In a new interview with this season’s Directors Guild of America Quarterly, David Chase – creator of HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) – gives further insight into the cut to black at the end of the series finale that had fans up in arms. Some interpret it as a copout for the writers, who couldn’t come up with a better ending. Others, such as myself, agree with Chase, who has defended the ending time and again as an almost performance artistic comment on the violent impulses inherent of human nature, a theme in keeping with the show as a whole.
In other words: why would you, as an audience member, root for Tony Soprano (the heartbreakingly late James Gandolfini) for eight years, through all the ass-kicking and all the murder, and then wish the same upon him as punishment, even though you didn’t mind going along for the ride? The Sopranos isn’t the first narrative to end ambiguously, nor will its nontraditional conclusion be the last to incite controversy. As a case study of sorts, I will analyze controversial endings that I find to be misunderstood (Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014)), a “safe” ending which ruins all that comes before it (Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer and its whopping two filmic adaptations), and an attempt at a “creative” ending that ultimately disappoints (Brad Anderson’s The Call (2013)); obviously, a “spoiler alert” is in order, as we cross the minefield of bringing a story to a satisfying resolution.
No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers’ neo-Western masterwork is so much more than the cat-and-mouse game at its heart between antagonist Javier Bardem and protagonist Josh Brolin: it garnered its filmmaking team well-deserved Academy Awards for Best Picture, Directing, Writing, and Acting in a Supporting Role for Bardem’s tour de force. For the most part, it has universal appeal for entertainment-seekers and cinematic scholars alike: an exciting plot, a nihilistic tone, an innovative style of minimalistic sound editing for a genre that’s fond of using music to tell people how to react in the post-Psycho era of film scores… aaaand then there’s that “anticlimactic” ending. Brolin explains the ending better than I ever could (who would ever expect such articulateness out of Brand from The Goonies?); moviegoers who demand to see the hero gunned down onscreen instead of off-, or the villain brought to justice after letting him entertain them for two hours, are no better off than the psychopathic Anton Chigurh – they’re just better at justifying his evil with the non-logic that we need to kill people to show that murder is wrong, and that’s precisely how our culture breeds monsters like Chigurh, because we’re a species full of monsters, both internal and external.
Gone Girl deserved just as many accolades from the Oscars as No Country for Old Men, but received exactly none. Notwithstanding, I’ll argue to anyone, anywhere, that it is to David Fincher’s filmography what Psycho (1960) is to Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s: an ingenious manipulation and violation of viewer expectations that catches you off-guard and leaves even the people most accustomed to the conventions and clichés of the thriller genre not knowing what happens next; Hitchcock introduces Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as the heroine we anticipate to see us all the way to the end, then kills her off halfway through, and Fincher introduces Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) as the “Lifetime movie” bad guy we have no doubt is guilty of murdering his clearly dead wife, Amy Elliot (queen Rosamund Pike)… until we learn the truth, again halfway through, that the ultimate victim is actually the ultimate villain – nothing is safe, everything you thought you knew is wrong, you know viscerally how these fictional characters in their fictional worlds feel, and that takes some mighty artistic talent to communicate to people. However, like Anton Chigurh, Amy Elliot Dunne gets away with it in the end in what’s a darkly hilarious and brilliant take on unconditional love in the “perfect” marriage, but, alas, people who are used to being spoon-fed the same Hollywood ending, over and over, again and again – the baddie pays for their sins and the goodie lives happily ever after – felt unfulfilled, even though that very societal obsession with real-life people fitting into these made-up narratives is what allows sociopaths like Amy (who’s too pretty and smart to be anything but a glorified Barbie doll) to control everything and everyone around them so that they can be as twisted and foul as they please.
Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire romance is, if nothing else, fascinating; it takes a formerly fresh premise (a human-vampire-werewolf love triangle) and completely ruins it with a cast of utterly toothless vampires and a thoroughly uninteresting Mary Sue of a protagonist who whines herself all the way through the melodrama, even though literally the guy who’s flawless in every way desires her against all odds… but, still, when you read Twilight, you can’t put any of the books down. They’re pageturners without being pageturners, and the movies are guilty pleasures without inspiring any real pleasure. Twilight could’ve been salvageable if they had stopped with Eclipse, easily the strongest installment, as the grand finale to an otherwise dull saga, but they just had to tack Breaking Dawn onto the trilogy, and its forced happy ending, where literally nothing happens and everybody goes home and Edward and Bella are totally cool with Jacob having a crush on their newborn daughter; the ending is so bad that Bill Condon’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (the second part of Summit Entertainment’s desperate, post-Harry Potter “one movie for the price of two” cash grab) has to graft into the climax an “it was all just a dream” fight scene to make us slightly less disappointed with ourselves for paying to see nothing happen, because Stephenie Meyer is such a lousy writer that she has to betray her own vision just to keep alive and happy the characters who made her a multimedia empress, even though that didn’t stop J.K. Rowling from following her own muse and killing off scores in the epically dramatic tragedy that is Harry Potter.
The Call is a Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin vehicle full of promise, but its ending is so terrible that you walk away from it thinking that the rest of the movie is terrible, too. I refused to see it ever again after I saw it for the first time in theaters, but, when my family watched it one night, I was caught up in the masterful suspense once more, as though I didn’t know about the hot mess of an ending that was on its way. And when I say “ending,” I mean ending, as in, the last five minutes of the film, a last-minute twist that’s so poorly written and so out-of-place and so out-of-character and so pathetic that you mourn for the ninety minutes’ worth of your brain cells, gone forever.
Yes, it’s that bad.
Endings (like this one that I’m writing right now) aren’t easy. A lot is riding on them. Sometimes, a fairytale one is called for, and, other times, you need something else no one has ever seen before – either way, no matter how you measure “success,” whether it’s in the quality of a work or in its ability to get people talking, the ending is a good place to start.