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
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 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. 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 Miserables, 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
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
first-hand knowledge of the squishy ending.
His movie, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, has
the titular hero manoeuvring 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
film-makers and studios growing more panicked? Is a coherent
narrative conclusion possible in an era of infinite
distraction? Where does this all, well, end?
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. 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. Film-makers 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 Miserables? ''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
''We just knew we wouldn't show the assassination, because it
would sensationalise 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
''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.
By Steven Zeitchik.