NOTE: This topic may bring up SPOILERS, especially regarding movie endings. Discuss at your own discretion.
You know, something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is a rise in ambiguous and/or anti-climatic movie endings. You see it a lot in recent independent and arthouse movies (a real recent one is Solitary Man). And I’ve already seen it in a couple of other films this year. I’ve seen it enough times to almost expect at the end.
And, I have to say, it’s rather annoying! It’s almost like No Country For Old Men came along, did their anti-climatic ending, and now it’s popping up quite a bit. Now, I’m not really against ambiguity, as long as the main story has been pretty much resolved. But, what I notice now is filmmakers do it and it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like they had the full ending, and cut to minutes off of it. It’s being ambiguous for the sake of being ambiguous.
I want to know if anybody else feels this way or otherwise.
This has been a trend that has been growing for a very long time.
Sometimes an open ended ending is proper, but most of the time its just a failure in regards to storytelling.
I’ll say this about that, endings are not arbitrary.
Imo, there is a lot of confusion about endings because the film is not being viewed in its totality.
The ending in NCFOM is not ambiguous and/or anti-climatic if you know what the film is about.
Most narratives have climaxed before the last scene – perhaps this is why the last scene in NCFOM is confusing – the climax has already occurred.
I think also when it comes to No Country, a lot of people (at least, who hadn’t read the book) were waiting for the villian to get his and he really doesn’t.
Oh, I thought it was the dream that was ambiguous – but there you have it – he didn’t get the villain.
In the film they tell you he isn’t the typical villain – Carson Wells says to Llewelyn Moss about Anton Chigurh: “He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”
Perfect ending, and unambiguous as RWPIII said. The end of the novel is the same, by the way.
Ed Tom (in voiceover):
“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job — not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.
You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, OK, I’ll be part of this world"
- “He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that. He’s not like you. He’s not even like me.”-
dialogue between Chigurh and the gas station attendent:
“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?… Call it.”
“what it is we’re callin for here . . . [I] didn’t put nothin up.”
“Yes you did. You’ve been puttin it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin? …1958. It’s been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails and you have to say. Call it.”
The two dreams:
“Both had my father. It’s peculiar. I’m older now’n he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he’s the younger man. Anyway, first one I don’t remember so well but it was about money and I think I lost it.
The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night, goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin, hard ridin. Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin goin by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down, and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.
And then I woke up."
And to step outside of the film for a sec, the title of the film is a reference to Yeats “Sailing to Byzantium,” which begins
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
. . . and later. . .
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
not that ^
Early in the film:
“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five. Hard to believe. Grandfather was a lawman. Father too. Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was. Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe…. You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times . . .”
…..Coen films have been revealed to be as didactic as they get.
Austin give us something to work with on the level of The Double Life of Véronique
Please no tornadoes…
How did we get from “ambiguity” to didacticism so quickly again?
I really liked that tornadoes “in the area” addition to the Serious Man thread – nothing like throwing gasoline on a fire …
That’s what I’m here for.
Well, all I can say is I LOVED the ending to No Country for Old Men. Ambiguous? Sure I suppose it is. Life’s ambiguous, it’s a fact, so why not reflect that in art?
But I do see how this kind of ending can become annoying if overused. Hollywood cinema is finally getting around to it and starting to exploit it, but it’s not an ending that is unfamiliar to those who read popular literature. I remember when I was in my early teens and I read The Stranger for the first time (not exactly an ambiguous ending necessarily, but certainly an ambiguous tone to the whole thing) and I was blown away by the lack of judgment from the narrator! I was so used to being told (or implied) that “this” is acceptable and “that” is not. Of course, The Stranger isn’t the first book to do this either, but it was my first encounter with such a thing – well, that and the unreliable narrator which I am eternally smitten with.
“As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
If that doesn’t move ya, nothing will.
Ambiguity can be great if it’s used right, but I think certain Austrian directors use it as a gimmick to make their films seem more arty. I would say, if you’re going to be ambiguous, make sure it’s artistically justified. Don’t be ambiguous for ambiguity’s sake.
The ending for No Country For Old Men left some doubt as to the outcome but it was strongly hinted at what happened. It struck me as the villain being confronted with the arbitrariness of his behavior. We’re shown he’s not invincible but subject to the same random chance that everybody else is, and in a small way he starts to take responsibility for his own actions.
The randomness of fate is also a big theme that played into the ending of A Serious Man. I wouldn’t call that ambiguous so much as an attempt to re-frame the rest of the plot. Being open ended to interpretation is a little different than being ambiguous.
