The filmgoer was noticeably upset. He didn’t like a moment in “Lincoln.” More specifically, he didn’t like the final moments of “Lincoln.”
“I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” he said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”
The man on the mini-rant wasn’t some multiplex loudmouth. He was actor Samuel L. Jackson, and he was just getting started. “I didn’t need the assassination at all. Unless he’s going to show Lincoln getting his brains blown out. And even then, why am I watching it? The movie had a better ending 10 minutes before.”
Jackson was offering a sentiment common among people who’ve seen “Lincoln” and moviegoers in general: Hollywood films are struggling to find the exit. Stories that seem to end, end again, and then end once more. Climactic scenes wind down, then wind up. Movies that appear headed for a satisfying resolution turn away, then try to stumble back.
The definition of a good ending is as hard to pin down as Keyser Söze. But there has been no shortage of filmic finales for people to shake their fists at this season. (Caution: Spoilers ahead.)
After nearly 150 minutes of Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean has said a tearful goodbye to Marius and made him promise to protect his beloved Cosette. It is heartbreaking; it is satisfying. There are tears, and melancholic smiles.
But like a late-night infomercial, there’s more. A wedding follows. Marius and Cosette rejoice. Ah, a nice wedding finish. Wait, why is Sacha Baron Cohen back to make trouble? The movie can’t end with Sacha Baron Cohen making trouble, can it? Of course, it can’t. There is another scene. Candles. A convent. Valjean is still alive! No, no, now he is dead. But wait, he is given a new chance in the afterlife. The end seems to take, well, an eternity, as Hooper seems to grope around for an ending to match Hugo’s novel.
In “Life of Pi,” Ang Lee spends two hours telling us about a tiger, then two minutes telling us there was no tiger. Then he asks us which way we’d like it to be. Choose Your Own Adventure novels have more definitive finishes. (This ambiguity, defenders say, plays better in the novel. Ambiguity always plays better in the novel.)
Jackson has firsthand knowledge of the squishy ending. His holiday movie, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” has the titular hero maneuvering his way through a climactic shootout. Django slays many of his enemies. He has taken his revenge. He seems to have his girl. But no, the bad guys have his girl. There is suddenly a whole new chapter. The slave is tortured. There is a scheme involving Australian speculators. The director makes an appearance with a questionable Australian accent. There is another shootout, this time with dynamite.
Jackson acknowledges that this final section did not come easily. “In the original script, Quentin had a really generic ending,” he said. “So he decided to add a lot of other stuff.”
The unsatisfying movie ending is as old as Hollywood itself. But the examples seem to be getting more pronounced. For those who love film, they raise interesting questions, about which directors have interesting theories. Why are endings these days so difficult? Are we getting more jaded or are filmmakers and studios growing more panicked? Is a coherent narrative conclusion possible in an era of infinite distraction? Where does this all, well, end?
Let’s start at the beginning.
The notion of the satisfying cinematic finish goes back as far as 1902, when Georges Méliès decided to have his astronomers crash back to Earth instead of spending the rest of their lives twiddling their thumbs on the moon.
In the decades that followed, directors continued to evolve their endings. In 1939, they approached a level of Darwinian perfection. That year and the three that followed brought a bounty of classic finishes: the return to Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz,” the sled reveal of “Citizen Kane,” Bogart’s hill-of-beans speech in “Casablanca,” the frankness of Rhett not giving a damn in “Gone With the Wind.”
These movies finished where they should, with scenes that both startled and made sense. We couldn’t foresee that Dorothy had drawn from her real life to create the Emerald City, but once she did, we believed that she would.
Other endings would build on their forebears: John Wayne retreating silently and meaningfully off a porch in John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Michael Corleone’s reluctant metamorphosis in the first “Godfather.” In 1991, Hannibal Lecter ushered out “The Silence of the Lambs” by telling us that he was “having an old friend for dinner,” reinforcing that he had indeed survived and was up to more mischief. Also, it was a witty pun, and we are suckers for a witty pun.
