Most filmmakers will tell you that endings are important. But for some of this year’s hot indie writer-directors, the best form of cinematic closure is less a perfect cherry on a well-composed sundae than a suggestion of a course yet to come.
Ambiguous endings — and there will be spoilers as we discuss them — are seemingly everywhere these days. “Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter” and “Shame” have sparked plenty of debate this awards season about what happens to their characters after the credits roll.
For “Like Crazy” director Drake Doremus, unanimity of thought about his movie’s ending — which imposes a big question mark on the fate of the story’s transcontinental lovers — would have spelled disaster for him.
“I took a vote,” says Doremus, referring to his interaction with the Sundance audience that first saw “Like Crazy” back in January. “I said, ‘How many people think they stay together?’ And half the audience raised their hands. I said, ‘How many people think they’re done, and that their relationship has eroded?’ The other half raised their hands. Then I screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘Everybody is correct!’ I really do feel like the audience is the final writer of the film.”
Doremus believes audiences are much smarter than filmmakers give them credit for. “Audiences are really programmed to swallow digestible endings,” he says. “It’s too bad because I think some of the greatest movies ever made have ambiguous endings, like ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Lost in Translation.'”
The Academy has been known to occasionally nod in the direction of an elliptical ending, if not give the film it comes from a prize outright. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” caused heads to scratch, but scored big nominations. “Mulholland Drive” provoked furious discussions amongst cinephiles, but eventually landed David Lynch a nomination. And the notoriously vague close to 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” didn’t prevent the Coen brothers’ film from snagging the picture Oscar.
It can certainly be a fine line between activating an audience’s imagination with an ambiguous ending, and infuriating their sensibilities with willful uncertainty. Helmer Jeff Nichols, whose “Take Shelter” has ignited controversy with a capper that suggests Michael Shannon’s tormented character isn’t alone in seeing apocalyptic visions, says of endings, “They’re built out of the DNA of the entire story. Everything you’ve enjoyed about the film, the ending somehow comments on.”
Nichols felt that the worst possible conclusion for “Take Shelter” would have been a simple acknowledgement that Shannon’s character was “crazy.” The director wanted something that indicated a cohesive family unit, a shared experience. “That moment where Jessica Chastain looks at Michael Shannon, that for me is the resolution, where the answer to the ending lies,” says Nichols. “If you don’t see it, if it’s not there, then it’s not for you.”
An ambiguous ending, says Nichols — like any ending — has to feel right.
“There’s a big difference between ambiguity and muddledness. If you just remove information and that makes it confusing or unclear, then you’ve done a disservice to your audience. Great endings are a culmination of a series of thoughts, ideas, moments and feelings.”
“Martha” writer-director Sean Durkin is well aware that audiences are left with a big plot-related issue unanswered as his movie ends on Elizabeth Olsen’s face in the backseat of a car. At Sundance, he recalls an audible gasp from the audience.
“I guess it’s ambiguous whether or not certain things are happening, and it definitely raises a few questions,” says Durkin, “but the goal was to raise those questions because they’re Martha’s questions.”
Durkin explicitly opted against a finale in which Olsen’s cult escapee divulged everything to her sister, because for him it didn’t reflect the research he had done into the mindsets of cult victims, whose confusion about what they went through can last years.
“The goal became to create that state and be true to those first couple of weeks,” Durkin says. “Where the film ended felt like the natural place, an acknowledgement of moving forward.”
The idea is to give moviegoers a richly conceived world, explains Durkin, “where you know it’s existed before, and you know it’s going to continue to exist. As opposed to something that starts at a beginning, is all created, and wraps up in a neat little bow and you never think about it again.”
When it comes to his “Martha” finish, Durkin takes the Oscar Wilde view of notoriety: “People love the ending. People don’t love the ending. But everyone talks about it.”
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