s the point? I wish I could tell you.
The film is notably short on catharsis or a growing emotional connection between its lead characters until shortly before this finish, when it looks like we, as an audience, might finally get an answer to the ever-present question of “What’s going to happen to Martha?”
An answer which never comes, I’m sad to say. So what’s the difference between this and No Country‘s dream-story? It comes down to storytelling. No Country For Old Men‘s “twist” of sorts is that it seems like a story about greed and violence in Western society, but turns out to be a tale of generational fear; inevitably, the film seems to say, each generation will get more brutal than the last, even as it races to catch up to its elders before dying away. That the film’s terrifying villain is reduced to being extorted by teenagers on bicycles after he gets into a car accident exemplifies this notion. Even if the story of the chase for the serial killer and the drug money aren’t finished, the story of the older generation falling before the younger generation is.
Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s story isn’t resolved at all. Martha runs from a cult and hides with her family, who she keeps in a darkened distance before they’re brought to the point where they can’t take care of her anymore, and then…nothing. We get a vague implication of the cult’s return, but no idea whether it’s even real. And the family situation is left hanging; we know where they’retrying to go, but not whether they’ll ever get there.
Another recent film that gets mired in this failed conclusion is Carnage. Based on a French play about two sets of parents meeting after their sons got into a fight, it hilariously, and very uncomfortably, traces the failure of civility in the face of almost animal selfishness, leaving every character in a despicable state by the time that-
Oh, wait, it doesn’t get quite that far. See, for about an hour and fifteen minutes, Carnage is painfully well done, with brilliant performances from its Oscar-caliber cast (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz are the entire cast of the film) and a script that sings with twists and turns and comical outbursts. And then it cuts off. The couples haven’t even left the apartment, the argument isn’t even over, and the film just…ends.
There’s a point at which the aim for ambiguity falls short, and instead is just abrupt. The ambiguous ending has just become the latest cop-out for writers and directors unable, or unwilling, to finish their stories, a “let the audience decide” attitude that doesn’t provide the audience with enough information to even draw a conclusion, like a math problem missing a step and asking for the result.
This isn’t to say that ambiguous endings are without their place. There are plenty of films, even recent ones, which use the technique to leave a sense of continuation or an unending state of existence. But too often lately, filmmakers are leaving their viewers hanging on incomplete information and telling them to find their own way. There’s a difference between spelling out a film’s meaning, which no one wants, and creating something which never reaches its meaning.
I mean, without at least an implication of where your story is going,