WARNING: the following column contains spoilers for several recent movies that rely on audiences NOT knowing the ending. So if you have yet to seeThe Village,Criminal,Taking LivesorOpen Waterand want to be "surprised" by their final scenes, please DO NOT READ FURTHER. And if you wish to discuss this column, write me at:[email protected]
For those of you who lined up for M. Night Shyamalan's The Villagethis summer, my guess is you were as disappointed as I was -- especially where its ending is concerned. Since he first made a splash with The Sixth Sense, the shock ending has been Shyamalan's trademark. But look at all the pipe M. had to lay to get you to buy his ending this time. In the last scene of The Village, it is revealed that the titular hamlet is, in fact, a commune set up in the woods by ex-hippies. It is overseen by William Hurt and what we learn at the end is that he is the son of a very rich man who was wealthy enough to:
1. Buy a huge tract of land in the middle of the Pennsylvania forest,
2. Pay for it to be fenced and guarded in perpetuity (by a highly paid Hollywood director no less!) and
3. Grease the palms of politicians to make sure that all airplanes were diverted from flying overhead so that those who lived in the village would...
Would what? Be fooled into thinking it was 1899?
These must be sadistic ex-hippies, too, because on top of keeping the secret about the true nature of this Frontier Land, they have kept the truth from their kids. They have even created their very own Boogie Man, just to make sure the kids never venture from the village, and some color-coding that would make Tom Ridge proud. None of this is known until the ending of course. It's only at the end that we realize this was all really created with one purpose in mind: to fool us. This world is not set up for the characters in this movie, it is set up for the audience, with one, rather moronic, purpose: turning over that last card for that final "shocker" moment.
Criminal is coming out soon. It's a con man movie and relies on what most con man movies rely on -- tricking you. But while con man movies of this type are often powerful, like the underrated Matchstick Men starring Nicholas Cage, this one plays out more like The Village. And it is just as logic-free. The film stars John C. Reilly as a veteran player of the long conn who takes on Diego Luna as the up-and-coming student. But it is only when the final card is turned, and we see who played whom, that we realize this is an exercise in dumb. It's like saying "And Then I Woke Up" -- one of the classic cheats in storytelling. And made me more angry than wowed.
The trick ending has, in fact, run rampant here in Hollywood lately, a mini-fad that I hope will stop, because it adds up to only one thing in my book: shoddy storytelling. Check out Taking Lives starring Angelina Jolie that comes out on DVD this week. The trick ending of this film is that Angelina draws the killer (Ethan Hawke) to her by pretending to be pregnant. Scenes of her walking around an isolated town (also in Pennsylvania -- land of whammy endings I guess) are all about showing her as vulnerable. Angelina pats and strokes her huge tummy even when she is alone in bed out at her isolated farmhouse. It's just us and Angelina at this point, as she hangs up curtains in the baby's room, and reads through a book titled "101 Names For Your Imaginary Child." When the showdown comes, and Angelina's stomach is punched and pummeled, we're horrified. And we get no relief when we find it was only a joke. This is all about the triumphant moment when the empowered Angelina rips off her fake stomach and kills Ethan. Ethan looks on in horror. Us too. We paid $10 a piece for this silliness. Talk about a whammy ending.
Point is: none of these finales is organic to the story and the whole house of cards is built on the very shaky intent of tricking the viewer. None of these examples is about the characters -- it's like they're stand-ins set up only for the purpose of making the ending work. The golden rule of "Tell the audience everything" has been exchanged for "Don't tell the audience anything until the end so they can create buzz at Starbucks later." Compare and contrast with a movie that I happened to catch this weekend on AMC -- Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. In this suspense masterpiece, we, the audience, are told fairly shortly after Jimmy Stewart meets the now red-headed Kim Novak just exactly where the blonde Kim Novak went, and how the murder that tricked him was pulled off. The ending is a shocker, yes, but it comes from an irony that fits the tale. You can't recapture lost love, and to prove it Kim #2 dies just as Kim #1 should have. Fade to black. It's one of the most surprising endings ever. But it respected the audience. And it remains a classic.
Of the recent slew of shocker endings, I have to hand it to Open Water. No fooling of the audience was in mind here, but the ending in which the surviving wife decides that she can no longer pretend took my breath away. After an hour and ten minutes of shaky, hand-held home movies, my need to ask for my money back was reversed by this ending. Oh! So that's what this movie is about, I thought: It's one long, suicide note. The only dirty trick was in selling it like Jaws. Open Water is no Jaws. It's Blair Witch meets Sartre.
I think this shocker-ending trend may be fading away, thank God, and the reaction to M. Night Shyamalan's latest may be the final nail in the coffin. The Village was so universally panned, and the power of the whammies he has tried since Sixth Sense has so diminished that maybe others will re-think the benefits of the surprise ending too and get back to basics. If moviemakers can rid themselves of the need to give us a shocking ending, they might come up with one that does something really shocking -- satisfies.