Seven movies without an ending

What do you mean 'that's all she wrote'? Here are some of the films that leave us hanging without any intention of coming back...

Where is Javier Bardem going?

There’s nothing written in Hollywood law to say that a non-arthouse film has to conclude with a villain’s ‘arggghh’, a big explosion and/or a sloppy clinch between the two leads. However you do kind of notice it when it isn’t there…

WARNING: Obviously there are going to be spoilers in this.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

The Coen brothers are known for the huge role happenstance and coincidence takes in their movies, so when arch-assassin Javier Bardem is struck down by a very nasty car-accident after a particularly pointless murder, it’s not the hand of God. And if he has been smited, why not lethally? It’s a very nasty wound indeed, but survivable. Clearly, it’s taught him nothing and it’s taught us nothing. Cut to Tommy Lee Jones pontificating on the harshness of the world and his fear of death and…roll credits. No point drug-testing the projectionist, that’s just the way Cormac McCarthy wrote it.

Down By Law (1986)

With his typical reductionism, Douglas Adams once defined picaresque narrative as a story which is just ‘one damn thing after another’; perhaps the Golden Fleece was the original McGuffin and the journey was always the thing. In Jim Jarmusch’s tale of three Louisiana prisoners on the run, Roberto Benigni finds future (fictional and real-life) spouse Nicoletta Braschi living an improbably isolated existence in the forest and decides to partner up with her, leaving Tom Waits and John Lurie alone to patch up their differences with brachial indifference and go their separate ways, still wanted and presumably still hunted.

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The Changeling (2008)

Can we really complain if Hollywood is giving up its century-old habit of grafting an artificial denouement onto a real-life story where the search that forms the core of the story was ultimately unsuccessful?  

In Clint Eastwood’s period thriller, based on a true-life story, Angelina Jolie’s search for her missing son finds her saddled with an ersatz substitute intended to boost the reputation of the corrupt LAPD, who have consequently dropped the investigation. We conclude the film just as uncertain as Jolie regarding the fate of her boy after an escape from a psychopathic serial killer. Jolie’s unjust spell in an asylum provides the only conventional ‘closure’ in narrative terms.

Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel also left the fate of the main character open in Escape From Alcatraz (1980), but in that context ‘disappearance’ was a victory. In The Changeling, we are engaged but not released, and – given the period setting – it’s clear that we never will be.

The French Connection (1971)

The case built up by Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso against a European narcotics cartel took over ten years to culminate in any actual arrests, and central villain Jean Jehan eluded their clutches.

The raid on the drug deal at the abandoned factory on Ward’s Island (NY) in Connection is a cinema classic, with the final shot of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (and Eddie Egan surrogate) darting into a darkened doorway among the ruins, and the sound of a gunshot. Ambush? Murder? Suicide?

William Friedkin’s narrative has been building up Popeye Doyle’s rage for the entire movie, and it all seems to explode, without any real target, in this hypertense sequence. But Friedkin dares to leave us hanging even before this kind of non-resolution became popular in 1970s avant garde cinema. The boldness with which Fernando Rey’s drug-dealer is allowed to escape – just as he did in real-life – is completely reversed in John Frankenheimer’s 1975 sequel, which posits a totally fictitious ‘French exchange’ for Doyle where he finally shoots the elusive Rey dead at the very end.

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It’s as if the lack of closure in Friedkin’s original had spawned a ‘fake resolution’ like some kind of cinematic stigmata. Jehan actually died of old age many years later, having avoided very much retribution for later narcotics arrests on the strength of his military service with Charles de Gaulle.

Zodiac (2007)

If there is any police procedural more goal-oriented than the ‘hunt for a serial-killer’ scenario, I can’t think what it is. Unsolved serial killer investigations are fascinating mainly because we can project our own endings onto the mystery, as Alan Moore did for Jack The Ripper in his graphic novel From Hell (adapted into the 2001 Johnny Depp thriller/horror by the Hughes Brothers); check out the link in The Changeling (above) for another alternative take on the ripper – theories are legion, and by now Jack has probably helped NASA fake the moon landings too, somewhere in the many spurious books on the subject.

But Zodiac presents the raw and unvarnished truth of an investigation spanning many years that ultimately tapered off, and once again we can only admire the scenery of character and event on a journey that will never arrive at its destination. Perhaps Hollywood is now toying with ‘unsettled dissatisfaction’ as a new flavour in cinema, but pistachio is awfully hard to beat on its own terms, and Zodiac reads as a reel short.

The Pledge (2001)

Sean Penn’s thriller is based on Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman, which translates as The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel. Jack Nicholson is the retired police officer haunted by his promise to the mother of a rape-murder victim that he would find her daughter’s killer.

It’s another story of an unfulfilled and obsessive quest, and the utter failure of Nicholson – for once playing an ordinary guy – to bag the killer leaves us particularly deflated in the context of a fictitious storyline. The quixotic and tragic theme is typically Scandinavian, and watching Nicholson’s progress from a well-deserved retirement into the fractured hell of alcoholism and insanity, brought on by his hopeless quest, leaves one pointlessly eviscerated at best, non-plussed at worst.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Mike Nichols’ investigation into American sexuality is a rare foray indeed, and once again Jack Nicholson stars. Carnal Knowledge tells the story of two friends, Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, who attend college together and finish up with very different approaches to sex and relationships; Garfunkel ends up in a sparkless marriage and Nicholson a semi-impotent lothario whose spirit and very manhood has been broken by the legions of women he conquered. The final scene features Rita Moreno trying to arouse the broken Nicholson with a litany of insincere praise for his power and potency, dead ideals in a feminised society that has little use left for the prowling alpha male in the decline of his years.

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Carnal Knowledge is a process of attrition for both male characters, but most especially for Nicholson and his huge ego, and we almost feel that we could jump off at any point. The film’s legitimate place as a canvas for character study is undermined by the huge time-leaps which seem to be driving the narrative somewhere, but ultimately only read as time-lapse photography.

It’s hard to say whether Nichols ran out of script, time or film-stock. It’s an ambling coach journey that picks you up in the middle of nowhere and drops you back there again. Nicholson’s journey in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail is almost equally nihilistic, but packs far more emotional impact.

Honourable mention:Almost anything by John CassavetesThe Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

But let’s not leave it there – head on to the comments section to tell us the movies that left you doing a double-take at the start of the end-credits…

23 January 2009