Thursday, March 27, 2014

Riske Business: Adam Picks the Ending

Every movie has an ending. Sometimes you just have to choose for yourself.

Are ambiguous endings used as cinematic poetry because a literal representation would rob an outcome or theme of its power? Or is it a matter of a director or writer copping out and refusing to pick a direction for the movie to conclude? Because I love Mad Libs and just saw Enemy (which has the most WTF ending of 2014 to-date)*, I’m using this week’s column to give you my answer to what happened in 20 movies with endings that are open to interpretation. Spoilers, obviously.

American Psycho – Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is not a killer. He’s basically weird, enormously stressed out and has an extremely active imagination.
Black Swan – I’m not convinced Nina (Natalie Portman) is literally dead or about to die. She is a completely unreliable narrator; her point of view is full of fantasy elements and childlike signifiers (such as stuffed animals) and she has a demure, tentative speaking voice closer to a girl than a woman. Part of the movie has to do with a delayed puberty (masturbation, bleeding etc.), so I think at the end of the movie that little girl Nina is dead and she’s now an adult woman. I also think Nina might actually be much younger than we think she is.

Blade Runner – Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant. The only person who doesn’t think so is Harrison Ford, who may actually also be a replicant.
Cast Away – Chuck (Tom Hanks) drives off into the great unknown only to turn around 10 minutes later, cut the mopey bullshit and rock Bettina’s world. Because he’s Tom F**king Hanks.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
– Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) is grief stricken about being partly responsible for the death of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), so she kills herself. Because of the fantasy elements of the movie, it’s reasonable to think that Jen and Lo (Chen Cheng) will reunite someday in the afterlife or reincarnation etc.

Ghost World – Enid (Thora Birch) gets the hell away from everyone after realizing that she’s toxic. She’s still feeling sorry for herself so it’s unclear if she will learn from her experiences. #NoCountryForSnarkyGirls
The Graduate – Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katherine Ross) realize they may have fucked up but stick together because what choice do they have? Both will spend the 1970s avoiding their parents before eventually eating crow and reconciling with them.

Inception – Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is still dreaming but doesn’t care. He is reunited with his children, which is what he wanted all along.

Labyrinth – Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) has a complete break from reality and is insane. She grows up to become the hot crazy girl people talk about meeting one time on JDate.

Lost in Translation – Bob (Bill Murray) tells Charlotte (Scarlett Johansen) she should trust that everything will work alright in the end. Cut to five years later: they become Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) are not in immediate danger from the cult. It’s in Marcy’s mind. I think it’s another case of an unreliable narrator. If not, why would Watts (Brady Corbett) leave Marcy at the diner? Or why wouldn’t the guy watching her swim go after her immediately?
Mulholland Dr. – The entire movie is the story of a failed Hollywood ingĂ©nue named Diane (Naomi Watts). As she's dying, Diane hallucinates that she didn’t actually take out a contract on starlet Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) after Diane was dropped by Camilla romantically for Adam (Justin Theroux) and made out to be a joke. Too painful to acknowledge, Diane imagines that she’s Betty (also Watts) and that she’s going to win Rita (also Harring) while Adam is left twisting in the wind. The weird tangential elements -- including the scariest bum in film history -- are dream elements that don’t make sense, as many elements of dreams are subconscious representations that don’t make literal sense. The bum might represent what Diane has become or how she feels about herself and the guy having a heart attack after seeing the bum might be her realization of how twisted and ugly everything has gotten.

Prisoners – Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) figures out that Dover (Hugh Jackman) is buried underneath the car. Dover is freed and goes to jail for a while. Suggesting that Det. Loki leaves the crime scene (and Dover dies down there) doesn’t make sense for the Det. Loki character, who has been shown to be determined and smart throughout the rest of the movie.
The Shining – Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is not a ghost during the majority of the movie. The Overlook hotel is a vacuum for all that is bad, which leaves bad people susceptible to its powers. The photograph at the end means that the hotel has consumed the now frozen Jack; he's just one more notch in its belt. It does not mean anything about moon landings or minotaurs. Did I ever mention fuck Room 237?

