Warning: Even though I’m dealing with some older films, I still feel I need to mention that there are some spoilers today.
“A good ending must be decisive, set-up, and inevitable—but nonetheless unexpected.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Wordplayer, The Big Finish
In yesterday’s post Chaplin on Clichés I mentioned the only four choices to conclude your screenplay were “a happy ending, a sad ending, an ambiguous ending, or an ironic ending.” And while that’s true of probably 99.9% of all films I realized that there is another rarely used option. Just as there are cross-genre movies, I believe there are a few movies that have mixed endings.
First let’s recap the cross or mixed genre angle. A good example would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) —it’s a horror film, a comedy, and a musical. Quentin Tarantino’s vast film knowledge may make him the master of cross breeding genres. Django Unchained is part historical drama, part western, part comedy, part action, part love story—part something else when Tarantino drops in the ’70s Jim Croce song in at a pivotal point in the film which he also directed.
Tarantino pulled it off and walked away with the Oscar for writing Django Unchained. So mixing things up can be good.
But it’s easier to mix genres than endings. In the Robert Zemeckis directed film Cast Away Tom Hanks stars as a Fed Ex executive who becomes a modern-day Robinson Crusoe when a plane crash leaves him stranded on a deserted island. It’s the film that came to mind as a film with a mix of endings. (Maybe it doesn’t—maybe it’s more an example of a couple false endings.) First let me define what I mean by happy, sad, ironic and ambiguous endings:
Happy: The Graduate, The Shawshank Redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life: Up endings where the guy gets the girl, there’s freedom in paradise, the shark’s killed, and/or order restored.
Sad: The Perfect Storm, Chinatown, Buried: Down endings, often where a key protagonist dies. And in some cases with injustice or evil prevailing. Sometimes what’s stated is just the hard realities of life, other times leaning toward nihilism (life has no meaning) as director Ingmar Bergam once said,” We are trapped in the senseless illusion of human history and we realize at the end that all hope is gone.” (Often found in art house and foreign films). And yet a sad or down ending can be like a greek tragedy serving as a cautionary tale like Death of a Salesman (Don’t spend your life climbing the wrong ladder).
Ironic: Rocky, Toy Story 3, Silence of the Lambs: This is the core of many great endings. It’s where the hero doesn’t get their intended goal, but gains something greater. Or they get their goal, but lose something else. Rocky loses the fight, but gets the girl and gains self-esteem. Clarice gets the serial killer Buffalo Bill, but psychopath Hannibal escapes. Jack saves Rose’s life in Titanic, but sacrifces his life in the process.
Ambiguous: Memento, The Wrestler, 2001 A Space Odyssey: The “chose your own adventure” of the group. You decide what happened to the characters. Filmmakers of ambiguous endings tend to say things like, “I think it’s best if audiences bring their own conclusion to what happened to the main characters.” Many times the audiences just walks out confused. (Tough endings at the box office, but in a few cases where audiences go back to a film again hoping to figure the film can result in a healthy box office. But most times audiences are still just as confused as they were at the ending to the TV show LOST.)
So how was Cast Away a mixed ending? (At least the movie could have ended at any of these points.)
Happy: Tom Hanks’ character survives years on the deserted island…
Sad: But discovers his fiancé is now married with children (Bummer).
Ironic: But it turns out that they still have deep feelings for each other and end up kissing. (This whole sequence is filled with emotions and very well done.) Sitting in his old jeep he tells his one time fiancé (Helen Hunt) that’s “It’s time to go home.” And just we think they’re going to ride off into the sunset (even though it’s at night and raining), he pulls into her driveway and sends her back to her replacement family. They love each other but they can’t be together. His goal of reuniting with the woman he loves is crushed. But he’s grateful for that love because that hope of being with her kept him alive all those years he fought for survival on the deserted island.
