Stick the Landing

 

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.”

“So?”

“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.

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  1. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    The only one of those I saw was No Country For Old Men.  It’s like someone told the editor that the movie is too long and he has to remove 6-10 minutes from the film, so he just chopped off the last several minutes.  Maybe there is an extended director’s cut that includes the ending?

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Vince Guerra: Learn to edit.

    And then edit again.

    • #2
  3. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only one of those I saw was No Country For Old Men. It’s like someone told the editor that the movie is too long and he has to remove 6-10 minutes from the film, so he just chopped off the last several minutes. Maybe there is an extended director’s cut that includes the ending?

    Spoiler alert!

     

     

     

    I was just going to list this movie as an example, but you beat me to it.  There was no resolution, just the bad guy maybe killing the widow, then getting in a wreck, and the sheriff talking to his wife.  Duh!  It left me flat, after all the action and tension leading up to the ending.

    I thought the ending of Nights in Rodanthe sucked too, but it’s likely the book ended that way . . .

    • #3
  4. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Vince Guerra: 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?”

    I was thinking of making love . . .

    But seriously, that’s exactly what my daughter said after giving birth – “That’s it?”  I think the epidural was at max . . .

    • #4
  5. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Stad (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra: 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?”

    I was thinking of making love… 

    😉

    • #5
  6. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    I haven’t seen any recent movies (so I’m even farther out than the guys doing back bench analysis), but reading the press reports (especially in business-oriented publications), it seems that Hollywood’s dependence on sequels has led almost everybody to leave open the possibility for a sequel. Even more difficult than writing a solid ending is writing a solid ending that also leaves potential future story lines open. Maybe it’s easier to just write a vague “ending” that leaves story lines for future installments. 

    • #6
  7. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    Minari was a good movie from most aspects, but it is of the style that I dislike that not only doesn’t resolve things, but leaves them worse off than when they started.  I balance that against a similar ending to one of my favorite books The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton.  That story ends with a tragedy similar to Minari, but the arc takes the family closer as opposed to farther apart and the tragedy actually is seen by the main character as the end to the more major struggle of the 7 year drought.  We feel a sense of closure that the story is told, the characters have developed and changed, and are better off than when they started their journey.  With Minari we get none some development and change, but little of the rest.  Not to mention a big lack of the resolution of why the minari was important.

    • #7
  8. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Well if I remember correctly the Coen Brothers ended No Country For Old Men similarly to how McCarthy’s novel ends. I think Llewelyn also dies in the same way. Eh to each their own, I had no qualms about the way this particular story ends. I guess I’m used to Cormac McCarthy’s stories. I still like the movie a lot.

    It seems indie family dramas like Minari tend to just end or fizzle out at the end. Not sure if it’s just the style or what.

    • #8
  9. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    Vince Guerra: 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.

    It’s funny, I never saw it that way exactly (excepting the bold part). Critics fawning over the apparent meaninglessness says more about the sorry state of most criticism than the movie itself. The Coens have been making some of the most intriguing spiritual (by which I mean Christian) movies since The Big Lebowski, but it’s a bit complicated since they aren’t Christians themselves. There isn’t really an American Jewish film tradition, not in the way there’s been a Protestant and a Catholic one.

    Sheriff  Bell is, in a sense, ready for death: not because he hopes to be reunited with the Father- though it’s indirectly touched on in the final scene-but because he’s tired and “feels overmatched.” Probably a reasonable sentiment, considering the things he’s seen. (Remember him as “a man of vision” from Lonesome Dove?)

    The scene where he visits his cousin Ellis shows that the significance of his efforts are lost on him, but they aren’t on Ellis. It’s around that point that we realize how unsatisfying a hero Bell is. But he is a hero; he’s also only “got” creatures that are half-wild or just plain outlaws, but he did his best… until he quit. At least Bell has a wife, too; Ellis ain’t so lucky.

    That said, I still think No Country is a little overrated.  As far as stuck landings with the Coens, I don’t think they’ll ever beat their Lady Killers remake.

    • #9
  10. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    Minari was a good movie from most aspects, but it is of the style that I dislike that not only doesn’t resolve things, but leaves them worse off than when they started. I balance that against a similar ending to one of my favorite books The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. That story ends with a tragedy similar to Minari, but the arc takes the family closer as opposed to farther apart and the tragedy actually is seen by the main character as the end to the more major struggle of the 7 year drought. We feel a sense of closure that the story is told, the characters have developed and changed, and are better off than when they started their journey. With Minari we get none some development and change, but little of the rest. Not to mention a big lack of the resolution of why the minari was important.

    Yeah, that too. About half way through I suspected that the dad was going to become incapacitated or dead. Then the boy would end up becoming strong and through hard work, realize his fathers dream on his behalf. The minari probably was meant to symbolize…hardiness or something, but it wasn’t very clearly defined. Kinda odd given the title.  

    • #10
  11. Pagodan Member
    Pagodan
    @MatthewBaylot

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only one of those I saw was No Country For Old Men. It’s like someone told the editor that the movie is too long and he has to remove 6-10 minutes from the film, so he just chopped off the last several minutes. Maybe there is an extended director’s cut that includes the ending?

    No, they filmed it pretty much how it happens in the book. 

