Thursday, March 27, 2008

The ends [*Spoiler alert*]

Last night Patrick and I watched The Mist, the Frank Darabont-directed adaptation of Stephen King's novella. (Photo above.) The ending-- spoiler alert here, so stop reading if you plan on checking out the film-- is unbelievably bleak. As in horribly, I-need-a-hug bleak. The movie follows a group of characters trapped in a supermarket when a mysterious mist filled with ghastly monsters invades their town. After spending the entire film trapped inside with the other squabbling townsfolk, five characters decide to make an escape attempt in a van parked outside. They eventually run out of fuel, and-- still surrounded by the mist, and having just witnessed a beast the size of a whale lumbering past-- decide to end their lives rather than be devoured by the monsters. (It's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year.) Their gun only has four bullets left, so David (Thomas Jane) takes it upon himself to shoot and kill his own son and the three other "survivors." Anguished and desperate, he gets out of the car and screams for the creatures to come get him. But what should emerge from the mist? A tank, followed by a convoy full of survivors. The military has overtaken the mist and its freakish inhabitants; David killed three friends and his own child moments before they all would have been rescued. He collapses to his knees and screams in agony. It's a gutsy ending to be sure, and one that packs an enormous and deeply disturbing emotional punch. The conclusion-- which was dreamed up by Darabont but approved by the somewhat more hopeful King-- got me thinking about some other less-than-happy endings over the years. While I'm hard-pressed to think of one as utterly bleak and nihilistic as The Mist's, a few similarly downbeat denouements do spring to mind. In making this list, I stayed away from "twist" endings in the vein of he's-really-dead! or the-Apes-took-over-America!; rather, I tried to think of films that end badly for their characters in a more straightforward way. (Alhough there is the occasional ironic twist in the selection that follows.) In the last minutes of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the lone survivor, Ben (Duane Jones) is mistaken for a zombie, shot, and killed. (See above.) It's a heartbreaking but fitting coda to a film that emphasizes humanity's inability to work together for its own survival and benefit. The zombie genre that Romero more or less created with his film tends to produce films with dour conclusions: witness the closing credit footage implying that none of the survivors will live in the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, or the rage zombies storming Paris at the close of last year's 28 Weeks Later. (Right before we see them racing towards the Eiffel Tower, an ominous shot of a crashed helicopter strongly implies that the two children we've been following for most of the film perished-- along with every other character.) Horror master John Carpenter was admittedly influenced by Romero, and he has a knack for endings that are dubious at best and hopeless at worst. His breakthrough classic Halloween (1978) leaves us with an unstoppable bogeyman still on the loose and a hapless doctor who seems to have known he'd get away all along. Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) ends in particularly dismal fashion: Kurt Russell's hero MacReady has managed to slay the monster but will surely freeze to death once the fire dies out at an isolated research station. (Appropriately enough, the key art for that film appears in The Mist; it's probably a nod to Carpenter and his similar movie The Fog.) The director's 1994 chiller In the Mouth of Madness gives us a meta-mind fuck ending that's in keeping with the rest of the film. Sam Neill's John Trent stumbles out of a mental hospital to find a deserted world, seemingly decimated by the supernatural forces of sinister author Sutter Cane. He enters a movie theater where In the Mouth of Madness is playing: it is, of course, a recap of the harrowing narrative he's just lived through, and as Trent watches he begins to laugh hysterically and go completely out of his mind. More recently, Neil Marshall's excellent The Descent (2006) had an uncompromisingly grim ending, but only in its native UK: the lone survivor thinks she's escaped from a cave where monsters have killed all of her friends, but in reality she's still back inside, hallucinating a happy ending. The American release opted for a lame gotcha!-scare that still allowed the heroine to make it out alive. Clearly, Hollywood executives aren't comfortable with truly bad endings; Darabont reportedly had it in his contract that Dimension wasn't allowed to change The Mist's ending in any way. Marshall's original coda echoes that of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a short film that ran as The Twilight Zone's final episode in 1964. The film follows a convicted man who miraculously breaks loose when he is hanged and makes it back to his loved ones. In the last moment, the viewer sees that he never escaped at all and has in fact imagined the entire preceding narrative in the instant before he is put to death. While horror has produced many of modern film's bleakest endings, there are, of course, exceptions to this. Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000) ranks as one of the most horrifying films I've ever seen, and its final moments depict what is unquestionably hell on earth. The saga of drug addiction closes with nightmarish fates for every single character. Ellen Burstyn's Sara has been commited to a mental institution after losing her mind to over-medication; her son, Harry (Jared Leto) is imprisoned and has lost his arm to a grotesque infection; and Harry's girlfriend, Marion (Jennifer Connelly) has been forced into demeaning prostitution to pay off her drug debts, made to perform sex acts while a crowd of jeering men watch and taunt. (You might think this last bit could be kinky-sexy. Trust me, it's not.) These endings get under the viewer's skin precisely because they offer no happy outcomes or tidy resolution; in their unrelenting bleakness, they suggest that sometimes life is brutal and hopeless, and safety and solace aren't always attainable. While I wouldn't want to spend all my time watching films like these, I respect them and their fearlessness in telling honest and frank stories. At its best, film can be provocative and thought-provoking, and the filmmakers above and those like them are committed to that standard.

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