The Art of the Open Ending ☛
Nothing guarantees a good post-movie discussion like an open ending. Some of us love up-in-the-air endings, others hate them, but what are they there for? What do they say? Given this subject matter, be warned: there will be spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
To understand the open ending it probably helps to have a quick think about how and why closed endings work. As a jobbing editor I’m often called on to read new screenplays and if someone asks me “how’s the script?” I can rarely give a meaningful opinion until I’ve read to the last page. Until then I don’t know where the story’s going, so I can’t really judge if it’s taking a good route to get there. With the closed ending the conclusion is really a destination: when we get there, all the twists and turns along the way make sense, and all the various plot-lines come neatly together. The protagonist succeeds in their quest, or maybe they fail heroically; the lovers get together, order is restored. What the story promised us, it delivers. Resolution.
Over the years various screenwriters have tired of this neatness. We reject having everything neatly tied up with a bow; to our modern sensibilities this is as dated as those Shakespeare comedies that end with a sort of romantic shoot-out where everybody ends up wed. Reality is not that neat, and we want our stories to reflect that. A commercial audience might still want the comforting illusion that everything will end happily ever after, but, if we want our films to be taken seriously, we need to embrace ambiguity.
It’s a challenge: how do we leave an ending open, and yet still have it feel like ‘an ending’? Anyone who watches independent films will sooner or later have the experience of being ambushed by the end roller. “That’s it!?” we think, “You’re going to end the story there! Did the projectionist forget to mount the last reel?” This is rarely a happy or fulfilling experience – best avoided.
There are many approaches to the open ending and I can’t pretend to do them all justice, but most of them fit on a sliding scale of openness, from ajar to gaping. The most minimal open endings are the easiest to pull off. One approach is that used in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wrestler and Thelma & Louise: our protagonists make their final fateful decision, but we leave them on a heroic high, before the consequences of that decision kick in. These endings are not really ambiguous – we know damned well what’s about to happen – but they do take us the first step towards an open ending: they call on the audience to imagine what happens next, even if the viewer’s imagination is led by the nose.
A slightly more open style of ending can be found in an older film: Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. This film invented the convention of ending the story with a freeze frame (as used in two of the films above). Truffaut, however, deliberately leaves his young protagonist’s fate far from certain. In narrative terms the story is still relatively conventional – the hero has made a decision that has brought us to the crest of a hill… it’s just that we don’t know what lies on the other side.
Then there are films which use their closing moments to ‘unresolve’, what we’d previously thought to be concluded.
But then there are films that are bolder in their openness, refusing to answer the narrative question we thought they wanted to settle. Most famous of these is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock – a group of girls disappear inexplicably during a school outing to an ancient rock. We expect that the film will provide an explanation of this mystery but, as it goes on, we gradually come to understand that no answer will be forthcoming. We realise that the story is about the effect of the loss on the characters that remain. The effect on the audience, however, is striking. Every time I watch the film I hope that I’m going to pick up some clue as to the girls’ fate, and each time I’m left feeling empty and frustrated by the end. Even so, the film stays with me for weeks afterwards. Antonioni’s film L’Avventura plays a similar trick but, for me, nothing can match the power of Weir’s film to haunt.
There is a style of film that commonly takes open-endedness even further: the surreal movie. Many of David Lynch’s finest films are open-ended by necessity. If your movie depends on speaking to viewers’ unconscious minds through disturbing ambiguous symbols, its strategy would be undermined by providing a neat explanation at the end. Structurally too, some of Lynch’s trick s – the Möbius loop plot of Lost Highway and the fractured timeframe of Mulholland Drive, with its real ending hidden somewhere in the middle – mean that the ending isn’t really an end at all. These movies, along with the films of Buñuel (a past master at frustrating the audience’s expectations) manage to keep the viewer from annoyance simply because we know their game. Unlike Picnic at Hanging Rock, they signal from the start not to expect a satisfying resolution.
But not all open-endedness actually works. As with all things artistic, there’s an element of opinion as to what does or doesn’t succeed. Personally, I’ve found few of the Coen brothers’ experiments with open-endedness over recent years at all successful. No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis all entertain me to a greater or lesser degree as they go along, but when they come to a close, I feel short-changed. Every time I think “After all that careful character development, this is all you have for me?!” I suspect that Joel and Ethan don’t really believe in endings: they certainly don’t seem to spend much time thinking about them. For me, A Serious Man in particular goes beyond being open-ended: it doesn’t end at all. It just throws in a random hurricane and then stops, as if the writers had been called to pressing business elsewhere. In my book, an open ending should still be ‘an ending’.
I can’t leave this subject without discussing possibly the worst form of open-endedness, the leaving-room-open-for-a-sequel ending. I’m sure I don’t need to name examples. This device, born of a purely of commercial imperative, does tell us a bit about open-endedness however. It tells us that if your reason for leaving a story open-ended doesn’t come from within the story itself, the trick will annoy or alienate the audience. I don’t think anyone came away from Man of Steel feeling haunted.
Ironically, however, one of my favourite open endings was originally intended to leave room for a sequel. The most literal of all cliff-hangers comes at the end of The Italian Job (1969), where the characters’ own carelessness leaves them stuck in a position from which they can’t possibly escape. Then Charlie Crocker’s (Michael Caine’s) last line “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea… er…” teases us with a strand of hope, albeit a thin one. As it happened, the intended sequel was never made, so, for all we know, the band of chirpy cockneys are still stuck on that Italian mountain road.
There’s one effect that all well-written open-endings share: they help the story to live on in the hearts and minds of the audience. It might just produce a brief nostalgic glow after we watch the still image of Butch and Sundance turn sepia as they become legends of the wild west. The questions might last for the rest of the evening, as a group of friends ponder who Keyser Söze was, or discuss the physics of rescuing a bus full of British crooks from a long drop. It might be the echoing laughter of those Edwardian school-girls, lost at Hanging Rock, that leaves a mark on the audience’s soul. Whether you leave the final door open just a crack or kick it down altogether, get the audience to bring their imaginations to the ending, and you will have persuaded them to make your movie a part of themselves.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
It only remains for me to wish my readers a very Happy New Year – may 2014 be full of plenty of calls of action and many well-judged cuts.
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