Cutting to Black: The Art of the Abrupt Ending

“That was stupid,” the man behind me said when I saw No Country for Old Men in the theater.

On the way to the lobby, I heard three other people talk about how dumb the movie they had just seen was.

Had we seen the same movie? How was it supposed to end?

No Country for Old Men is about retirement, aging, and losing. Anton Chigurh is death incarnate. He cannot be caught. He just moves to a new location to claim another life. Ed Tom Bell has spent his entire career chasing death away and never catching him, so it comes as no surprise that, in the end, death wins.

The ending is cathartic in its own way, as Ed Tom Bell is given a moment of reflection in which he accepts that death is just an extension of life.

The cut to black signifies the unknown of the future and the end of an episode of Bell’s life. It’s one of the most memorable endings in contemporary cinema.

Yet the ending polarized audiences. Some viewers accused the film of having a lazy ending, stating that the writers must “have forgotten” to come up with an ending.

Cutting to black at the end of a movie has always been controversial. We naturally want closure to the stories we hear. We want to be satisfied by an ending.

But what about those movies whose third acts take place in the viewer’s imagination?

Another film by Joel and Ethan Coen comes to mind. A Serious Man tells the story of a modern-day Job by the name of Larry Gopnik. His entire life is unraveling over the course of the movie, starting with his marriage and ending with (possibly) his health.

Yet, as we learn that Larry might be very sick from his doctor, the Coen brothers turn our attention to a tornado. And then they cut to black.

A-Serious-Man-shot

What happens? In the book of Job, God answers Job’s furious accusations with a column of wind, and in A Serious Man we get something very similar. What answers are there? The theme of the movie is the unknowable and its influence on the known. How are we supposed to get a satisfactory ending to a movie with that theme?

The third act of A Serious Man takes place in our minds, where we get to decide the fate of Larry Gopnik. Does he live? Does he get tenure? Does he ever see his brother again? The abrupt ending gives us the power to make those decisions ourselves.

Similarly, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt uses its ending to put the truth in our hands. From the writer/directors own admission, the third act of Doubt is the conversations we have following the movie itself.

The primary question of the film asks whether Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn has molested a student in his school. We never get a definitive answer to that question within the text of the film itself, but we’re given enough evidence to make a decision and argue our claims. The conversations we have about the implications of the film are, to me, far more powerful than any definitive ending the movie could have given us.

It is called Doubt, after all. Even still, as the credits rolled for Doubt, I heard the rumblings of dissatisfaction behind me.

The most controversial abrupt ending I can think of belongs to David Chase’s bold conclusion to The Sopranos. At this point, it’s no spoiler to say that perhaps the greatest television drama of all time ends on something of a cliffhanger.

Tony Soprano sits with his family in a restaurant after a long week of running from a warring gang. His daughter Meadow arrives, he looks up to greet her, and then darkness takes over. We never see Tony Soprano again.

Did he die? Was he shot? Does life go on?

Chase wants us to decide. The fate of Tony Soprano is put in our hands, and David Chase trusts us to make the right choice.

The ending was so shockingly abrupt that news programs all over the world had entire reports on whether or not it was fair to the audience.

You could argue that Chase couldn’t decide how to end his show, and so he didn’t, but that ending corresponds so well with the themes of the overall production that it’s hard to ask anything more. Tony’s life is full of uncertainties, so it only makes sense that we be filled with the same sense of dread in our last moments with him.

Abrupt endings can absolutely feel lazy, especially in the case of horror movies. The Paranormal Activity movies are becoming increasingly dependent on smash-cut endings in order to seemingly avoid explanations for their labyrinthine plot. The Devil Inside, another found footage horror film, has an abrupt ending that pretty clearly attempts to avoid any explanation of its previous events. However, thematically, the movie requires an explanation. We are watching a movie in which an exorcism is taking place, but the exorcism never actually happens.

The-Sopranos-Made-In-America-Tony

The intended audience for The Devil Inside would be teenagers and young adults who want to see gore and jump-scares, so giving us an ambiguous ending is evidence of either a film not knowing its audience, or a film not wanting to come up with an ending.

Or, even worse, the entire film’s ending is sequel-baiting. Sequel-baiting your film’s ending by eliminating that ending entirely makes for an unsatisfying movie experience. And unsatisfied customers do not want to return.

How do you feel about abrupt film/tv/book endings? Do you ever feel like it cheapens the experience? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Oscar Andres Salgado Flores

    As you imply, as long there’s a theme behind it, an abrupt ending is always justifiable in a movie. Let’s face it, some movies are not intended to have a closure, specially when the aesthetic of its own creation dictates the ambiguity and, perhaps, uncertainty of destiny. Marvelous article, by the way.

  • Annalise

    You have some very interesting insights that I’ve never heard articulated before. Thanks!

  • Guess Who

    The Soprano’s ending – cutting to black, corresponds so closely to the production and Tony’s uncertain life. Seriously?!? Really!?! Why would Chase want the viewer to decide what happens to his villain? Who, what, where, when, why or how would anything lead you to that conclusion? Everything developed in that plot had rationality written all over it….. A stream of smart conclusion based on previous events. Your criticism of Chase is a cop out too.

  • Guess Who

    The Soprano’s ending – cutting to black, corresponds so closely to the production and Tony’s uncertain life. Seriously?!? Really!?! Why would Chase want the viewer to decide what happens to his villain? Who, what, where, when, why or how would anything lead you to that conclusion? Everything developed in that plot had rationality written all over it….. A stream of smart conclusion based on previous events. Your criticism of Chase is a cop out too.