    • #11
  12. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Pagodan (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only one of those I saw was No Country For Old Men. It’s like someone told the editor that the movie is too long and he has to remove 6-10 minutes from the film, so he just chopped off the last several minutes. Maybe there is an extended director’s cut that includes the ending?

    No, they filmed it pretty much how it happens in the book.

    What an opportunity to take another book with a lackluster ending and turn it into an epic film. 

    Uncas disapproves. 

    • #12
  13. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Sounds like The Sopranos.

    • #13
  14. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Vince Guerra:

    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

    😂😂😂

    • #14
  15. davenr321 Coolidge
    davenr321
    @davenr321

    Pagodan (View Comment):
    No, they filmed it pretty much how it happens in the book. 

    Nihilism is in. When done well I recognize it as art. Cormac McCarthy’s works, I think, are supernaturally nihilistic. 

    • #15
  16. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Samuel Block (View Comment):
    As far as stuck landings with the Coens, I don’t think they’ll ever beat their Lady Killers remake.

    I think Fargo is their best work, and it had a great ending . . .

    • #16
  17. Theodoric of Freiberg Member
    Theodoric of Freiberg
    @TheodoricofFreiberg

    Stad (View Comment):

    Samuel Block (View Comment):
    As far as stuck landings with the Coens, I don’t think they’ll ever beat their Lady Killers remake.

    I think Fargo is their best work, and it had a great ending . . .

    I agree. Fargo is a masterpiece. And I also concur with @Vince Guerra’s take on No Country for Old Men.

    • #17
  18. Pagodan Member
    Pagodan
    @MatthewBaylot

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only one of those I saw was No Country For Old Men. It’s like someone told the editor that the movie is too long and he has to remove 6-10 minutes from the film, so he just chopped off the last several minutes. Maybe there is an extended director’s cut that includes the ending?

    No, they filmed it pretty much how it happens in the book.

    What an opportunity to take another book with a lackluster ending and turn it into an epic film.

    Uncas disapproves.

    I’m never opposed to a movie adaptation improving on the book. The above example being one of my favorite examples, from one of my favorite directors. Another good example being “L.A. Confidential” which left the a good portion of the original novel on the cuting room floor. 

    But with “No Country For Old Men” I have to disagree. To be fair, I am a huge Corman McCarthy fan, and have been ever since I read “All the Pretty Horses” in my high school sophomore English class. I was a fan of what the Cohens did in hewing close to the books resolution. It doesn’t really matter how Llewellyn died, the fact is he was dead one way or the other from the moment he made his first decision. And I have no idea how anyone finds the end lackluster,  but I guess that’s why we have movie threads. 

    • #18
  19. Pagodan Member
    Pagodan
    @MatthewBaylot

    davenr321 (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):
    No, they filmed it pretty much how it happens in the book.

    Nihilism is in. When done well I recognize it as art. Cormac McCarthy’s works, I think, are supernaturally nihilistic.

    They grapple with a darker side of human nature, and the sometimes uncaring nature of the world and the universe. They deal with human frailitiy and the fact that man has a seemingly unlimited capacity for violence and depravity. On the other hand, he also writes beautifully about human yearning to find and create meaning. While quite possibly the bleakest novel ever written, “The Road” ends with the message that it is still important to carry the light of civiliation and human goodness, even in the face of, and in fact despite of, the completel collapse and near certain end of all human civilization. 

    • #19
  20. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Pagodan (View Comment):
    It doesn’t really matter how Llewellyn died, the fact is he was dead one way or the other from the moment he made his first decision.

    It does matter, because the moment someone tells you that a person you care about died your next question is always, “How?”

    We need to know what befell those we care about. 

    • #20
  21. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):
    It doesn’t really matter how Llewellyn died, the fact is he was dead one way or the other from the moment he made his first decision.

    It does matter, because the moment someone tells you that a person you care about died your next question is always, “How?”

    We need to know what befell those we care about.

    He got shot by some jerks. 😉 

    I guess my point (if I ever had one) is that even though Llewelyn is compelling, he isn’t really the hero of the story. Just a prodigal son who never returned. 

    • #21
  22. Vince Guerra Member
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Samuel Block (View Comment):

    Vince Guerra (View Comment):

    Pagodan (View Comment):
    It doesn’t really matter how Llewellyn died, the fact is he was dead one way or the other from the moment he made his first decision.

    It does matter, because the moment someone tells you that a person you care about died your next question is always, “How?”

    We need to know what befell those we care about.

    He got shot by some jerks. 😉

    I guess my point (if I ever had one) is that even though Llewelyn is compelling, he isn’t really the hero of the story. Just a prodigal son who never returned.

    Then it’s bad storytelling, because him winning (or losing but surviving, or losing but in a way that resolved something) was all I cared about. Bell was interesting, and I kept wondering what his role in all of this was going to be. Much like the lady cop in Fargo, I suspected he would be the one to kill or capture Chigurh, or maybe Llewellyn would have to sacrifice the money to save him or something, or even better, have one of those coin flip moments between Llewellyn and Chigurh. None of that happened and as a viewer all I felt was that of having been rope-a-doped. Sort of like a cinematic version of:

    “High five.” **Gives a high five**

    “Down low.” **Makes to give a low five but moves the hand at the last minute**

    “Too slow. Ha ha.”

    Not cool.

    • #22