-Oh, I thought it was the dream that was ambiguous – but there you have it – he didn’t get the villain-
I think it’s both those things, as well as the fact that, after the intro voiceover I quoted above, much of the film seems to set an expectation that it’s going to be about Llewelyn (the “sensual music” of trying to take the money and run), but it’s actually about Ed Tom (and the “dying animal” and eternity blah blah blah).
Well, sometimes ambiguity works, and is kind of fun. The ending of Angels With Dirty Faces for example. You can discuss and debate: did Rocky turn yellow at the end of his life or did he put on an act for the sake of the boys. It’s open to interpretation, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter. The end result is the same.
Or you take the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. What’s in there? Does it matter? Probably not. And it’s more fun to guess anyway.
But, the ending should be clear, and at least wrapped up. The ending of Sideways is kind of ambiguous, but at least the main story is over. We’re just opening up possibilities for another story. And that we could all come up with a “what happened next.”
But, then you see something like Solitary Man or Greenberg. That’s pointless ambiguity. That’s not wrapping up the story. It’s not, as Jiren said, artistically justified.
Those are the two big films that inspired me write this by the way.
I wrote about this a while back. Some blogs had complained about ambiguity, and I responded.
“Or maybe we’re thinking about this backwards. Maybe it’s not that they’re inflicting ambiguity upon us (as Jette seems to assume) — maybe we need to look at resolution itself, that polished up, nicely-packaged cereal box prize that comes with every popcorn flick, every childrens’ movie, and everything involving Ron Howard. You know what that nugget is, and why studios are so intent on writing it into their pictures? It’s because it’s an addiction, and they need to keep feeding it to us so we keep the taste in our mouths.”
If you’re interested in the rest, it ended up here: Benefit of the Doubt: An Ambiguity Intervention
A little bizarre you compare our desire for stories with resolution to a drug addiction. A little extreme thinking, but it makes enough sense for me to go with.
But, you say in there how the real world isn’t always clear-cut and fair. I quote: "So most movies are filled with artifically-produced nuggets of meaning, like “good” and “evil,” “karma,” “justice,” and “retribution.” It’s not that these things don’t exist in real life… it’s just that they’re not very plentiful, and it sure feels good to get an extra hit once every week or two."
You’re right. Absolute karma is an outstanding event. But, all stories are outstanding events. The odds of you getting hacked to death in some far-out motel are pretty slim. Dressing in drag to avoid the Mob is an absurd solution to a problem. If you told every cinemtatic story in a absolutely truthful-to-life manner, we would not go to the movies.
(To be continued…)
All right, you also point out that film can have a few unanswered questions. That’s true to a degree. Every film has a central point (or a central question, if you will). You can leave a few thing up in the air that are relatively unimportant, but the central question has to be resolved. You can leave a few window open, but the door has to be shut.
I’ll go back to Solitary Man. The main question of that movie is, “Can this man redeem himself after doing so much wrong?” At the end, that quetion is delibertly not answered, and, as far as I can see, it’s the point of the picture. Yes or no. Either one works, and is better than nothing at all.
You can’t expect anything from a Coen ending.
Ambiguous endings are fine for me, way better than unexpected twists that were so used on the 90’s and early 00’s. Ambiguous endings have existed for so long, why not using them?
The Eleven Worst Ambiguous Movie Endings
“The difference between a good ending and a bad ending is how good the ending is.”
@ Santropez: I’ll agree with you that “twist endings” have become very much a cliche. I expect one with every thriller I see these days.
@ Matt Parks: You know, I have read this article before, and I thought either this guy thinks he’s funny or he’s a freaking idiot (the Bonnie and Clyde reference seems to indicate the former).
Yeah, Austin, he’s being ironic, that’s why the notation that the post is in “Sarcastica Regular” font at the bottom.
I see it now. Thanks.
Back to your original point, though, Austin. There certainly are open endings that are done poorly (I can’t think of a specific example off-hand, but I remember the sensation of that response), I just don’t think that No Country for Old Men is one of those films (neither are Jim Emerson’s “worst”). Let me ask you this re: my point above—when you were first watching the film, who did you think it was about? who’s story did it seem to be telling?
We’ll let Austin answer Matt,….but I think Carson Wells was in the film primarily to deliver that one line about Chigurh. When I say didactic, I mean Coen’s tell the viewer everything – very little ambiguity in a Coen film.
I think I agree with that, Robert. Though in this case much of the didacticism comes from their source (this, by the way, is part of what I think makes it one of McCarthy’s lesser works).