Last October, the Washington Post published an article on the ‘art’ of the ambiguous movie ending. A recent screening at the Walker’s newly revamped Cinema of Beasts of the Southern Wild, an independent film with a very unambiguous ending, had me thinking about the merits of the ambiguous ending. The Post article argues that, “the ambiguous ending has long been one of the hallmarks of the classic art-house film,” although the author allows that sometimes even a Hollywood film like Inception will sneak in an ambiguous ending (and clearly, as Beasts will attest, there are exceptions to the indie film rule).
In the Post review, Hornaday makes it sound as if an ambiguous ending’s only intention is to confound and frustrate the viewer. She writes, “when is a non-ending ending a legitimate artistic choice, and when is it just a cop-out? The answer lies in how effectively a filmmaker creates characters whom viewers are willing to care about and identify with — to the point of being willing to join them in perpetual limbo.” This implies that an ambiguous ending is an end in and of itself rather than means to an end (and ending to a means?). And this is certainly true of some films.
Inception (Hornaday’s example of a mainstream film that has borrowed the ambiguous ending) closes on Cobb’s spinning top, raising the question of whether he is in a dream or reality (you can view the ending here). How you decide to interpret the spinning top in the closing sequence of Inception will completely alter your perception of the film. Yet the film has no intention of giving you the answer or really even asking you to seriously contemplate the issue. According to an EW interview, director Nolan says he’s been asked about the spinning top more than any other element of any film he’s done. But he says, “there can’t be anything in the film that tells you the outcome one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake.” The ending is only meant to leave you with a frustration that you can’t know the answer (frustration that has such a kick because the two possible outcomes are so distinctly different).
But contrast this with Martha Marcy May Marlene. Hornaday does this film an injustice by grouping its ambiguous ending with Inception’s because upon closer inspection they have two dissimilar functions. Martha closes with Martha being taken to a mental health treatment center by her sister. As they drive they seem to be followed by a man (presumably sent by the cult from which Martha escaped) but the film ends before we discover if Martha arrives safely at the center or is kidnapped. While these two distinct outcomes are laid out for the audience and yet never actualized, it is made clear that both lead to a very similar future for Martha. Both the treatment facility and the cult are intended to confine Martha and strip her of any agency she gained by escaping the cult. The ambiguity in Martha forces the audience to realize that, despite the uncertainty of her future, the outcomes lead to the same place. This realization is made more powerfully by the ambiguous ending because while it is frustrating to know that the future will be unpleasant, it is even more frustrating to know that no matter what happens the future will be unpleasant. The ambiguous ending drives Martha’s nihilistic message home.
To some extent all films have ambiguous endings since we never know what happens after the credits roll, whether we are left with a conclusive scene or not. It is perhaps more practical and appropriate that Germans end their fairy tales “…and if they haven’t died yet, they are still living today” than our naïve “and so they lived happily ever after.” Perhaps we want to escape that uncertainty when we go to the movies. But I find it all the more frustrating to be left with a seemingly conclusive ending to a film that has so many more worthwhile questions to be asked. The ending of Beasts, a triumphant, and certainly visually arresting, parade down the bank of the Bathtub may leave the viewer with the warm fuzzies but washes away any of the more interesting questions the film raised. It might make it easier to say you enjoyed the last two hours — but it certainly makes it harder to take anything worth thinking about away from the film.