Favorite unhappy endings
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In the “Favorite falling-in-love stories” AVQ&A, Todd VanDerWerff parenthetically states, “I don’t trust really unhappy endings, either, but that’s a discussion for another time.” I would love to read that discussion. American entertainment almost always has a happy ending, frequently using strained contrivances to get there. However, unhappy endings sometimes serve the story best. What are the AVC Staff’s favorite unhappy endings? Mine would be Deadwood. Sure, that wasn’t the intended ending, but it added another layer of realism to the show to have an ending where the protagonists could not defeat the robber-baron Hearst. —Chris (AVC commentator Sukaluski)
Warning: This AVQ&A is necessarily going to be pretty seriously spoilery, since it’s all about endings. So read on at your peril. And if you haven’t seen Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, stop right here and now. Still reading? Good, then presumably that means you’ve experienced one of the bleakest and yet kindest film endings cinema has had to offer, as a man caught up in a horrible, broken system populated with horrible, broken people escapes the only way he can. I can’t say I have the emotional attachment to the ending of Brazil that I’ve had to more uplifting—and usually more contrived—happy endings in the past, but I respect its sheer ballsiness and its sheer bitterness, as it deals in Gilliam’s usual love for the power of the imagination, but this time completely at the expense of the real world. In the process, it pretty much acknowledges that sometimes the bastards do get you down, and sometimes the entrenched evil power does win, and one man’s actions can’t topple a monolith. That’s a harsh lesson to learn. Thanks, Professor Gilliam. Over on the literature side, I can’t think of a more perfect or painful ending than the last line of Connie Willis’ Lincoln’s Dreams: “I have picked up a nail.” You have to read the book to know why there’s not only a world of pain in that one line, but a prediction of a bleak, anguished future to come—but it’s well worth the read, both for the book itself, and to understand how perfect that line is.
The most perfect sad ending I know—perfect both in terms of how well it serves the story and how it brings together beauty and pain so that they seem almost indistinguishable—is the ending to Robert Altman’s 1971 counterculture Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It stars Warren Beatty as a roving gambler who wanders into a mining area that consists of a church and a few ramshackle buildings surrounded by wilderness, and turns it into a real town by establishing a whorehouse. Julie Christie plays the madam, who is oblivious to the fact that Beatty is painfully in love with her. At the end, a ruthless big mining company decides that buying Beatty out is more trouble than it’s worth, and dispatches a team of killers to simply blow him away. While Christie erases the world around her by settling into an opium haze, and the other townspeople come together to put out a fire that’s started in the church, the mortally wounded Beatty manages to shoot the last of the men who’ve just killed him, then settles into a snowdrift while the white flakes gradually cover him over, an image that presages how thoroughly he’ll be erased from history once the town has become successful enough to not want to remember that it was founded by such scurvy people, with such sordid motives. It also suggests the degree of soothing relief that may come even with a death that a man is prepared to fight very hard to avoid.
Favorite sad last line, from Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “I fell in love with James Tyrone, and was so happy, for a time.”
I enjoyed the unhappy ending of 2009’s Duplicity. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read any further: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play a couple of corporate spies—who are, of course, romantically entangled—pulling off a big splashy con. The movie is tricky and slick, with lots of snappy dialogue, backstabbing, and double-crossing. Throughout the movie, it seems as if each character is playing someone or getting played, but in the end, we realize that both Roberts and Owen are the patsies. There was something satisfying to me about how all the trickery of the film ends up with a big sad trombone for both characters, who up until that point, play that Ocean’s 11 type of smooth criminal. It’s kinda fun seeing the pretty people ending up looking like fools for once.
Story-songs always get to me, whether they have happy endings or not, and as I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there were plenty of story-songs to choose from. One that has always stuck out in my mind was “Same Old Lang Syne” by the late Dan Fogelberg, mainly because such a forlorn, melancholy song managed to become such a huge hit. You have to realize that by the time the song came out in 1981, the most popular story-songs had happy endings, like “(Escape) The Piña Colada Song”; even alternative bands like The Waitresses were checking in with songs like “Christmas Wrapping” that had smile-worthy conclusions. This song, about Fogelberg awkwardly reminiscing with a former lover he ran into at a grocery store on a snowy Christmas Eve, didn’t talk about any new spark between two people who in a long-ago time were intimately familiar with each other; they just talked about life and regrets and whatever else you talk about with someone whom you haven’t seen in many years. Fogelberg’s last lines, which fade into an extended, plaintive saxophone solo, are as about as unhappy—but realistic and effective—an ending as you can get: “Just for a moment I was back at school / and felt that old familiar pain / And as I turned to make my way back home / the snow turned in to rain…”
I know another remake of The Thing just hit multiplexes, but it can’t possibly match the bleak, rugged awesomeness with which John Carpenter concluded his definitive 1982 update of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, itself inspired by John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) are the only prey remaining at their Antarctic research base for an insidious organism mutating itself with every body—man or dog—it infects. They’re frostbitten, shivering, paranoid, and sapped of nearly all resources. Except a bottle of whiskey, which they slug to keep warm and take the edge off their inevitable grim reaping at the hands of a familiar but totally alien life force. Next time your drinking buddies refuse a swig of single malt, just ask them, “What would MacReady do?”