Ambiguous: Now what’s he going to do? Where’s he going to go? There’s a blimp of hope that he’ll end up with the artist who the audience was introduced to at the beginning of the film because he has a package to deliver to her at the end of the film. But she’s not home so he leaves the package and a note. So where’s he going to go now? His jeep sits at a four-way intersection in the middle of remote Texas and this is what happens:
The angel wings on the back of the truck tell Hanks that’s the artist he just dropped the package off for. I believe most people in the audience are begging Hanks to at least explore that option. Zemeckis, Boyles, Hanks, and every executive at Twentieth Century Fox had to know that’s what the audience wanted. They may have even shot the scene where after some contemplation he at least heads his Jeep down the dirt road toward the angel wing women’s house. I think that’s how Chaplin would have ended it.
“I’m not afraid of doing a cliché, if it’s right. We don’t wade through our existence with any sort of originality. We all live and die and eat three meals a day, and fall in and out of love, and the rest of it. So people say, that’s been done before. So what? In avoiding clichés I think one can become dull.”
Which way does he go? This is the last sentence from Boyles’ screenplay from Cast Away—The Shooting Script:
“It doesn’t really matter which way he goes. At some point in life’s grand journey you just have to let go of the oars and have faith. His new life begins…now. The end is just the beginning.”
The last shot fades out on a close-up of Hanks contemplating where to go next. My guess is Zemeckis and Broyles decided end on ambiguity–to avoid the happy ending cliché. I thought they already did a great job avoiding cliché by having his fiancé be married.
Cast Away screenwriter William Broyles Jr. later said, “Chucks’s first words of dialogue in the movie is ‘time.’ Time runs his life and for six years time ran our lives as we made this movie. His last words are ‘thank you,’ an expression of gratitude which defines his transformation.” Intellectually I think he’s 100% correct. Dramatically he has taken the Hanks character on a classic journey where he returned a better man. But emotionally is where ambiguous endings often falls short.
Would Hanks at least getting in his Jeep and heading down the dirt road toward the artist have been, to borrow Michael Arndt’s words, an Insanely Great Ending? (Insanely Great = positive & surprising and meaningful.) We’ll never know. But I did find a version of the script (marked 3rd draft) where Hanks’ character ends up in a remote area talking to (ironically) a Fed Ex driver named Erica.
ERICA What brings you out to the sticks? CHUCK Had a package to deliver. ERICA You? Personally? CHUCK I had it on the island with me. ERICA Must be a story there. There's a connection building here, effortlessly. EXT. BEACH - MOMENTS LATER We are wide on the beach, watching the truck move along the water, kicking up wisps of sand. CHUCK (V.O.) Yeah, a long one. ERICA (V.O.) I've got lots of time. CHUCK (V.O.) So do I. The truck goes down the beach and then turns inland, away from the ocean. Away from all that. CHUCK (V.O.) So do I. And we pull back, taking in the sweep of the beach, the estuaries, and the green forest stretching back into America. The end is the beginning. A little less ambiguous. It took six years to make Cast Away and it would be fascinating to learn how the filmmakers wrestled with the ending during that time. Update 1/6/14: I wondered if I could find any movie critics addressing the Cast Away ending and found this Stephen Holden quote from the NY Times: "Because the conflict between romantic convention and the movie's angst is never resolved, 'Cast Away' leaves us hanging. But that final, lurking ambiguity is a small price to pay for the primal force of what has come before." P.S. I believe it's on the 20th Anniversary DVD of The Shawshank Redemption where writer/director Frank Darabont said he wanted to end Shawshank simply by having the Morgan Freeman character being freed from prison and riding off on a bus. Fade to black. Ambiguous. But the producers pushed for him to at least shoot a sequence where Red and Andy are reunited on a beautiful island paradise. The ending the audience yearned for. The ending that was set-up in the script. Darabont basically said that if they would have used his ambiguous ending Shawshank would not be the highly regarded film it is today and he wouldn't be doing a 2oth anniversary commentary. Related post: Insanely Great Endings (Part 2) Michael Arndt makes the case for knowing your ending first.