Shutter Island – Teddy/Andrew (Leonardo DiCaprio) is faking his delusion in an effort to get lobotomized because he wants to rid himself of the guilt of killing his wife (Michelle Williams) and not being there to save his children. Not sure how ambiguous this one actually is. Doesn’t everyone see it this way?
Take Shelter – Curtis (Michael Shannon) is mentally ill. His doomsday premonition at the end is not actually happening but rather a way of pointing out that his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter both are “in it” with him and he’s not alone in facing his troubles.

Taxi Driver – The entire movie is from Travis Bickle’s (Robert DeNiro) point of view so I don’t think his fate has been decided yet. The cab ride he gives to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) at the end is a projection of what Travis wants to happen – basically, that he’s validated and admired for killing Sport (Harvey Keitel) and saving Iris (Jodie Foster) by the people he wanted to impress. The weird sound effect and camera work after he drops Betsy off indicates that no matter what happens, Travis did not find closure or normalcy from the shootout. Even if he survives and is not arrested, he’ll still be crazy and dangerous.

The Thing
(1982) – Both MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) are both still human but will freeze to death to ensure ‘the thing’ doesn’t survive.

Total Recall
(1990) – Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is dreaming.

The Wrestler –Randy (Mickey Rourke) is going to die of a heart attack during or shortly after completing his jump off the ropes. He knows it and he’s content with it.

Leave a comment with whether you agree or disagree. Do you think filmmakers intentionally set out to make their movie ambiguous or is it something they decide during the process of crafting the story?
*Enemy is directed by Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners) and stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a college professor who seeks out his exact doppelganger (a small-time actor) after seeing him in a movie. It’s an interesting and creepy movie that feels similar to early David Cronenberg – mainly because it’s good, scaled back and takes place in Canada. You should seek it out. It’s in limited release right now.


  1. Interesting post! I imagine I feel like most - I agree with some and disagree with others. I have a few specific comments:

    Blade Runner - Ultimately, I think the question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant is not as important as the film's ultimate conclusion - which is that it does not really matter. What makes a person "human" is his actions, not his origins. For much of the movie Deckard acts more like a machine, doing the bidding of his masters. I know it's been asked why Roy Batty saves Deckard at the end. I don't think it's because Roy recognizes that Deckard is a replicant - his final speech begins with "I've seen things you people [meaning humans] wouldn't believe." My own belief is that when Roy sees Deckard hanging off the roof and struggling for life, he realizes that Deckard is just as much a slave as Roy. Thus his comment, "Terrible thing to live in fear - that's what it means to be a slave."

    Inception - Like JB said in the podcast about this movie - if you think Dom is awake at the end, you're an optimist. I guess I'm an optimist. Who knew?

    Shutter Island - I agree with this one completely.

    Mulholland Drive - I also agree with this interpretation. The key for Naomi's character comes in the wonderful Club Silencio sequence, which is her subconscious cluing her in that she's been fooling herself. That's why she starts shaking - reality is closing in, and she's not yet ready to accept it. I see Lost Highway as a rough draft of what Mulholland Drive turned out to be - an embodiment of the awful consequences of killing another human being, and the lengths we humans will go to in order to deny the reality of it.

    1. With you 100% on Blade Runner. And I find it impossible to start talking about Mulholland Dr. without immediately wanting to go watch Mulholland Dr.

    2. I immediately want to watch Blade Runner. That movie's awesome.

    3. Steve,
      You assessment of Blade Runner is well said.
      I would also add that I have read the conclusion as that both Roy and Deckard discover what life means, that is the sanctity or gift that life is. Artificial vs real life, or is there only just life. Replicant vs actual human. or only just a person etc.

  2. I pretty much agree with the assessments here of the ones I've seen (all but Shutter Island, and I don't mind that one being spoiled for me. I'll get around to seeing it eventually). Of all these endings, I think Prisoners is perhaps the most obvious. Though I named it as my favorite movie of last year, the ending isn't the greatest in terms of being ambiguous. it's pretty clear that Loki isn't the type of character who would give up that easily, especially if he hears an audible clue.

  3. Mary Harron has gone on record saying she screwed up in her direction of the final scenes in "American Psycho" saying she wanted to portray Bateman as a man who was losing his slip on reality, not that it was all in his head. The way the last 15 minutes turned out just confused everyone unfortunately.