Does Midnight Cowboy count? The ending isn’t necessarily bleak or despairing in the same way Brazil or The Thing are. But man, it’s not upbeat. And every time I watch the movie, it gets me. There’s ol’ Joe Buck, en route to Miami with Ratso, freshly attired in his new non-cowboy costume, talking about getting some good, honest work outdoors, when he looks over and his friend isn’t responding. The bus driver pulls over and tells Joe to close Ratso’s eyes, while a bunch of sneering septuagenarians gawk at them, the joke being that these people are also going to Miami to die, but at least they’ll make the trip. Then we watch as Joe puts his arm around his sweaty, stinky, finally-dead pal, and the reflection of the city’s stucco high-rises envelops them both. Cowboy is a definitive “beautiful loser” film, so it’s tricky to qualify the ending as out-and-out unhappy. It’s very, very sad, for sure. But sad in that stirring, deeply melancholic way that makes it a little less chilling.
Not to bring old wounds to the surface here, but let’s talk about the series finale of Veronica Mars, shall we? That’s brutal on two fronts: Not only were fans of the show denied any more episodes of their favorite sleuth, but the last images of her are far from uplifting. Amid all the teen angst, the show’s emotional centerpiece always lay between Veronica and her father, Keith. To have her responsible for derailing her father’s campaign in the show’s final moments was a brutal gut-punch. And yet it’s a completely appropriate ending. The show had its roots in noir, and the show’s final shot pays homage one last time to the genre that inspired it. Had Veronica ended the show on great terms with everyone in her life, then it wouldn’t have done the program justice. After all, justice itself was a fleeting thing within the show throughout its brief run. Why should the final moment be any different?
Does being burned alive while trapped inside a giant wooden effigy in some bizarre neo-pagan ritual constitute “unhappy”? In that case, I’d have to say the end of the original version of The Wicker Man is one of the unhappiest in cinematic history. Or at least it’s my favorite (though most perversely satisfying) unhappy ending. Granted, the human cinder in question—hapless, hubristic police sergeant Neil Howie—all but begs for his fate during the course of his missing-person investigation throughout the course of the film. But there’s more than simple human conflict at the heart of the movie’s epic clash between modern propriety and the primeval impulses of the West’s collective, pre-Christian brutality. As The Wicker Man rushes toward its inevitable sizzling resolution, the pigheadedness of authority and orthodoxy is exposed like a raw nerve. When viewed as the protagonist of a horror flick, Howie is the victim; taken as the symbolic crux of bone-penetrating allegory, he’s as much of a villain as Christopher Lee’s sinister, charismatic Lord Summerisle. Either way, there’s no cheerful closure to be gleaned from the film’s stunning, retina-searing resolution.
My favorite unhappy ending belongs to one of my favorite movies, Vertigo. It’s also one of the first films that, when I saw it at the age of 11 or so, made me grapple with how movies end, simply because it was so different from the movie endings to which I’d grown accustomed. I first heard of Alfred Hitchcock when a friend of my parents’ said of his movies, “They don’t have endings.” I didn’t get it, so when I asked for an elaboration, she said simply, “They don’t end like they’re supposed to.” At that point, I’d never seen a Hitchcock film, and when I did, I kind of understood what she meant. Vertigo does have an ending, and it ends exactly as it’s supposed to… as it has to, even, as discomforting as that ending is. Having pushed his desire to the breaking point, Jimmy Stewart watches as everything breaks. It works ingeniously as a narrative, and even better as a portrait of what desire does to people in the grips of obsession, making them incapable of seeing the world as anything but a stage for their own needs. Pan back and zoom forward, and it looks like an even more universal story, a depiction of how some people get this close to what they want in life, then have to live with the curse of watching it slip away.
It’s difficult to apply the word “favorite” to Lars von Trier’s bleak (with breaks for fun songs!) Dancer In The Dark, but the soul-crushing ending—spoiler alert: Bjork is hanged, whee!—actually fits perfectly with the tone of the movie. Right to the bitter end (which is made slightly less bitter by a toe-tapping musical number!), the Icelandic pixie fails to help herself. Have you ever sat in a darkened movie theater while the credits roll while the entire audience tries to compose itself and wipe away tears of sorrow? It’s something else.
