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Tilting at Windmills

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January 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BAD ENDINGS....Christopher Orr hands out movie awards today. Here's an excerpt:

5. There Will Be Blood
Had it not been for a terribly ill-conceived final scene, this magisterial epic might have been number one on the list.

....Worst Ending:
There Will Be Blood

Question: is this fair? Can a film have the worst ending of the entire year and yet still rate as the fifth best overall movie? I haven't seen There Will Be Blood, but on general principle I'd say no. A great film can have an undistinguished ending, or even a dumb ending (Magnolia, say), but if it's a conventional narrative (as I understand There Will Be Blood is), shouldn't an actively bad ending take it out of the running? Or am I just being a fogey?

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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Critics don't need standards of criticism, do they?

Posted by: freelunch on January 4, 2008 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Magnolia, not Magnolias.

Robert Towne has expressed dislike for his own ending to Chinatown, but that is still a great movie. (Towne has revised his opinion since and now likes the ending, but I can never get past the fact that if Jake waits two hours to go confront Noah Cross, then Evelyn gets away.)

Posted by: Singularity on January 4, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Having seen the movie, I can see where he's coming from. Still, I don't think it was the final scene in TWBB that was the problem (and I thought the last 1 minute or so was excellent even if the speech before that was over-the-top), but the 20 minutes or so before that, when the movie jumped ahead in time in a surprisingly careless way, given what had come before.

But I do think the quality of a movie can stand above its ending (from this year I can think of Rescue Dawn as an example) -- generally people put too much emphasis on the ending of movies. Books somehow manage to avoid this criticism, probably because one spends so much more time in the middle of the book than in the middle of the movie.

Posted by: crazymonk on January 4, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Also, There Will Be Blood is far from a conventional narrative.

Posted by: crazymonk on January 4, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

I once saw a movie, White Mischief, that was a pretty decent British-set melodrama in Africa; but, when the credits rolled, the movie showed a different perpective that made the movie very, very good. So yes, endings matter, it is huge part of the creative effort, and Magnolia's ending was brillant or we would not be talking about it eight years later. Often, the plot of certain films involves how to finish a movie, e.g., Adaptation. Once in a while, artists decide not to end a projects, e.g., The Sopranos, leaving a lacunae of expectations.

Posted by: Raoul on January 4, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin's right. A truly bad ending ruins even a great, movie. (Saving Private Ryan comes to mind.) A great movie can survive a mediocre ending, but an ending bad enough to be "worst of the year" is certainly worst than mediocre.

Posted by: Cap'n Phealy on January 4, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

I though Magnolia had a great ending.

Posted by: Royko on January 4, 2008 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

For those who haven't seen it: "There Will Blood" is, basically, a one-man-show of not-very-tightly-connected vignettes (the one man being Daniel Day-Lewis, although other characters appear onscreen, they don't really do much.)

Bearing that in mind, it seems a bit unfair to rip on the movie for having a weak ending--the entire arc of the story is completely predictable and clichéd, but that's almost irrelevant to the experience of the film.

Posted by: James Gary on January 4, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, There Will Be Blood gets my vote for Most Overrated Movie of the Year. The critics went nuts in some sort of groupthink swoon, even, as Kevin points out, going so far as claiming some self-contradictory things like "the ending was horrible, but the movie was still great." Uh, no. The ending was, indeed, notably stupid and tacked-on, but all that came before blew chunks, too.

Day-Lewis' performance was all the same Scrunchy-Eyed Pirate Guy tics and mannerisms he got away with in Gangs of NY, plus his accent came from outer space, not the Wisconsin of his character's youth.

As for the rest of the movie, it made almost no sense: why was Plainview so misanthropic? why was he so deeply self-aware that he was capable of analyzing himself ("I can't enjoy my success unless everyone around me has failed")? why does this latter insight seem completely at odds with his own behavior (we don't see anyone else around him fail, really; he doesn't betray any of his colleagues; the Big Oil companies thrive anyway, etc.)?

Sign me,
Not getting it

Posted by: pdp on January 4, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I remember sitting through the first two hours of Magnolia at our local theatre in 1999, thinking about what a magnificent film this is -- and then the frogs started plummeting splat! splat! from the sky into that gas station parking lot, and I immediately began reassessing my opinion sharply downward.