Eight years later, Paul Thomas Anderson offered an ending to “Magnolia” that quite literally dropped from the sky, as frogs rained down across Southern California. The scene continued at once, logically if surreally, the foreboding that came before, while also offering up a sly biblical reference. And we love a sly biblical reference, especially if it involves animals.
Try, on the other hand, to name a worthy ending you’ve seen in the last year in a popular movie. Perhaps your mind wanders to “The Avengers,” where for 25 minutes we watch New York blow up so we can eventually see a leather-clad Scarlett Johansson make a wisecrack. Or maybe it goes to “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2,” in which a head-ripping bloodbath on an icy plain turns out to have existed in the mind of a psychic member of a clan called the Volturi.
Who should we blame for this drop-off? Pity, first, the poor director working in the modern era. Go for the happy and you’re accused of the saccharine. Go for the ambiguous and they’ll throw tomatoes at you. As an audience, we’ve seen almost every conceivable ending, so directors try urgently, desperately to surprise.
Technology has made it harder too. An ending is instant fodder for a snarky tweet — after all, it is what’s freshest in our minds when the phones go back on. There is neither time nor space for an ending to ferment into a classic. (If “Citizen Kane” came out today, it could well spawn the trending topics #Rosebud and #StupidEndings and be out of theaters within weeks.
The mechanics of Hollywood also contribute to the problem.
“We now develop so many movie ideas based on pitches,” said Ben Affleck, director of “Argo” and “The Town.” “And the thing about a pitch is that it does a pretty good job figuring out the first and second acts, but no one ever sits down and works out the third act.” Meanwhile, when the films are eventually made, studios test and test some more, so that an ending might well be chosen by a random assortment of people who happened to have a few hours free at the mall.
Sometimes the messiness is intentional. Filmmakers want their movie to be like life, and for most of us, life just kind of keeps meandering along. “I wanted it to be a slice of life,” said “This Is 40" director Judd Apatow when asked why his movie seems to keep jumping around to different possible endings. “And life is very random and nonlinear.”
The biggest tentpoles, devised in a petri dish by the biggest studios, have their own problems: They are forced to satisfy an ever more-demanding teenage audience with bigger spectacle, which is why the building-jumping showdown at the end of “The Amazing Spider-Man” feels longer than the entire history of Marvel Comics.
But why is it so hard for virtue-laden movies with Oscar-winning directors to exit cleanly? There was only one way to put this issue to bed: to ask the people responsible.
Tom Hooper was first up. “I pride myself on endings because I think it’s the most important thing,” he said.
But if it’s so important, why are there so many false finishes in “Les Misérables”? “The challenge with films that end with the hero dying is that it can leave you really hopeless, and so we had to transcend the tragedy of his death and turn it into something positive.”
Next, Steven Spielberg. Asked about the prevailing feeling that he should have wrapped “Lincoln” at an earlier moment, he didn’t concede the point. In fact, he said he didn’t struggle with the ending as much as he did other issues. “The great challenge was not how the story would end but what it would cover,” he said. “Tony [Kushner’s] original draft was 550 pages.”
As for Jackson’s wish to see the shooter, Spielberg had an explanation. “We just knew we wouldn’t show the assassination, because it would sensationalize the story. It would have suddenly focused the movie on the shooter, not the president.”
Finally, Ang Lee. He said he knew the idea of pulling the rug out with an it-was-all-a-metaphor twist was tricky. “It’s very hard, because you asked people not to believe what you just told them,” he said.
So does it surprise or bother him that there’s a backlash?
“Well, Asia in particular loved the ending. It’s more about the journey itself there,” said Lee, offering an intriguing cultural hypothesis. “We probably don’t feel this way as much in America.”
“Life of Pi” is a big hit in China, so perhaps Lee is on to something. Perhaps we’d all feel differently about its conclusion if we were to travel to Beijing to watch it there.
Soon, the calendar will turn and the year will end. Thankfully, a year is not directed by an Oscar-contending filmmaker.
Staff writers John Horn and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.