A reader writes with a list of downer ending movies and asks if I don't like them or think the audience doesn't like them.
I should clarify that I appreciate a good tragedy. When Richard III or Macbeth is brought down by the very forces he set in motion, I get catharsis like any other guy. Because it's not the universe conspiring against them -- that would be melodrama. Richard III succeeds and gets what he wants -- but then is destroyed by how he got it. Ditto the Scottish Play. These aren't downer endings because they're monster stories. Richard III is a monster. We enjoy seeing him claw his way to power, then we applaud when he's killed on the battlefield. Ditto Frankenstein
. The order of things is upset when man creates artificial life. At the end of the movie, the order of things is restored when the creature dies (1930s classic version) or when the creature dies taking Dr. Frankenstein with him (book, Coppola version). Remember, it's Dr. Frankenstein who's the monster -- not the creature.
Ditto All That Jazz
. Joe Gideon is trying to kill himself from the beginning of the movie. In the end, he succeeds. Not so? It's not what I want out of life, but it's very clearly what he wants. He has a personal infatuation with death.
I do find Romeo & Juliet
very hard to watch. I've watched it any number of times, on stage, several movie versions. I own Romeo + Juliet
on DVD. I find it painful to watch. I don't like it, no. I recognize it as a great story. But I hate the melodrama of it: if Juliet had been a tad less quick with the knife, they'd be happily married today. I should also point out that R&J's death isn't pointless -- they patch up their family's feud, so that future R's and J's won't suffer the same unlikely fate. So there's a point to it all.
Look, I'm not saying R&J isn't a great story. I'm saying when I go to the movies, and I'm choosing between star crossed lovers who die, and Sleepless in Seattle
, where they manage against all odds to get together and be happy, I'm going with the latter.
Silence of the Lambs
-- very hard to see how this is a downer ending. Clarisse gets the twisted sicko she's after, and the bad guy we can't help liking for his panache, Hannibal Lechter, escapes.
Nightmare on Elm Street
-- successful movies, but I hate'em. I don't understand'em. Don't see why people like horror movies that have no metaphysical point to them. But if I felt like arguing the point, I'd say that Freddy is as much the hero as anyone. The teenagers are kinda dimwits, no? Aren't you rooting for Freddy to kill them off in interesting ways? And isn't there always one hero civilian who takes him out at the end of each of those movies? Or is that the Hallowe'en
-- yep, hated it. Couldn't sit through it. So I don't know anything about the ending.
-- yes, downer ending. Successful movie. I have no particular desire to see it again, though. So for me, not that interesting. Your mileage may vary.
-- doesn't Charlie Sheen's protagonist finally murder the sadistic sergeant played by Tom Berenger? Metaphorically becoming a man by taking sides? Bittersweet sure, but I wouldn't call it a downer.
However, I still think the main point holds. By and large the audience wants a happy ending. And so do I.
BTW, the most successful downer ending movies by far are Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
. BIG downer endings. At the end of SW I, Senator Palpatine has maneuvered himself into galactic power -- all that shooting was just a distraction. At the end of SW II, almost the entire order of Jedi knights has been shot to death by robots. Somehow the audience seems to miss the import of these results, though. Maybe it's the happy music.
Blade Runner... one of my favourite downer endings of all time. The one on the director's cut. You can kind of feel it on the theatrical version too, because the happy ending seems so unnatural and tacked on. The whole movie is so dark that you don't really mind.
Shakespeare In Love - another one of my favourites - ended with Shakespeare not getting the girl, but powering on into a new work of art. So bittersweet really. It gives me the shivers, the last couple of minutes of that movie. More happiness at the end would have wrecked it, IMO.
Dangerous Liaisons - a bunch of evil people out to destroy each other. Some succeed; some fail. Not much happiness results all around. Beautiful symmetry between beginning and end. Very entertaining.
Reservoir Dog is a downer ending, sure, but you see that coming a mile away - bodies are dropping left and right, hardly as a big surprise at the end. What makes the ending interesting, though, is that Tarantino pulls off something similar to the ending of Blood Simple, with someone finally realising they are the butt of some kind of cosmic joke.
I don't really mind the horrific ending of Romeo and Juliet - it is meant to be about love transcending death, and having them skip off at the end after having managed to re-unite the clans, well... I suppose it could work in a comedy, sure, but in this kind of sweeping drama, I think it's fine the way it is.
Which version do you have on DVD btw? The Baz Luhrmann or the Zeffirelli? Or one of the hundred or so other versions?
Bleakest ending of all time: The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). So bleak I had to laugh the first time I saw it.
I'm not sure if SW I and SW II were any more downer endings than SW V - The Empire Strikes Back. I don't think the audience takes any of those as downer endings, but more like duh-duh-duh-duuuuuh the story will continue endings. Something cliffhanger-like, where you can almost see "To be continued" appearing on screen. And they were based on the old serials, weren't they?
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