China Miéville, Perdito Street Station.
Multiple choice: An author comes up with the character of an omnipotent, free-verse-spouting monster called the Weaver, a giant spider who doesn’t give a damn about anything but the aesthetics of some meta-web of the world that only it can see. The author then has the Weaver randomly help out the protagonists, eviscerate a red-shirt, recite incomprehensible poetry, or rip off someone’s arm for no apparent reason. Well, other than the stated one—generally along the lines of that the arm was “prettier” over on that side of the room. This means…
A. That author is weird
B. That author probably read some stuff about postmodernism when he was at Cambridge
C. That author is ballsy enough to actually codify his deus ex machina as a character
D. Don’t get too attached, because that author is straight-up telling you that in his role as omnipotent narrator, he’ll do whatever the hell he wants to his characters in pursuit of a “prettier” ending
All of the above are true of China Miéville and his second novel, Perdido Street Station. But he’s right to pull the (figurative) legs off his protagonists—even though I tend to prefer happy rainbow endings, I agree that in this case they are indeed prettier over on the other side of the room. The city of New Crobuzon, where Miéville has set three books, is dark, chaotic, and nasty; a neat resolution would just feel grafted on. Besides, to take the same parallel Miéville uses in the end of the book, who would remember Orpheus and Eurydice if nobody looked back and ruined it all? This is the only interpretation of that scene I’ve read in which the role of Eurydice is filled by a bohemian sculptress with a scarab beetle for a head, but it doesn’t make it seem any less tragic.
David Fincher’s Seven spends the two hours leading to its climactic ending wallowing in such soul-sucking hopelessness that the ending shouldn’t surprise anyone, but spoilers ahoy: The killer wins, detective Brad Pitt is arrested, and his pregnant wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, is murdered. Her head’s sitting right there in a box. Pitt’s partner, Morgan Freeman, closes the film with a voiceover: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” Yup, unhappy endings don’t come much more unhappy than that. Unsurprisingly, the studio didn’t like it, according to the IMDB. In fact, that Hemingway quote was a compromise to try to alleviate some of Seven’s blow-your-brains-out bleakness. (Hey, he said it’s worth fighting for! That’s something, right?) Several alternate endings were written, including one where a dying Paltrow is saved in the nick of time, but they were discarded, thank God. Everybody knows there’s no chipper way to end a movie where a man bangs a prostitute with a razor-dildo.
When it comes to singularly satisfying happy endings, few filmmakers can compare with Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah didn’t go in for any of that false uplift bullshit; he delivered his harsh, bitter truths straight with no chaser. I am enamored of the elegiac ending of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, but when it comes to truly triumphant unhappy endings nothing can compare with the climactic closing shootout of The Wild Bunch. The titular outlaws of the film have been chasing death and their destiny (which happen to be one and the same) for the whole film, and in the finale, they encounter it in all its visceral, sweaty, blood-soaked, slow-motion glory.
In the “be careful what you wish for” category, it’s hard to beat The Vanishing. (I mean, of course, the Dutch original and not the horrendous American remake, painful as it is to even acknowledge the latter.) While on a drive, young lovers Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege have a fight; they pull into a rest stop and part for a moment, and then she disappears. He becomes obsessed with finding her, but years pass with no word, until the man who abducted her suddenly contacts him. The kidnapper, who to outward appearances is a harmless family man with a bushy goatee, promises Bervoets he’ll find out exactly what happened to ter Steege, but only if he agrees to take a sip of what’s undoubtedly a drugged drink. Sure enough, Bervoets blacks out, and when he awakes, it’s still black. He fumbles for his lighter, produces a flame, and discovers he’s been buried alive, just as his girlfriend was before him. He gets what he wanted, but it’s the last thing he’ll ever get.
I don’t trust unhappy endings (as I originally said) in just the same way I don’t trust ravishingly happy endings. To me, the best endings are bittersweet, with just enough optimism to temper the gloom or vice versa. That said, there are certainly times when an unhappy ending is appropriate, and one of my favorites is in the film Testament, which is all about a bunch of people in a small town after a nuclear war. The film is anchored by a terrific Jane Alexander performance, and throughout its running time, the citizens of the little town attempt to cling to whatever hopes they have left, only to see them slowly disintegrate amid radiation poisoning and slow, cancerous death. It’s a gala of misery, but Alexander’s performance and the camera’s unwillingness to look away when many would flinch gives the film a serious sense of purpose that stays with you long after it ends with a last family gathering. In spite of the despair, it’s a beautiful movie, and it’s well worth rediscovery.