The actors themselves were positively superb, but that ending was without a doubt the stupidest fucking conclusion that I've ever seen put to celluloid. In but a few short moments, it rendered an entire 133-minute film completely pointless, and left a bad taste in my mouth.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 4, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure it's true that a terrible ending ruins an otherwise great narrative. Consider Huckleberry Finn: widely acclaimed as one of the best American novels, it is also nearly universally excoriated for its terrible ending.

Posted by: Stephen Frug on January 4, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps the ending was the "worst" not because of its nature as an ending, but because it prevented "There Will Be Blood" from being number one?

Posted by: the good reverend on January 4, 2008 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

why was he so deeply self-aware that he was capable of analyzing himself?

Because that's Contemporary-Film Device #1, possibly deriving from critics' and fanboys' looove of self-expository monologue in the middle of the second act. Especially if it's completely out of character, as in There Will Be Blood. I found it really annoying too.

Posted by: James Gary on January 4, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

I'll wait for Kevin's "gut" or emotional reaction to the movie before making my judgment. After his Chris Matthews lovefest yesterday, I'm not sure how much to trust his reason or his emotion.

I'm kidding, Kevin...on the square. Your comment last night was unlike anything I've ever seen from you. Very out of character.

Posted by: JSmith on January 4, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

"shouldn't an actively bad ending take it out of the running?"

Huckleberry Finn has a pretty bad ending, but it's still the greatest book ever written in America.

Posted by: Bob on January 4, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

I truly detested the ending of The Departed (not the very end with Mark Wahlberg, but the climactic scene with Leo, Damon, and the black dude). Up until that point, I would have classified it as one of the best movies I had ever seen, but the ending knocked down to maybe the second or third best movie I saw that year. So yes, a movie can be truly great except for a travesty of an ending and still crack a top five of the year list.

Posted by: stoneyforest on January 4, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

I have a particular theory. It's that it is the ending that, more than any other single thing, makes or breaks a movie.

There is nothing easier in the world to build up suspense in a movie, and interest in the plot and characters. Sometimes just a single mysterious scene or an unresolved episode can capture one's interest, and get one wondering, what happens next?

The problem is almost always in the attempted resolutions of those adumbrations and teasers. If the resolution is incomplete, or incoherent, or utterly contrived, then all the built up suspense is rendered pointless. I find that there are few things more frustrating and anger inducing in cinema than such endings. You feel like you've been led down the garden path, and made a fool of.

I'd say there easily a dozen films that seem quite good until the ending for every one that makes it through to a solid, satisfying resolution. I've always remarked how difficult it seems to be to get the ending right. That's where the psychology of characters and the many elements of the plot must suddenly come together in one overarching situation or event that shines light on them all retrospectively.

I've been known to shout curses at movies in theaters when they don't end in a way I entirely approve of.

The last one was "No Country for Old Men".

Posted by: frankly0 on January 4, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I think my out loud comment about "No Country for Old Men" was "What the fuck was that??"

Posted by: frankly0 on January 4, 2008 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Hmph. I enjoyed TWBB for its unapologetic theatricality. And it's ending? High comedy. I do think the last act was rushed, however.

Posted by: Gil on January 4, 2008 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Huckleberry Finn had a pretty bad ending, and it seems to have faired all right.

David Denby called it a masterpiece of American cinema, for what it's worth.

And besides, you're a liberal. You should be able to hold contradictory thoughts in your mind. I say no contradiction!

Posted by: Jeff Alworth on January 4, 2008 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

Huckleberry Finn had a pretty bad ending, and it seems to have faired all right.

But it wasn't, in fact, cinema.

Different media, different expectations.

Posted by: frankly0 on January 4, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

I've read numerous otherwise positive reviews of I Am Legend that lament its terrible ending, and it's been enough to keep me away from a movie I really wanted to see. If a movie has a substantial flaw but it's in the beginning or middle it's more forgivable. Awful endings are a deal-breaker.

Posted by: Toast on January 4, 2008 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Try monoprice.com for cables. Best Buy and others have insane markup on them.

Posted by: TylerG on January 4, 2008 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

Singularity: "Robert Towne has expressed dislike for his own ending to Chinatown, but that is still a great movie."

Actually, the ending of Chinatown as filmed was entirely director Roman Polanski's idea.

