The Wicker Man

With The Wicker Man getting a 40th anniversary dust-off and re-release, it got me thinking again about how rare it is that a film (or indeed a film-maker) has the stones to really plumb the depths of despair in its finale. It of course goes without saying that plenty of films have dark and desperate moments, but since the general trend is towards the cathartic nature of upbeat endings and our perceived need to go out of the theatre on a high point, lots of the interim darkness is alleviated before the credits finally roll.

Take a film like Schindler’s List. It is hard to make a case for anything in recorded history being as dark and desperate as the Holocaust, yet the tale of rescue and redemption that sits at the core of the film becomes the prevailing emphasis at the end, as the surviving relatives of the Schindler Jews appear over the horizon. This doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination make the film a failure, or a cop-out, but any way you cut it, it is not a bleak ending.

Spoilers abound from here on in. You have been warned.

It may seem obtuse to admire or enjoy bleak endings. After all, shouldn’t we focus on and savour all that is good in the world? Well, yes, but with pat happy endings so frequently the order of the day, it is actually refreshing to see a film ending badly, even devastatingly. It shows boldness, film-making courage, the willingness to court unpopularity for the sake of honesty. Because the truth is, things often end badly. People suffer and die and although the resurrected Jesus walks out of the tomb at the end of The Passion of the Christ, not every film can or should end on such a note of hope.

Take The Wicker Man for example. Just as we are beginning to wonder whether Edward Woodward is finally going to find the missing girl, we see the fate that awaits him – a horrible, desperate, lonely painful death, as the people of Summerisle dance around his funeral pyre. He screams, he shouts, but no-one comes for him. The Mist is a more recent entry into this unusual hall of fame. Seconds from rescue, but seemingly seconds from an agonising fate at the hands of the assorted beasties to have appeared out of the eponymous pea-souper, Thomas Jane’s devoted father believes he is sparing his son but instead needlessly executes him. Our parting shot is of a man who is utterly undone, with nothing left to live with than the knowledge of what he has done.

VertigoReaching back again into the past, Vertigo shows us how to finish a film pessimistically. An alternate ending showed Scottie returning to Midge and them holding each other, but the correct ending leaves Scottie on the ledge, his love having jumped to a haunted, desperate death and us unsure what might now become of him.

Seven is not only a modern masterpiece, it is also a textbook case in how to maintain a bleak tone throughout and refuse to give up. Even a film as thematically and tonally dark as The Silence of the Lambs gives us the upbeat rescue of the kidnapped girl, the death of Buffalo Bill and the flippant “having an old friend for dinner” quip. Seven gives us none of that. Yes, the “villain” dies, but it is because he wills it and in dying he wins. Our notional protagonist dies too, at least for all intents and purposes. There is a ruthlessness about the screenplay and how it is executed on screen that leaves us as audiences shocked and shaken. I can remember friends of mine at the time needing to get into pretty intense conversations about the nature of evil in the world off the back of this most bleak of denouements, so jolted were they by what winds up unfolding as John Doe’s horrific plan reaches its nadir.

Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s sophomore effort after the dissonant but affecting Pi, doesn’t pull its punches either. Amputation, hard labour, ECT and sex slavery await our assorted protagonists. No-one gets out. No-one escapes, everyone is lost. But it’s not miserablist for the sake of it. What we are presented with is a realistic portrayal of the thin end of the wedge for an assortment of addictions and if art can and should mirror life, then this is the lot of so many and we should see it.

Poor Jack Nicholson spent much of his participation in the New Hollywood era on the receiving end of downbeat finales. Battered to death in Easy Rider, lobotomised and then smothered in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and left as a broken, empty man by the end of Chinatown. In his (Jack Gittes’) own words, he tried to help someone and she wound up getting hurt. History repeats itself, the villain not only gets away with his crimes and misdeeds, he gets the opportunity to repeat and perpetuate them. Gittes’ associate tells him to “forget it, it’s Chinatown”, but we know he never can and never will.

In many ways pessimism was a through-thread of much of New Hollywood’s output. A combination of the suffering of Vietnam and disillusionment with US politics in the wake of Watergate left a generation of film-makers willing to plumb depths of cynicism and pessimism that Hollywood’s golden age would never have countenanced. From Bonnie & Clyde, through the aforementioned Easy Rider, up through The Parallax View, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver, a bleak view of life and human nature was examined and presented front and centre.

Eventually, this trend gave way to a more gung-ho approach and throughout the 1980’s we tended to be treated to much more in the way of feel-good endings, even if there was some darkness before the dawn. Eventually though, Hollywood rediscovered a bit more honesty and integrity and presumably felt that even more mainstream audiences could handle pitch black climaxes again. Arlington Road dared to present us with a vision of the victorious, home-grown terrorist, although such a film is all but inconceivable in the shadow of 9/11. Hollywood is not alone in giving us such films. Atonement really takes its time to show us that all has not ended as well as we might have thought and is all the more devastating for it. The idea that despite the author’s best efforts, there can be no atoning for her sins, that she is and will remain haunted by her youthful foolishness and the utterly tragic consequences of it is devastating and remains with us long after the film finishes.

But are these examples of bleak endings really commendable? Can we enjoy them, or is it perverse to find pleasure in so much unpleasantness? Undoubtedly it would be foolish to suggest that Seven is an enjoyable and uplifting film-watching experience in the same way that something like Field of Dreams or It’s a Wonderful Life is, but these much darker films can be savoured and appreciated on an artistic level and also on the basis of story-telling integrity. In David Simon’s fascinating, informed and compelling foreword to Rafael Alvarez’s book on The Wire, he writes about the tendency for US drama to aim for the cathartic, to always wrap everything up nicely with the goodies winning and evil being punished. He rightly states that life is not like that, that people are neither saints nor sinners but something altogether greyer. And for these films that not only show us the darkness, but dare to finish with it rather than ending on an upbeat crescendo, there should be appreciation that something with artistic value and honesty is being shown to us.

Like anyone else, I enjoy a feel-good story. I love how Jerry Maguire ends, the end of The Wedding Singer makes me smile. But there is room in my heart for The Mist, Vertigo, The Descent and Seven as well. After all, if we transpose the argument from this artistic medium to another, we would be ill-advised to argue that all photographs should be like this:-

Sunsetand that there is no room for something so bleak as this:-

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/GERMANY ATTACKSBy all means watch something funny when you have had a tough day and need cheering up, but make space for the full spectrum of film-watching experiences. There’s an awful lot out there that deserves our attention and yes, dare I say it, our affection.