    It's hard to bring Mulholland Drive into this because the film began as a 90 minute pilot for ABC, most of which is still retained in the final film. That means Lynch created an alternate ending to tie up the storyline, in his mind--but the preceding scenes before the women become lovers and go to the club have an entirely different meaning since they were merely the basis for episode 2.

    It's funny you brought this topic up. The bane of my current existence, AMC Movie Talk, talked about this very thing the other day and even went so far to say that Inception has a clear cut ending:

    1. OMG. That AMC Movie Talk was super annoying. Their comments on Life of Pi were absurd. The bane of my existence is EW Radio.

    2. You have to stop posting those links only because then I feel compelled to watch them and then the rest of my day is ruined. I really don't understand how that show is a thing.

      They say the ending to Prisoners is ambiguous too. I'm with @John Murphy -- there is nothing ambiguous about the ending. It just ends a few minutes earlier than people might have liked. But anyone who doesn't know exactly what comes after the cut to black does not know how to watch a movie.

    3. I watched a full episode of AMC Movie Talk (the most recent one). It reminds me of when we used to do a news broadcast in high school. The lead girl looked like Corey Feldman impersonating Michael Jackson in Dream a Little Dream.

      AMC Movie Talk makes me not want to watch movies and find a new hobby. How can I love movies and these people also love movies? Is this what I look like to other people? Am I a man or a replicant? Damn you, AMC Movie Talk!

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I think you are much smarter in your discussions about movies, Adam. Fear not. Your enjoyment of something should not be based on someone elses enjoyment of something, especially when those other people don't seem to know what they are talking about, as seems to be the case here. :)

    6. Thanks bud. You always have interesting and insightful comments as well.

    7. And yesterday's episode wasn't even the real cast. Most of them are out of town in Vegas for the theater convention going on. The actual group on the show WILL make you pull your hair out when they celebrate all things Michael Bay and any film that could potentially bring their theater more money... not to mention the legion of fans they have willing to destroy you if you disagree.

      There was one girl that used to be on their show until they reviewed Man of Steel. She didn't LOVE it so she was fired. Now if they post a review video, they all must love it because (in their words) it's a conflict of interest for them to trash a movie that they hope to make money on.

  4. That's exactly how I've always felt about The Shining, I don't know why everyone thinks he was a ghost the entire movie. The picture at the end is just a representation of the "world" that Jack Torrance was pulled into and has become a part of.

    In Cast Away, Tom Hanks is just trying to figure out where the closest Academy is so he can buy another Wilson volleyball. But he knows it will never be the same.

  5. No, no! You've got it all wrong about American Psycho. He wasn't imagining things like the ending suggests, but really was killing people. Haven't you seen American Psycho II: All American Girl? It confirms Bateman really was a brutal serial killer, and that in the end he was taken out by a 11 year old Mila Kunis. There's going to be hell to pay if All American Girl isn't considered as a legitimate sequel.

    Seriously though, this has to be the worst line reading in a real movie I've ever seen. I suppose that goes hand in hand with possibly the worst sequel ever made.

  6. My interpretation of the ending of THE DESCENT. Spoilers for THE DESCENT...

    Either Sarah is able to make peace with the loss of her daughter before being killed by the crawlers. Or......

    There were never any real crawlers and Sarah had a psychotic break and killed everybody in the group. The attack by the crawlers only exists in her mind, existing as the explanation of the group's death. Once she has revenge against the woman she thinks ruined her life, she has a glance of her dead daughter, she has a moment of clarity until her psychotic break returns(hence, the sound of the crawlers approaching).

    1. The ending of The Descent was patterned after Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

    2. Me like this ending interpretation. Like most good endings though (see "Enemy's" when you get a chance and get ready to have your head blown) it's wide open for interpretation, and it works even if there were really crawlers in the cave (which "The Descent 2" kind-of tips the franchise's hand as being real).

  7. I agree with you on Blade Runner. Some people think Deckard being a replicant undermines his rediscovery of his human value throughout the film, but I think it amplifies it. He learns that even the "lifeless" can live, and is all the better for it. He dies in a few years.

    In an alternate reality Deckard and Rachael go to the Overlook hotel and are never heard from again

    1. I would go see that The Shining - Blade Runner mash up.