I have just been to my fourth movie in a month that has ended on a cliffhanger, and I want my money back. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know how Liam Neeson’s otherwise superb thriller The Grey ends, because this article is all about a curious malaise born of cultural decadence that has suddenly afflicted moviemaking: the Unnecessary Cliffhanger.
There is Liam Neeson, who has survived a plane crash—brilliantly filmed by the way, as good as the plane crashes in Castaway and Alive—and all his fellow survivors have been killed by wolves. He’s just taping a knife to his hand in order to fight mano-a-lupo with a big black snarling wolf, and quoting his dead father’s poetry about life-and-death struggles, when … the film bloody well ends!
This, on top of Rampart, where Woody Harrelson is a dirty cop from the bad old days of the LAPD—drunk, bad father, taking drugs and bribes, etc.—which also ends with an equally pathetically ambiguous whimper. And then there’s the delightful Israeli comedy Footnote, where the viewer is set up superbly for an equally epicentral moral denouement, only for the screen to fade to black and the credits to start to roll.
It is sheer directorial moral cowardice to cut the screen to black and deny the audience the catharsis they’ve paid their $13 to experience.
Now, there’s obviously a place in cinema for the cliffhanger ending, with the iconic 1969 heist movie The Italian Job standing as the classic of the genre, where a bus full of gold bars literally hangs from a cliff at the end, and the last words of the film are Michael Caine’s perkily cockney optimistic: "Hang on lads, I’ve got an idea." Movies that are obviously going to have sequels—such as the Godzilla, X-Men, Halloween, Pirates of the Caribbean, Austin Powers, and Friday the 13th franchises—obviously require cliffhangers. But for four high-quality, nonfranchise movies in one month to end without any kind of genuine resolution—the last being the otherwise first-class Iranian film The Separation—is symptomatic of a deeper problem in our culture.
By not allowing good to triumph over evil in the last reel, filmmakers are engaging in a literally demoralized, postmodernist view of the world that denies a vital element of what cinema should be all about: catharsis. In our shilly-shallying, we-are-all-guilty, Obama Cairo Speech kind of way, we are short-changing the moviegoing public, which has the perfect right to see good behavior rewarded and bad behavior punished, as all the great filmmakers of the past, including the ones that enjoyed moral ambiguity like Alfred Hitchcock, perfectly understood.
When you’ve got a huge and sinister black wolf with cold basalt eyes just about to attack the brave hero, whose beloved wife has just succumbed to cancer and whose friends have all been viciously ripped to shreds and eaten, it is sheer directorial moral cowardice to cut the screen to black and deny the audience the catharsis they’ve paid their $13 to experience.
Even worse, with four films in a row: it’s now also a cliché.