What Happened? Seven Films That Left Us Hanging

1 rashomon

 Rashomon (1950) The Plot: In feudal Japan, a priest, a woodcutter and another man are taking refuge from a bad rainstorm in the ruins of an old army gatehouse called Rashômon. The priest and the woodcutter are discussing the trial of a bandit accused of the murder of a samurai whose body was found by the woodcutter in a forest grove. Both men have been called to testify. The other three pivotal people involved in the trial are the bandit, the wife of the murdered samurai and a psychic who is in spiritual contact with the dead samurai’s ghost. We get various flashbacks from four different points-of-view. Everyone involved gives radically different and contradictory versions of the events leading up the murder, and even of the murder itself.

 The classic Rashomon, directed by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, is one of the most acclaimed, influential and imitated films in movie history. It brilliantly demonstrates how subjective the truth can be, because our point of view is affected by things like ego, anger, guilt, assumptions and other emotional or psychological factors. While someone may think they are telling the truth, they are actually telling a version of reality colored by numerous personal variables. Someone else may see the truth differently. Kurosawa believed that people never talk without embellishing, either consciously or unconsciously. The film does not give us any resolution to the murder, but that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s about how we deceive others and even ourselves.

1 lavventura 1

 L’Avventura (1960) The Plot: A group of rich, young Italian friends take a yachting trip to a small island in the Mediterranean. Anna and her boyfriend Sandro are having trouble in their failing relationship. The next morning, as the group is getting ready to leave, they realize that Anna is missing. Unable to find her, they call the authorities, who come to the conclusion that she may have drowned in the Ocean. If so, was it an accident, suicide or murder? Did Sandro do it? To make things more confusing, one of the friends thinks he may have heard a boat engine near the island during the night. Could Anna have been picked up by someone? If true, Anna may have planned all this to escape from her unhappy life with Sandro. There’s also the possibility that she has been kidnapped by these unknown arrivals. Sandro and Anna’s best friend Claudia decide to investigate by themselves.

 After their futile investigation, they are left without a clue. At the end of the story, Sandro and Claudia fall in love with each other and give up their search because they realize they really don’t want to find Anna any more. They are happier now that she is gone. That’s their ‘answer’. That’s the end of their search and the end of the movie. We never find out what happened to Anna. She’s just gone.

2 Last Year at Marienbad

 Last Year at Marienbad (1961) The Plot: While attending a soiree at a huge, fancy chateau in France, an unnamed woman is approached by an unnamed man. The man claims they met the previous year at Marienbad and is convinced that she is there waiting there for him. The woman insists they have never met before, but the man continues persistently trying to get her to admit that they have a history together. Their conversations and certain events are repeated several times, like on a loop. They are watched by her ominously calm husband who seems to be the only one who knows what’s really going on.

 By the end of the film, the husband is still the only one who knows, because we sure don’t. Is the man lying or is the woman? Maybe he’s crazy or maybe she’s having some memory issue? There have been all sorts of theories about this movie, including the idea that it’s a Shutter Island prototype where the “husband” is really a psychiatrist and he’s studying two disturbed patients in a controlled setting. There’s also the theory that they are both dead and their ghosts are reliving their brief affair over and over, and only her husband knows because he killed them. Which (if any) of these is the real answer, we’ll never know.

1 picnic 01

 Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) The Plot: On Valentine’s Day of 1900, in the rural town of Woodend in Victoria Australia, the students of Mrs. Appleyard’s all-girl private school go on a picnic in the woods, at the foot of the odd rock formation called Hanging Rock.  While there, three students and a teacher mysteriously vanish. There is a massive search but only one of the girls is found, half dead from exposure. When she recovers, she has no memory of what happened to her or the other missing girls. They are never found.

 Were the girls kidnapped? Did the young Englishman who was observing them have anything to do with it? Someone suggests the girls could have been buried in a freak rockslide. Or is there something more supernatural going on? Director Peter Weir uses camera angles and ominous music to make it seem that something is odd and menacing about Hanging Rock. The last time we actually see the girls, they are moving as if they are in a trance. Are there evil spirits at work? What really happened? Was it a kidnapping, a rock-fall accident or something demonic? There are no answers here.

