Movie Article

End Game

We analyze the endings of ''Juno,'' ''Atonement,'' ''No Country for Old Men,'' and others

Analyzing 2007's movie endings

The end is near. Not yet, but soon. Because whether granted a life span of 90 minutes, two hours, or even four, all movies are guaranteed to terminate before our eyes. And all we can do is watch, and hope. The question is, What do we wish for these days before the credits roll? To be uplifted or to be luxuriously bummed out? To be scoured by bitterness or cleansed by sadness? To be tied up and cradled with a bow or to be left hanging? To have our expectations fulfilled or to be well and truly punk'd?

We had a taste of all this past year, but before I go any further, here's a warning, or alert, if you'd rather: What follows is an analysis of several endings from famous movies from 2007. As such I will inevitably mention what happens in those movies, specifically Juno, Atonement, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood. So let the spoiler-sensitive reader beware.

Still with me? I've been thinking a lot about the end lately, especially after the announcement of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees: The list clarified my sense that almost all the most important films of this past year had dang-all to do with classic conclusions, clean finishes, and the whole Happily Ever After machinery of storytelling. Instead, the movies that mattered prided themselves on tossing whole formulas (old as Greek drama, durable as a Disney flick) on their heads. When we weren't rushing headlong to embrace movies that ended in death, sadness, and ambiguity, we took our happy endings with a grain of salt. Consider: 2007 was a year in which we cheered a beautiful princess for ditching a handsome prince — charmingly dim as he was — and trusting her heart to a dishy divorce lawyer in the delightfully droll modern fairy tale Enchanted. And that notion was cooked up not by a rat but by chefs in the Disney kitchen.

Enchanted is a merry joke, with the kind of ingratiating, meta-happy-ending that sneaks in a new definition of the ''right'' romantic conclusion while winking at what we've been fed for generations. In contrast, what's most newsworthy in Juno — a fairy tale for our time, despite all the serious conversation it has generated about teen pregnancy — is that neither boy nor girl is prince or princess, hero or heroine. Juno herself (Ellen Page) has no use for royalty, or even high school popularity. She's a kooky dork of a student, accidentally pregnant after unprotected sex with Bleeker (Michael Cera), her kooky dork of a best guy friend; she opts for birth and giving her baby up for adoption; she follows through, safely and successfully; and as flowers bloom, she and Bleeker — now upgraded to the status of official boyfriend — strum his-and-hers guitars and sing a po-mo love duet.

Juno gets away with this awww, geee finish and makes us feel that everything old is new again because — well, because this is the story of a dorky pregnant teen who gives her baby up for adoption. It's a current-events safe-sex lecture of the cutest sort. Besides, in 2007, dorks were the new heartthrobs, from Knocked Up and Superbad to Hairspray and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Had Juno — or Bleeker — been a bona fide hottie, their story would only have worked on TV; it's made for Gossip Girl.

Clearly, the Beautiful People have it tougher in today's movies. Look at the eye-candy couple in Atonement, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy). They're smashing in their eveningwear, but, of course, their love is doomed — damaged by a malicious accusation by Cee's kid sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), that lands Robbie in prison, and then in the army at war. The kid (a born fabulist in part because she's a born writer) spends the rest of her life atoning for the damage she caused. Adult Briony (Romola Garai) picks up the thread, waxing on about how the love between Cecilia and Robbie remained strong, even during war's privations. But it takes the arrival of old Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) to tell the truth of what happened to the beautiful older sister and her lover, rather than the fiction. And the facts aren't romantic; they're numbingly tragic.

Or at least they could have been if the filmmakers had just left the book alone, left it to be modern. Instead, director Joe Wright and his team mess with the narrative structure of Ian McEwan's best-seller. Not trusting us to apprehend Briony's lies and truths, he fades out with the kind of mush even Enchanted would find icky — images of the happy couple frolicking by their cottage with bluebirds tweeting over the White Cliffs of Dover.

And then, like Tommy Lee Jones says at the end of No Country for Old Men, I woke up. His Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has retired, and he's recounting a dream to his wife. Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly MacDonald) are dead. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), wounded, has vanished, almost into thin air. But where's the money Chigurh was tracking with such single-mindedness? Do good (the sheriff) and evil (Chigurh) come to a standstill? What was accomplished by all those flying bullets? I tell you what: Those not quite sure of the answers can count the ambiguity as its own reward. While Atonement manages to muffle a dramatic, switcheroo ending, No Country makes the most of contemporary, anxiety-provoking cosmic uncertainty, leaving no one happy and everyone talking — in fitting faithfulness to the stark novel by Cormac McCarthy on which it's based. Besides, such ornery jiggering is right up the attitudinal alley of writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who never met an audience they didn't want to bait — and I mean that in a good way. No Country was made for those of us who live in times where we don't know squat but like to think we do. So here's a violent, bloodstained parable about men chasing one another, long after the devil knows they're dead. It ends in a finale of chilling, suspended quiet. No wonder movie lovers are debating loudly — was Chigurh even real, or was he a ghost? You make the call, Friend-o.

But before you do, spare a moment's awe for the bitterest, blackest cinder of an ending in all of 2007 — the abandon-all-hope conclusion of There Will Be Blood. For over two and a half hours, we've watched Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) corrode from a resourceful entrepreneur to a twisted competitor with hate pumping in his veins. We've watched his ingenuity rot into sadism. We've watched how the devil took capitalism and the devil took religion. And in the lonely bowling alley in Plainview's mansion, where the grizzled, drink-sodden wreck has shut himself off from all other humans to chew on meat like a dog, we watch as he enacts one final, violent battle with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the preacher who has goaded and tormented him so long.

There are pipelines to progress and prosperity leading all the way to the Pacific Ocean now, but, says preacher-filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, at a price — the price of sanity. Of salvation. The ending of There Will Be Blood is as old as the Bible and as new as today — a finale that resonates into the future. And now, to quote the oilman, I'm finished.

Originally posted Jan 29, 2008 Published in issue #976 Feb 01, 2008 Order article reprints
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