In Robert Towne's initial draft of the screenplay, Evelyn Mulwray shoots and kills her father Noah Cross in that final scene, and is subsequently arrested by Lt. Lou Escobar for the murder of both him and her husband Hollis (for which she had earlier clearly been framed by her own father), while P.I. Jake Gittes is left to contemplate his own pending arrest as an accessory, powerless to help either himself or her.

Polanski's decision to revise the film's conclusion, by having the innocent femme fatale Evelyn ruthlessly gunned down by the police on that Chinatown street while trying in vain to escape, initially enraged his screenwriter. I think that it was only through the perspective of a number of years that Towne was able to rightly conclude that his own final scene as initially envisioned had still wrapped things up too tidy and neat.

By contrast, Polanski's simultaneously morose and shocking ending managed to render Jake Gittes, Noah Cross and the entire movie audience practically speechless (save for Noah moaning repeatedly "Oh Lord!" and Jake numbly muttering to himself, "As little as possible ..."), and thus all would be forever haunted by the rank injustice of the story's messy and tragic conclusion.

And that, I would argue, was a truly inspirational decision on Roman Polanski's part, upon which turned what would have otherwise merely been a director's heartfelt and well-crafted homage to the heyday of film noir, into one of cinema's epic masterpieces of storytelling, mystery and intrigue.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 4, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

Magnolia's ending was not dumb.

Deus ex machina. Look it up.

Posted by: danno on January 4, 2008 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

I must agree with Donald from Hawaii's comments on "Magnolia." I was having a great time until the frogs. I felt so ripped off, I even tried to get my money back.

Posted by: ninja3000 on January 4, 2008 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding "Deus ex machina", what does this prove?

Yes, there's a literary term for tossing yourself a huge life raft when you don't know how to tie up all of the loose ends.

To me that's one of the huge drawbacks with highly praised authors like Marquez. There's a phrase "magical realism" too, it doesn't mean anyone is forced to like it as a literary device.

I don't know if anyone here ever read Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" but I was pretty bummed when 200+ pages into a very entertaining "coming of age" story, suddenly the main f---ing character gained the ability to fly.


Forget about wasting two hours in a movie, how about wasting umpteen hours in some author's novel to discover a flying character? "Love For Chocolate" anyone?


So why cite "deus ex machina" as proof that something is not dumb.

There's already another perfectly good phrase for dumb endings: "dumb endings".

Haven't seen TWBB but it can't possibly be as bad and overrated as "Me, You and Everyone We Know"?

Posted by: JR1 on January 4, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

I felt so ripped off, I even tried to get my money back.

They won't do it. That's why I curse instead. The worst thing they can do is throw you out, and that's what you want anyway.

Posted by: frankly0 on January 4, 2008 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

The Departed's abrupt and disappointing ending did not hurt its Oscar chances.

Posted by: Brojo on January 4, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Me, You and Everyone We Know is a very good movie-and very original. Any movie that introduces me to a new art styles gets my attention. I would not necessarily say that the frogs represent deux ex machina in Magnolia so much as they represent a biblical plague. One concept is Greek, the other Hebrew. The difference is that the former does not need an explanation and the explanation for the frog squall is that God is punishing Los Angeles because of the events that have transpired (remember: drugs, incest, suicide).

Posted by: raoul on January 4, 2008 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

Have you ever seen the last five seconds of Red River (1948)? It is one of the most inane and ridiculous moments ever committed to celluloid. And yet I wouldn't for one moment hesitate in calling the overall movie one of the greatest of all time.

Posted by: Hunter on January 4, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Watching comedy skits reminds one that good endings are important. Too many comedy skits have poor punch line endings. Movies have a longer narrative and can still be considered good with a bad or disappointing ending.

Posted by: Brojo on January 4, 2008 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

Magnolia can be read as an interpretation of Exodus. From that point of view, the rain of frogs is quite fitting.

Posted by: dob on January 4, 2008 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't seen There Will Be Blood yet, but the expectations are already greater than any movie I've seen in ten years.

But to answer the question, good movies can have bad endings. Usually the worst endings are the ones that don't end in time. Take Psycho, for example. The movie was already over and Hitchcock comes back with a scene in a room with a few marginal characters talking about Bates's problem for five minutes. Total bunk. Anyway, it's just one example.