1 doubt movie

 Doubt (2008) The Plot: In 1964, at St. Nicholas school in the Bronx, NY. A charming priest named Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to change the school’s long-held customs of strict discipline and punishments. However, these customs are fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, (Meryl Streep) the no-nonsense Principal who believes in the power of fear-based control. When sister Aloysius begins to suspect Father Flynn of pedophilia, she becomes determined to prove it even though she has no real evidence.

 The subtext of Sister Aloysius’ behavior is similar to Rashomon. She doesn’t like Father Flynn so maybe she’s looking for fault when none exists. She wants him to be guilty, so she believes it. But is he? There is some circumstantial evidence that could back up her story, but nothing clear-cut. There are enough clues to hint at the fact that both Father Flynn and the boy in question, Donald, are homosexual, which in Sister Aloysius’ mind is enough to convict him. However, from another point of view, maybe the reason Father Flynn is paying so much attention to Donald is because he is befriending a child who he sympathizes with because he knows what it’s like to keep the same secret.  Maybe he’s just being kind. We don’t know. No definite answer is given, and in the final scene, even Sister Aloysius is starting to have doubts.

2 Inception 2

 Inception (2010) The Plot: Dom Cobb is the leader of a skilled team who specialize in stealing secrets from people’s minds by entering their dreams. When the team is hired by an enigmatic businessman, Cobb finally has a shot at redemption, but first must do something no one has done before…an “Inception”. Instead of stealing an idea, they must implant an idea in someone. Cobb must also deal with the invasive dream version of his late wife Mal, who constantly frustrates his efforts. In the real world, Mal killed herself. Cob was blamed for this and has been in self-imposed exile from the US ever since. Ultimately, Cobb makes his peace with Mal’s death and her dream-self is destroyed. Having accomplished his mission, Cobb (seemingly) flies back to the US where he is reunited with his children. Or is he?

 We all know the mystery here. Is Cobb in the real world at the end or is his happy ending just part of the dream world?  His totem, the top, will spin indefinitely in the limbo of dreams but not in reality. In reality it will quickly stop spinning. We see the top start to spin and…fade to black. The movie is over.  We never find out whether Cobb is in the real world or not. However, according to director Christopher Nolan, that’s not the point of the ending. The point is that, after all his suffering, Cobb has finally found the happiness he deserves. Whether it’s in reality or limbo is irrelevant. Therefore, Nolan gives us no answer.

1 life of pi tiger

 The Life of Pi (2013) The Plot: Pi is a teenage boy in Pondicherry, India and the son of a zoo owner. One day, his father explains that the municipality is no longer supporting the zoo, so he’s decided to move to Canada, where the animals will be sold. They board a cargo ship with the animals but there is a storm, and the ship sinks. Pi survives in a lifeboat along with a zebra, an orangutan, a nasty hyena and a male Bengal tiger nicknamed Richard Parker. The Hyena makes short work of the other animals but is killed by the Tiger. Now Pi and Richard Parker are adrift alone in the Ocean on the lifeboat…and Richard is hungry. Pi has to find a way to tame this beast and arrange for them to live together long enough to find land. He succeeds and they develop a strange kinship until reaching the shores of Mexico.

 But is that what really happened? After he reaches civilization again, representatives of the cargo freighter company question him and disbelieve his story about the tiger. When pressured, he tells them a very different story, where he was on the lifeboat with humans. The animals were metaphors for the other survivors… his mother was the orangutan, an amiable sailor was the zebra, and the ship’s brutal cook was the hyena. In this story, Pi kills the cook and feeds on his flesh until he reaches Mexico, making Pi the Tiger of the story. Years later, when an older, married Pi is interviewed by a writer named Martel about the event, Martel asks which story is true. Pi responds by asking him which version he prefers to believe. We never get a definitive answer. Director Ang Lee’s film basically tells us to choose; it’s a multiple choice ending. 

 So there you have it. Seven good movies with no clear ending. Are there any you think should be added to the list?