Elusive movie endings | the answer lies in never (quite) knowing

One of the key incidents in Downton Abbey, is the mysterious death of Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk. The handsome, exotic visitor seduces Lady Mary Crawley and dies shortly after — still laying in her bed. He may have gone out a happy man, but for fans of the popular heritage drama, circumstances surrounding his death remain a highly speculated topic.

Did Thomas the gay footman, also a valet for Mr Pamuk murder him with slow-acting poison? He does have a motive because Pamuk threatened to report him for homosexuality (a criminal offense in those days). Or is Thomas a red herring? The polite and sympathetic Mr Napier did demonstrate resentment at introducing Pamuk to Mary. Did seething jealousy cause him to turn his back on a useful political ally? At the moment, I’m leaning towards Napier as a suspect and it’s all because of a split-second smirk he flashed, the very same morning he tried to console Lady Mary.

But never mind the watchful eye of insatiable fans for now.

Like a fishing hook that didn’t quite finish the job, some tropes deny the satisfaction of knowing how a movie ends — when timed and placed correctly, they are capable of arousing curiosities / causing debates / demanding repeated viewings long after credits are done rolling.

Sometimes they come in the form of whodunnits, in which case the festering question is who? Others fall under the category of what and they are usually found in plot (as opposed to character) driven stories. But the most elusive and deadliest hook of all [for me] is why. Because motivation and intent lay the groundwork for my favorite past time as a cinephile — casting judgments. And being the compulsive armchair psychoanalyst that I am, it’s important to understand why.

Yet some will insist that journeys matter more than the final destination and they’d be right. For this reason, writers prefer to challenge expectations by deviating from classic patterns: beginning (introduction & rising incidents), middle (conflict & complications), end (outcome & resolutions).

This list is a tribute to some of the best open-form endings in recent memory. No, I’m not referring to tip of the iceberg types such as The Place Beyond the Pines; where the final scene implies Ryan Gosling’s kid will continue the cycle of violence. Viewers did not literally witness the fate of Ann Farber in Funny Games either, but her probabilities of survival were fairly obvious. Ditto for What Richard Did.

Best five. Arranged according to degrees of intrigue, complexity and mind fuck.

No. 1 >>> In the Bedroom
★★★★★

In the BedroomThe Premise: Motive is as simple as vigilante justice. An old married couple plots to avenge the death of their son by killing his murderer.

Lingering Question: Consider the film title because it refers to the rear compartment of a lobster trap known as the “bedroom”. That it can only hold up to two lobsters before both begin to turn on each other, suggests a different reason as to why Dr. Matt Fowler finally agreed to commit the crime.

No. 2 >>> Caché (Hidden) 
★★★★★

CacheThe Premise: It’s plain and simple. A father receives surveillance recordings of his family’s each and every move. Solution lies in finding the tape sender, thereby eliminating growing fear for their safety.

Lingering Question: Since Majid proclaimed his innocence before killing himself (and if he were to be believed) then who on earth is the mystery sender? Are Majid and Georges’ sons in cahoots? But consider the pan shot recorded inside Georges’ work studio. Technically, it overlaps two POVs: that of the culprit and Caché’s camera operator. Is it a gag and Michael Haneke himself, responsible for staging a bluff?

No. 3 >>> Jagten (The Hunt)
★★★★★

The HuntThe Premise: A well-liked nursery teacher is accused of doing unthinkable things to one of his students. The community ostracizes him and begins to react with acts of violence.

Lingering Question: At the end of the film, Lucas’s name is cleared and he appears to have mended ties with everyone. So why would anyone still try to shoot him in the final scene, and who exactly is the rifleman in question?

No. 3 >>> Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon)
★★★★

white ribbonThe Premise: A galloping horse trips over the rope, injuring the local physician. A farmer’s wife falls to her death when a rotten floorboard gives way. The baron’s son is mysteriously kidnapped and tortured overnight. And these are merely three out of several more.

Lingering Question: Which sociopath has been orchestrating these disturbing events occurring in the quaint village? A brilliant, provocative mystery suggesting the climate in deeply repressed, pre-war Germany.

No. 5 >>> Shame (2011)
★★★★

ShameThe Premise: Painful journey of a compulsive sex addict. Throughout the film, Brandon yearns to escape this humiliating condition — restlessly wavering between two extremes. In the subway, he is confronted with two separate opportunities that bookend a trans-formative narrative. On the first occasion; he notices a woman wearing a wedding ring and they make eye contact before she disappears into the crowd — leaving him with no option to pursue a risque encounter.

Lingering Question: On the second occasion, they sit across each other. Except when the woman prepares to leave, the final scene fades to black — omitting Brandon’s reaction very suddenly.  The point isn’t to speculate an unknowable “will he or won’t he”, but to suggest a larger truth about facing addictions on a daily basis.

Three more elusive films that resist traditional endings: Before Sunset, Lost in Translation, The Grey.

No. 6 >>> Before Sunset
Did Jesse leave Celine's apartment to catch his flight back home in the end?

Did Jesse leave Celine’s apartment to catch his flight back home in the end?

No. 7 >>> Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation: What did Bob Harris whisper in Charlotte's ear when saying goodbye?

Lost in Translation: What did Bob Harris whisper in Charlotte’s ear when saying goodbye?

No.8 >>> The Grey
Who survived the final showdown — John Ottway or the Alpha Wolf?

Who survived the final showdown — John Ottway or the Alpha Wolf?

There are many reasons why film authors force viewers to accept an open form finish, denying reasonable closures of any kind. Granted there are gimmicky ones that aim to tease out an appetite for sequels, shock value, and deux ex machina cop-outs to explain ridiculous “twist” endings… in the case of Downton Abbey, I prefer to think of it as a nifty device to propel the main plot.

Other ones however, serve as poetic veins of “complex reality” and life’s never ending chain effect — powerful stuff that stay with you for a long time to come. Such endings are deliberately ambiguous and seek to challenge the social / emotional need for mythic, wholesome endings.

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6 responses to “Elusive movie endings | the answer lies in never (quite) knowing

  1. I seem to recall that Australian film The Interview had audiences polarised as to whether or not Hugo Weaving’s character was guilty or not. I’d highly recommend giving it a watch.

  2. There is this wonderful Indian movie Mili (1975) which I remember watching with my mother and being a crying mess as a child. its by Hrishikesh Mukherjee starring real life superstar couple Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri ( the brangelina of their day). the final scene has Mili who is suffering from a terminal illness take a flight to go to US for treatment and then the movie ends. leaving you to decide the fate of Mili whether she gets cured or not. I love movies which do not spoon feed everything to you. they bring you in as an audience and let you make you own conclusions about how the character’s fate will unfold.

    • I love movies which do not spoon feed everything to you. they bring you in as an audience…

      So true for films that end in ambiguity. I think such strategies are effective even more so for the romance genre.

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