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I recently watched one of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, Minari, and was pleasantly surprised. Minari tells the story of a young Korean family circa 1980 struggling to turn a few acres of Arkansas country into a Korean vegetable farm.
It was quite good, until it wasn’t.
This is a problem I keep coming up against with modern films: the endings suck. Those involved in producing them have this contemporary proclivity toward butchering otherwise excellent stories. These filmmakers craft great movies full of well-developed characters, witty or complex dialogue, stellar performances, and top-tier cinematography, but for some [bleepety bleeping] reason they can’t bring them to a worthy conclusion. They just can’t stick the landing, and viewers like me are left with pursed lips after uttering, “What a missed opportunity.” Exhibit A: Minari. (There will be others.)
I should probably put in a warning here because we’re going to be talking about endings. More specifically, bad endings, or in some cases, no ending at all.
At least Minari has an ending; you might even call it a happy one. Unfortunately, it’s neither earned, explained, or sensical. Right before a climactic fire destroys the family’s harvest, the parents are on the verge of divorce. Two scenes later they’re walking the property and seem like they’ve reconciled. The problem is that we don’t get to see any reconciling in between.
One minute, bad. The next minute, happy.
As a storyteller you don’t get to just leap over that gap; your viewers/readers deserve better. It’s not all that hard to add in a little 20-second scene that shows the transformation. You don’t even need dialogue, but you do need to do something so that your audience isn’t forced to draw on their imagination to fill in the gaps. I didn’t write it, you wrote it. So yoooou need tell meeee what happened.
Give me a reason to clap when I see the credits roll, rather than ask, “That’s it? So, are they back together now?”
Minari vaults, does a double rotation, and … lands on its backside. Just couldn’t stick the landing.
Sometimes intentional vagary is the point, which reminds me: Have you seen No Country For Old Men? It was amazing in practically every way. From the depth of scale established in the opening shots of hunting in the Texas wilderness, to the maniacal tension that dripped during a simple exchange over a coin flip, I was riveted. Every actor was perfect. The script was unique and fascinating. For about ninety minutes I was willing to tip my hat to the Coen brothers for living up to the expectations for (near) cinematic perfection.
And then the nihilism kicked in. Right before my eyes, the film transformed from a perfect cat-and-mouse story into an exploration of meaninglessness and the fickle nature of man. How? Well for one thing, our protagonist, the one we’ve been rooting for through every close call and painful injury, is suddenly dead. Not only dead, but killed off-screen and with nary a detail.
How dare you? You want to kill him? Fine, it’s your movie, but we should understand how. Did he get a shot off, or was he gunned down from behind? Did he have some heroic last stand, or suffer with dying regret for leaving his wife in jeopardy of cartel henchmen? At the very least, we should get to look into his eyes one last time. We’re invested in this character. It begs questions that are never answered. That’s not only bad storytelling, it’s rude. Really rude. Why do that?
But No Country For Old Men does its audience even worse. The psycho hitman we’ve grown to respect (in a complex Hannibal Lecter kind of way) doesn’t win but he doesn’t lose either. He literally just walks off. Where? No idea.
It’s meaninglessness, (the critics say) don’t you get it? It mirrors the futility of life. Isn’t it brilliant!?
No. It’s stupid, and the audience deserves better. They’ve invested time and emotional energy to get to this point and you’re not doing your job by just ending it with the villain walking off with no indication of what’s to follow. Imagine if Gone With The Wind had ended with Rhett walking off.
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” End Credits.
No, we need Scarlett’s final monologue to know that she’s not licked, that she’s a survivor, and she’s going to get him back.
Meaninglessness was not the point of The Revenant although that movie sure makes the case for the here one minute, gone the next nature of life – survive an Indian attack, get mauled by a bear, successfully steal a horse, get chased off a cliff. The Revenant is billed as a “boldly original epic adventure [that] captures the extraordinary power of the human spirit in an immersive and visceral experience.” That’s a little wordy, but it’s also true, every line of it.
The Revenant is spectacular, right up until the final scene where Tom Hardy gets his scalp removed (no problem with that, he truly deserved it). Our hero, the unkillable Mr. Glass, lays bleeding in the snow, victorious (we assume because he’s not dead yet) but severely injured. And then…END CREDITS!
Oh, come on!
“What about the kid who betrayed him? Don’t we get to see some reconciliation? How do we even know that Glass survived? He was stabbed a bunch of times and is bleeding out.”
“He overcame more the first time.”
“You can assume he’d be fine.”
“Why should I have to assume anything?”
Now, I understand perfectly well that Hollywood committees have this tendency to strangle the creativity right out of a film. And every director is forced to trim their material to meet market parameters for length, content, et cetera. I get that. Some people blame the studio for obstructing the artist’s vision at the expense of the audience, but any storyteller who can’t rework their material to fit within those parameters needs to go back to writing school.
Or to put it another way: Learn to edit.
See what I did there? Nineteen words trimmed down to three. It’s not that hard.
There’s a long-established principle among guys who create or fix stuff: If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. That principle is just as true when crafting a story as it is when building a boat or tiling a bathroom. Toward the end of a project, it’s always tempting to cut corners and do a quick once-over, just to be done already. But with all creative endeavors, a sloppy ending will negate the care that proceeded it, and leave those viewing the finished product shaking their heads, unsatisfied.
Learn how to stick the landing, whether making a movie or tiling that bathroom, because no man ever wants to hear his wife say, “That’s it?”
No filmmaker should want to hear that from his audience either.Published in