Fwiw, I liked the raining frogs in Magnolia and my vote for the most overrated movie of the year is No Country for Old Men. I can't believe the critics are so gullible.

Posted by: JJF on January 4, 2008 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

dob: "Magnolia can be read as an interpretation of Exodus. From that point of view, the rain of frogs is quite fitting."

Given that logic, I suppose you would have also found it perfectly appropriate for director Robert Redford to conclude Ordinary People with Mary Tyler Moore's suburban ice queen being driven to complete insanity by the sudden appearance of a biblical plague of locusts, instead of merely leaving home early one morning and thus abandoning her husband and son.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 4, 2008 at 6:40 PM | PERMALINK

I have see TWBB TWICE!! and it is a great picture and DDL is amazing --

it is about greed , oil and religion-- the ending is shocking but watching the movie a second time you know it is coming and understand the reasons behind it

Posted by: smartone on January 4, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

The issue of the ending is a red herring. The ending of There Will Be Blood is fine, appropriate, right. You should ignore whoever this critic is. See the film. It's good. Day-Lewis is great.

Posted by: hollywood on January 4, 2008 at 7:00 PM | PERMALINK

I had the same reaction as frankly0 when "No Country for Old Men" ended. It left me totally conflicted. I was watching it totally transfixed, exhilarated, totally invested on what was happening on the screen, and during the last 10 minutes everything collapsed. I've heard from a lot of people about how the Coen brothers were faithful to the original material, etc., but I was watching a movie and I would have liked them to actually film an ending -- I would have minded less if the movie just ended without any resolution, and I don't object to bleak endings, as long as they are actually filmed and not narrated by a distinctive but essentially minor character. In any case, it is great filmmaking but it's also frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying.

I thought it was the worst great movie I've ever seen.

Posted by: Aris on January 4, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

Re bad endings I always think of Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." Would have been a great movie if [WARNING: SPOILER ALERT] it had ended with Cruise's character sinking into his comatose prison, which would have fit with the movie's supposed theme that we can't escape our fate. The final ten-fifteen minutes, with the hackneyed plots points of him being broken out of prison, the villian being confronted at a party in his honor and confessing the entire scheme, and the final happy ending scenes of domestic bliss, betrayed all that had gone on before.

Posted by: Stefan on January 4, 2008 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

The famous Howard Hawks definition of a good movie: "Three good scenes, no bad scenes."

Therefore, any bad scene disqualifies a movie from being good. Or maybe he meant "great."

Anyway, that's the rule for movies, so Huckleberry Finn is immune.

Posted by: Grumpy on January 4, 2008 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

I just returned from watching There Will Be Blood at the cinema. Loved it!!! Loved every minute of it - from the opening 20 or so minutes with no dialogue, to the totally unexpected ending (if you did not read anything about it). Daniel Day Louis is just magnificent.

Also, I just don't understand how people can rip the ending for No Country for Old Men? (Although, like frankly0, there was a gentleman sitting behind me, shouting expletives at the screen as the end credits rolled, in a theatre in Union City, CA.) I thought that the movie was superb, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem were terrific. And I loved the ending!!! I think that it fit perfectly with the movie.

Anyway, what is wrong with a bit of ambiguity at the end? Why do all conflicts need to be resolved? It's like life.

Finally, I think some of the above posters are being too harsh on critics. It is hardly groupthink for everyone to like the movie - good movies and good acting tend to inspire people. And, after watching 200-300 movies a year, critics tend to reward those who take risks, who make bold movies, and do things differently that work.

Posted by: Fighting Words on January 4, 2008 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

so what exactly is a "bad ending" anyway?

Posted by: kevin m on January 4, 2008 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

Just saw TWBB. Looked forward to it for weeks. Not as thrilled as I thought I'd be from scuttlebutt, tarailers, director/star interviews, etc. It's an extended character acting exercise, my two cents. Light on story, light on character development. What story and character development that we get is very light in the loafers. The flash-forward coda (last reel) seems like an easy way to bring two earlier characters back together for an easy (and non-developmental) resolution. Yeah, okay, there it is. I see it. So what?

I dunno, I was expecting more. The first half, maybe 2/3 of the film I thought was aimed for greatness. Liked Punch Drunk Love a *lot* more, I thought more was going on and some actual character development.

