Movies Without Endings
Happy ending? Sad? You can pretty much write your own these days
By Lily Hsu
In the final scene of the film Meek’s Cutoff, a group of settlers lost on the Oregon trail, low on food and water come to a crossroad. Will there be much needed water beyond the mountain or has their Indian guide lead them to an ambush? Unexpectedly, the movie credits start rolling, indicating the film has come to an end. The film’s lack of closure was met with unexpected chuckles from the Belcourt Theatre audience.
Movies with vague endings leave the audience to draw their own conclusions on how the story line should end. Such endings are the most effective when a movie does not provide clues on how the drama will end and when viewers are drawn to care about the fate of the characters. Sometimes this non ending format is effective, other times it is irrelevant to the story.
I took my teen-aged boys to see Meek’s Cutoff (2010) starring the versatile Michelle Williams in an understated performance. They were bored by the film’s slow pace, lack of action, dialogue and ultimately, the questionable fate of the settlers. Only when watching the film a second time (to write this piece) did scenes become more meaningful, with clues indicating the settlers’ fate.
In the film, three families of settlers have hired Stephen Meek to guide them through the Oregon trail. When the journey seems to be taking much longer than expected , the families sense that they are lost. With food and water running low, doubt at Meek’s ability to take them to their destination sets in.
Along the journey, the group encounters and captures a Cayuse Indian. Solomon Tetherow ( Will Patton), the unofficial leader of the group decides to spare the Indian’s life, hoping that he can guide them to water. His wife, Emily Tetherow (Williams), loathes Meek and questions his ability to guide the group; she makes overtures to the Indian to gain his trust. Still, the others, including Meek, are wary of the Indian’s intentions. Just who should the settlers trust to guide them to their destination — Meek or the Cayuse Indian — is the central question.
There is foreboding as each scene unfolds that the group won’t make its destination. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, the group must lower each of the three covered wagons down a steep embankment using ropes. As the third wagon is lowered, the rope breaks, sending the wagon careening down the hill, smashing into pieces. The family’s belongings are lost including the family’s water supply. Eventually one of the men succumbs to dehydration and perishes.
In one of the last scenes, the group comes across a tree, surely a sign of water. Moving on they arrive at a crossroad/glen. What lies over the mountain is unknown — has the Indian lead them to water? Or will there be an ambush? One of the characters summarizes their predicament by stating, “We’re close, but don’t know to what.” Although the end is unpredictable, there are signs that group will find water. In addition to encountering the tree, the film’s theme is twofold in that that Meek is not fit to lead the group to their destination, and that efforts by Emily Tetherow to befriend the Cayuse Indian will result in the latter leading the group to safety.
Your Sister’s Sister
Your Sister’s Sister (2011 ), a predictable, female oriented film has a non-ending last scene that asks “Is she or isn’t she?” — which is more of an epilogue rather than a resolution to the story. In the movie’s ending scene, Jack, Iris and her sister Hannah hover in a bathroom, anxiously awaiting the result of Hannah’s home pregnancy test. The movie fades before the test results are revealed to the audience.
Whether Hannah is pregnant or not doesn’t really matter. Hannah, who recently ended a relationship with her female partner, seduced Jack in an earlier scene, with the intention of getting pregnant. Jack, mourning the loss of his brother Tom a year earlier, goes up to spend time in Iris’s mountain cabin. Iris who is Jack’s best friend also happened to be Tom’s girlfriend.
The romantic tension between best friends Jack and Iris plays out where they discover that they are meant to be together despite Jack’s encounter with Hannah. Iris, feeling betrayal by Hannah, does require time to heal where she resolves her anger at her sister and promises to be there for her sister in the long term, should Hannah happen to be expecting. It is Iris’s forgiveness of both Jack and Hannah that is the real resolution of the film’s conflict.
That being said, the film’s ambiguous ending does present a possible film sequel, exploring how the three friends come together to raise the child, should Hannah’s pregnancy test results be positive.
The ambiguous ending to the Iranian film, A Separation (2011) is particularly effective because no clues are given in how the story will end. The 2012 Academy Award winner for best foreign language film, the movie is poignant as it shows that Iranians, in all their humanity do share core values with westerners, despite the political rhetoric that exists between our countries.
The final scene takes place in an Iranian court where a school-aged girl is about to announce whether she will live with her mother or father who are on the verge of divorce. The film ends before the daughter’s decision is revealed.
The movie begins where Simin wants the family to go abroad so that their daughter Termeh will have a better life. Nader, the husband, refuses to leave the country as he needs to stay to care for his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s. As the couple file for legal separation, the court rules that Simin cannot take Termeh out of the country without Nader’s permission, which he won’t allow.
When Nader hires Razieh, a housekeeper, to care for his father the situation goes from bad to worse. A physical altercation occurs between Nader and Razieh which results in Razieh accusing Nader of causing her to miscarry. Whether Nader is responsible for the miscarriage is the film’s central focus. What follows are intrigue, accusations, lies and cover ups by almost all of the major characters, either to protect one’s self interest or to protect loved ones.
Both Nader and Razieh are sympathetic characters who each have reasons for staking their ground. Nader must stay out of prison in order to care for Termeh. Razieh’s husband, an intense man easy to anger, unemployed for weeks does not know the she is working as a housekeeper for Nader.
In one dramatic scene, Termeh realizes with disappointment that Nader has lied to the court about the circumstances of Razieh’s miscarriage. Ironically, Termeh feels compelled to lie to the court about Razieh’s circumstances in order to protect her father.
In various scenes one sees a close bond between Termeh and both parents. Termeh decides to live with her father after the initial separation, knowing that her mother won’t leave the country without her. While the relationship between Simin and Termeh is somewhat strained, a bond exists nevertheless. Viewers also see the closeness between Nader and Termeh as he prepares her for an upcoming school quiz; in another scene, there is genuine in-the-moment exuberance as they play foosball.
Which parent she ultimately chooses to live with is anyone’s guess — and a highly effective ending to the film.