What's in an Ending?
The movie Gerald’s Game hit Netflix this past weekend to mild fanfare, coming off of a series of rave reviews from its festival showing in the weeks before. It currently holds a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, which, while not a true judgment on quality, is a firm statement on the general consensus regarding it. Nine-out-of-ten people who saw this film and wrote a review ended up being positive on it. Which would make sense if it weren’t for the fact that the final five minutes of the film does everything it can to set fire to the preceding hour and a half.
There’s a saying that gets bandied around a lot in situations like this – moments when the end result of a certain outing results is nothing but profound disappointment. It’s been enshrined in poetry, spoken by consoling parents, and spouted off by disinterested friends who just wish your story would end already: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Basically, the end point isn’t the most important thing, but the experience that took you to it. And while this may be true for underwhelming road trips and misspent college years, it is my contention that the same is absolutely not the case when it comes to a movie, or any other narrative art.
The reason for this is simple – life is not a series of cultivated events given unnatural order through the view of a creator. Your hike in the mountains that ended with you eating a limp chalupa at a Taco Bell wasn’t scripted, acted, scored, and edited for maximum narrative effect. When you drive to work in the morning, the DJ isn’t selecting tracks to play that will perfectly set the stage for the day to come. A hellish flight through bad weather wasn’t sent to make you appreciate the otherwise underwhelming family reunion in Dallas for the underappreciated gift that it is. Life, as it were, is not a story. Life gets to be messy because life isn’t supposed to mean more. We may find meaning within it, we may take a rainstorm and turn it into a symbol of our baptism into a new mindset, but that’s not why it rained that day.
A movie, though, or a book or a TV show, is shackled for the most part of the concept of narrative cohesion. There can be strange, picaresque diversions along the way, but when everything is done the ending should be a statement on the whole, or at least a new filter through which to view that which came before. Should the ending of a film reflect the sloppiness of life, often that is the point of the story, and the very fact of its randomness is used to hammer home whatever points were made in the body of the work itself. Yes, an ending can be many things and serve many purposes, but an ending should never seem like something created by someone who didn’t even understand the movie that preceded it.
The strange thing about Gerald’s Game is how good the film itself is and indeed how good 95% of the film remains without the ending. By the time the bludgeoning inanity of the final scene begins to play, the major action and the primary themes of the film have been wrapped up. This isn’t a case in which an ending is “bad” because the wrong person got the girl, or the resolution to the mystery was a bust. This isn’t like Lost or The Village where the ending is woven into the fabric of the story itself and thus twines its weird little tendrils through the whole of the endeavor. Rather, the ending of Gerald’s Game comes off feeling like an insane, feverish narrative spasm from a storyteller who simply wasn’t ready to let go yet. It indulges in over-explanation by creating a whole other story to tell. It’s baffling to a degree that might be unmatched in any other film this year.
Does that ruin the rest of the movie? In my opinion, yes; and unlike other films the loss of the quality feels all the more acute because of how needless it is. To defend my view with a strange example, let’s look at The Village, perhaps the last time anyone had good will toward M. Night Shayamalan before the one-two punch of The Visit and Split.
Many people will say that The Village was ruined by its ending. [Spoilers for The Village] It seems insane that the monsters of the forest are just elders from the village in disguise. Equally crazy is the reveal that the village itself is the product of a bunch of people who fled the modern world to try to create a false paradise. [End Spoilers] The revelation of these two things broke the will of many a viewer, leading them to say that the twist ending ruined the film. However, think about that idea for one moment. If you were to excise the final minutes from the film, would The Village be any better? No. Because the entire point of the movie was to build up to those revelations in order to make a broader point about denial, humanity, and love. Without that ending, the film ceases to make sense. In this case, and in many others, the ending doesn’t make or break the film, but merely serves to throw the essential meaning of the story into greater relief.
Gerald’s Game, however, has already accomplished everything it needed to do by the time we reach the final scene. Were the movie to end, nothing would truly be lost. The lessons would still have been learned. The conflict would still be resolved. The audience could infer to a fair degree of certainty what would happen from there. And even if they couldn’t, the follow-up wouldn’t be necessary. A story about a man who may or may not be able to pull a hooked fish into his boat can end with the fish in the boat, or perhaps with the man eating the fish. It doesn’t have to end with him writing an email to his grandchild saying that he caught the fish after we’ve already seen him do it. The continuation of the story only serves to make its purpose more unclear and its power more diffuse. The appending of new characters and a new action to the central story only serves to make it more unwieldy.
When people say that the ending of a movie or book or television show ruined it for them, often times they are simply rebelling against the purpose or meaning that they didn’t realize the object had to begin with. When A Clockwork Orange was published in America, they removed the final chapter of the book, fundamentally altering the entire meaning of the story. Some might say that the final chapter ruined the book, but that is only true if you disagree with what Burgess was trying to say all along. Without the final chapter, it still tells a complete story, but doesn’t deliver its intended message. Burgess’s story didn’t overstay its welcome – that final chapter was necessary for it to make its ultimate statement.
Gerald’s Game likewise chooses to allows itself a final chapter, but not to deliver its final message. It doesn’t use this time to expand or reframe its thesis. Instead, it adds bloat where once there was once sinewy focus. It adds blunt analogy where once there was hallucinatory symbolism. It screams where once it deftly whispered. It is a failure of tone, balance, and concision. The final scene is not a movie revealing itself, but a movie betraying itself. And like any betrayal, it is not an easy thing to forgive.