One of the most frustrating things about movies — good movies, with quality actors playing interesting characters — is that they too often resort to clichéd endings to wrap up their stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to see that 2011 brought us a spate of movies with quizzical, ambiguous endings.
“So what’s wrong with wrapping everything up neatly?” you may ask. Nothing, if it works. But too often it doesn’t. We spend two hours or so involved in the inner lives of interesting characters that seem to have free will, then — boom! — they do exactly what screenwriting convention expects of them all along. They’ve succumbed to formula.
As an example, take The Ides of March, the George Clooney-directed political drama (partially filmed in Cincinnati) from this fall. It was an interesting take on the complex personalities — and complex motivations — involved in guiding a presidential-nomination campaign. You could see why it attracted first-rate screen talent like Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Clooney, himself (as a governor seeking the presidency).
But the screenplay — by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon’s play — couldn’t resolve itself naturalistically within the wonky political world in which it was set. So it resorted to melodrama and soap opera. A volunteer (Evan Rachel Wood) commits suicide following a brief affair with Clooney’s governor, setting up a contrived confrontation between him and Gosling as the deputy campaign manager who had also had a fling with her. This plot denouement could have been used for a movie set in the worlds of sports, finance or academia. It was generically cathartic and foreboding, and the characters seemed led to it by the dictates of commercial moviemaking.
But a spate of more ambitious movies — often, but not always, Sundance-feted indies — moved toward ambiguous endings this year.
Hollywood hates such endings — it historically has feared leaving audiences to think for themselves without injections of received wisdom and doses of boldfaced “Lessons Learned.” There have been important exceptions, like Humphrey Bogart at the end of the film noir classic In a Lonely Place and the Watergate-era movies (Hollywood’s last golden era) that favored sobering, open-ended final acts to suit the downbeat times.
So maybe this decade of the Great Recession is shaping up to be another 1970s, then? Or maybe movies are being influenced by the way the best television series of recent years, The Sopranos, refused resolution at the end? (The Sopranos, by the way, may itself have been influenced by the jarringly inconclusive conclusion of a movie, John Sayles’ Limbo from 1999.)
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, by any measure one of 2011’s best movies, tells of a post-war Texas family experiencing joys and sorrow as the sons grow. But it does so by poetic and frequently experimental means that toy with traditional narrative, including a brief appearance by dinosaurs. But even by those standards, the ending is mystifying — and, perhaps, mystical. Sean Penn, who plays an anguished grown son, arrives at a beach where people from his past also wander. Is it the afterlife? Suicide? A reconciliation with estranged and/or deceased family members? A metaphor for what’s been lost? It prompts the kind of thoughtful discussion among audience members that the film deserves, without offering a tidy message.
Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ Ohio-shot movie starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, is about a small-town, blue-collar family man whose apocalyptic nightmares of a terrible storm lead him to build an extravagant underground shelter. Although it’s cagey about it, the movie slowly builds a compelling case that he’s mentally ill. But the final scene ends with his wife and daughter both seeing the monster storm arriving. So is it illness or reality? A sign of our approaching end or a metaphor for the storm roiling inside his mind?
An especially jarring ambiguous ending comes from Sean Dirkin’s Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, which showcased Elizabeth Olsen as a young refugee from a sinister cult. As she’s struggling to adapt to her older sister’s upper-middle-class life, the film seems to be a psychological drama about recovery, with unsettling sexual overtones. But the end turns into something else — a cult member tracks the family to their retreat and then seems to initiate a confrontation. Movie over.
Because The Descendants is so new, I don’t want to give away much about the ending (even with a spoiler alert on this story). But here’s an example of how a subtle, humanistic writer/director like Alexander Payne can manage to tie up a crucial plot point conclusively, yet still leave the ending ambiguous. That’s because he gives its characters — George Clooney’s Hawaiian everyman of a father and his two daughters — space to work out their churning, tumultuous inner lives.
Ambiguous endings are not inherently superior. One could argue Martha Marcy’s is a cop-out. But if done well, they leave us thinking about and discussing what we think awaits its characters in the future. And that’s a good thing. ©