Posted by: Robustus on January 4, 2008 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think there are bad endings--only endings to bad movies, and the bad at the end is a strain that can be seen from the start of the movie.
"The Natural" was just on again. The second time you see it, the star-fellation is obvious from the first scene.
Same with "Saving Private Ryan". Know what actually happened? A chaplain was tasked with finding the soldier. He went out on the battlefield alone for a few days and found him. That might have been a great movie, but SOMEBODY wanted to make the greatest episode of "Combat" that ever was.
"Gangs of New York" collapsed not long after Liam Neeson did. Fascinating collection of scenes but no movie.
"Magnolia"? Nothing in that movie was more amazing than John C. Reilly--he did everything but levitate. The frogs were worth it just to see his reaction.
I'm like the Waco Kid, I love a happy ending, but I don't like having my intelligence insulted either--and who in hell expects to see a happy ending in a project that has Cormac McCarthy's name in the credits?

Posted by: Steve Paradis on January 4, 2008 at 10:35 PM | PERMALINK

Agree with Steve Paradis on No Country for Old Men. I don't understand where franly0 is coming from. How do you have a happy ending in a movie that foresees unchecked social decay? To me, it fit that the concluding message, as understood by the main character in the ending, was that the individual has to turn to himself and his dreams, not society, to solve the puzzle.

Posted by: DevilDog on January 5, 2008 at 12:11 AM | PERMALINK

kevin m: "so what exactly is a 'bad ending' anyway?"

After watching over two hours of intense drama delivered by a superb ensemble cast, it's three minutes of seeing thousands of frogs inexplicably splattering on a gas station parking lot and various other sites, whicch causes an ambulance to careen out of control and crash.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 5, 2008 at 12:21 AM | PERMALINK

I read the book by Upton Sinclair when I heard about the movie, which I have not seen yet. Most of the characters' names have been changed, which is probably a warning that the story has been altered by the writers. The book rambles, and like The Jungle, gets very preachy toward the end.

Posted by: Rula Lenska on January 5, 2008 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

Oddly, I was perfectly fine with the rain of frogs in Magnolia, but really, really hated everyone singing the song. That's where my suspension of disbelief snapped. Did it come after the frogs?

I didn't see any truly bad endings last year, but Last King of Scotland got my award for 2006. After a really powerful scene by Forrest Whittaker about how Africans are real people and not just to be toyed with by white tourists, what happens? The main character is rescued by a Magic Negro. It was sickening.

Posted by: T. Martin on January 5, 2008 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

I personally like quirky, unresolved and unconventional endings. The whole let's-resolve-all-the-conflicts style of endings is just so high school English class.

Worst ending ever: Signs, with the dude swigning his baseball bat to redeem his adolescent failure. Give me frogs any day.

Posted by: Ronnie Pudding on January 5, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

The ending of TWWB is frankly just fine, although, as has been mentioned, the last act is certainly rushed. The whole last act recalled the last bits of Citizen Kane to me. And DDL was just too awesome -- like he was channeling John Huston (who I love).

And for contemporary fiction's frustrating endings, try on Infinite Jest for size.....

Posted by: cassandra m on January 5, 2008 at 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

JR1, I've read "Motherless Brooklyn" and loved it. I've also read the book you're talking about, which was a different book called "The Fortress of Solitude". I wasn't crazy about it, but not because of the fantasy part. Anyway, no one does anything supernatural in "Motherless Brooklyn."

Posted by: Hob on January 6, 2008 at 3:13 AM | PERMALINK

Counterexample: Tootsie. Stupid ending, delightful film.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on January 6, 2008 at 5:38 AM | PERMALINK

"Night of the Hunter". Now that's a bad ending.
How about "American Beauty"? Not a very good movie to begin with, but terrible at the end.

The d'enouement issue really hits home in crime/police dramas. Remember the ending to "L.A. Confidential"? Typical shootout that you could sit at home and watch on TV on any number of shows. Same for "The Limey". "The Big Easy" also comes to mind; the ending could have been from "Miami Vice" - boats, guns, guys falling into the water, snore. I guess there are a million examples.

Woody Allen is one guy who knows how to end a script.

Posted by: Noam Sane on January 7, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK
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