Unresolved movie endings a new Hollywood trend

Acclaimed films and television series hailed for their ambiguity

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A scene from The Sopranos

TRY THE VEAL — IT'S THE BEST IN THE CITY. Like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, The Sopranos ended its series in an atypical fashion, leaving audiences in a shroud of mystery.

There was no shortage of head-scratching at movie theatres in 2007.

Two of the year’s biggest films broke rank from standard, cookie-cutter endings.

Instead, the conclusions of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood left much to the imagination.

The phenomenon was not isolated to just the big screen, though. The foremost television event of 2007, the final episode of the HBO original series The Sopranos, also ended with a smorgasbord of unfinished business.

Does this mean people are growing tired of the classic “good guy wins, bad guy loses and everyone else lives happily ever after” ending?

Well, not really, according to some. Instead, there are other explanations for the trend.

“It’s tied to the social landscape of the United States right now,” Western film studies professor Joe Wlodarz says.

The ambiguous closing scenes of the year’s most-watched stories are not a fluke, he adds. They represent today’s uncertain times.

“It’s tied to the U.S. election. People don’t know what’s going to happen in the post-Bush era.”

With an uncertain future comes uncertain conclusions in Hollywood features.

In the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture last February, much is left to the imagination. At the end of the movie, the antagonist just walks away. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

A similar bamboozle takes place in There Will Be Blood, which lost the Best Picture nod to No Country. In the final scene of the Paul Thomas Anderson film, the main character shouts out, “I’m finished!” and the credits roll.

That makes two Best Picture nominations and two ambiguous endings.

But perhaps the biggest bombshell of the year came at the finale of The Sopranos, when the screen literally went black " mid-scene " and stayed that way for several seconds. And just like that, the critically acclaimed series ended.

With the abrupt conclusion and blank screen, many viewers thought their cable or satellite connection went out. But when the credits rolled soon after, it was clear everything was just fine " technologically, that is.

What wasn’t clear, and what wasn’t fine to some, was what had happened on screen. Millions were left pondering: was Tony Soprano alive? Did the black screen mean he was shot and killed?

These questions were not answered. They were left to the viewers to decide.

And that’s exactly what David Chase, creator and executive producer of the series, wanted.

“It gives the audience the power to make up their own minds,” media, information, and technoculture professor Keir Keightley says. “It’s part of the arts filmmaking style that wants people to think.”

Joel and Ethan Coen are also “arts” filmmakers, Keightley explains. They typically make movies that are a few shades from convention.

Conventional movies end with resolution and usually a victory for the good guys, but this is contrary to life off the big screen.

“On one hand, we say it’s good to have unresolved endings. It’s more like real life, where things are not wrapped up neatly.

“These endings treat the audience with a great deal of respect,” Keightley adds. “They let people decide " to give their own meaning.”

So is Hollywood turning a new leaf? Are the days of conventional filmmaking slowly disappearing?

Probably not.

Those waiting for a time when all movies end abruptly and provoke reflection shouldn’t hold their breath.

Although three of the biggest releases last year follow this pattern, traditional conclusions will always be around.

“People will never grow [tired] of classic endings,” Wlodarz says.

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