[3 December 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s that time of the year again. Eleven months have magically flown by and we are at the end of another date on the calendar, another number in our aging life, and for us film critics, another over hyped and amplified awards season. The films are flying by at a rate so rapid that only the most skilled of journalists can keep up. It’s a whirlwind of promises and passes, of the highly anticipated and the shouldn’t-have-bothered. Among the many movies vying for our attention right now is the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis. An amazing work of playful period piece commentary, the brothers’ focus on the Greenwich Village scene pre-Bob Dylan remains a delightfully demented puzzle box. Even the finale, which finds our hero being brought back to the point where we first met him, reminds us that, in the world of these Oscar winner auteurs, the last word is just as important as the first.
With the film finally opening in theaters this week, we started thinking - what are some of the best endings in the history of cinema. You know, the moments where a movie pays off, not only plot wise, but in spirit and subtext as well. Going over our eventual list, we soon realized that this undertaking required a bit of bifurcation, since in the Coens’ case, almost every one of their films finishes in a way which enhanced everything that came before. So before we look at the rest of the motion picture possibilities, and in celebration of Inside Llewyn Davis, we thought we’d break up the category into two parts. First up, the 10 Best Endings in Cinema (Coen Brothers Edition). With so many great to classic films at our disposal, the guys didn’t make it easy. In fact, when faced with the daunting task of whittling down our original list to a mere handful, we realized just how important a last moment in a movie really is. The conclusion may just be the most important part of any entertainment.
Concentrating on the Coens only then, here is what we’ve come up with:
In this brilliant black and white neo-noir, a barber named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is on Death Row. He has been arrested and tried for a crime he didn’t commit (or better yet, sort of was kind of involved in but not really). As a last ray of hope, Ed asks for some manner of salvation and dreams of walking out into the prison yard. There, a UFO awaits, but Ed does not “escape.” Instead, he is strapped into Old Sparky, thereby insuring that his laid back, problem plagued life was, indeed, all in vain. Captured in glorious monochrome, this finale finds the Coens creating hope, and then killing it one moment later.
He’s survived a chain gang. He orchestrated an elaborate escape. He’s made his way across a defeated and dying Depression-era South. He even managed to make a name for himself (as one of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys) and avoid a lynching via flood. But the one thing Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) can’t compete with is his shrewish little ex-wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). You see, our hero went on this illegal ‘odyssey’ to retrieve his former bride’s wedding ring from his about-to-be-submerged homestead. Naturally, Penny takes one look at the jewelry and indicates that, yep, it’s the wrong one.
In their first film, the Coens set up a strange quadrangle between a cuckolded bar owner (Dan Hedaya), his unfaithful wife (Francis McDormand), her lover boyfriend (John Getz), and a wily private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh). After a series of double and triple crosses, our scared spouse is trapped in a hotel room with Visser, the malevolent PI, approaching from a locked bathroom. In a panic, she shoots, yelling to her husband (who she thinks is on the other side) to leave her alone. The wounded private dick’s response is one of the great last lines in any of the brothers’ films.
After her adventures with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in pursuit of the man who murdered her father, a young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is last seen suffering from a near fatal snake bite. Then, we fast forward almost 30 years to see an older, more mature version of our heroine coming to the grave of that temperamental Deputy US Marshall. At first, we really aren’t sure just who this woman is. Then, we see the missing arm (which Mattie lost to gangrene from the aforementioned wound) and suddenly it all makes sense. One of the saddest and most sentimental of the Coens’ send-offs.
In the very dark and ultraviolent world created by author Cormac McCarthy, you’d figure that No Country would end in a shoot-out, or some manner of stand-off. Instead, after the dust has settled and the blood has dried, our ‘heroic’ Sherriff (Tommy Lee Jones), now retired, tells his wife about two dreams, each involving his late father. One centers on some missing money (how apropos). The other involves a snowy mountainside, a fire horn, and the knowledge that everything will be fine. After a narrative that illustrates man’s anger and greed against his fellow man, such a finessed finale comes as a welcome, if enigmatic, relief.
All throughout this tale of a local car salesman (William H. Macy) trying to stage a fake kidnapping (he needs to ransom money to pay off the money he’s been embezzling) and the local cop (Frances McDormand) investigating the quasi-crime, there’s a backstory involving said pregnant policewoman and her husband’s artwork. Seems he’s entered one of his duck paintings into a competition for placement on an USPS stamp. Finally, after all the loose ends of the primary case have been wrapped up and the bad guys captured, our happy couple discuss the results of the contest. After the spectacle before, it’s a tiny and telling victory.
We’ve been rooting for outlaw turned ‘good guy’ H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) ever since he proposed to his policewoman bride (Holly Hunter) and set up housekeeping in a trailer somewhere in the Southwest. Even when they kidnapped a baby from unpainted furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), we want him to have the happy home life his actions constantly try to create. Finally, in a sensational voiceover, H.I. dreams of a future “where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.” His final words let us know that, through it all, our hero should be all right.
For the struggling New York writer of the title, his time in LA has been like landing on an alien planet. Between insane studio execs and worn out producers, not to mention the insurance salesman/serial killer in the hotel room next to his, California offers none of the sunny serenity suggested in the painting adorning Barton’s squalid living space. Once he’s been through the entertainment version of Hell, losing his livelihood but, perhaps, regaining his soul, he heads out to the beach with a defeated look on his face and something…unidentified…in a box he is carrying. There, his vision of the West Coast finally comes “to life.”
As the mastermind behind one of the greatest intra-mobster cons of all time, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has every right to be arrogant. He’s managed defeat the interloper, both anger and endear himself to former boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) with his intricate plot, and he’s even made the woman he loved (Marcia Gay Harden) expose her true colors. Now, everything can go back to normal, right? Well, not in Tom’s head. As a matter of fact, as Leo heads off with his former fling, Tom stands alone in a wooded glen and then does something so…ambiguous that fans of the film are still debating it to this day.
As a test of faith, physics professor Larry Gopnik is truly tormented by his Creator. He has to put up with a sick brother, an unfaithful wife, and two clueless kids. At work, he believes a student is cheating and wants to make sure this fact won’t affect his desire for tenure. Constantly seeking guidance from his lawyer and his rabbis, Larry learns to weather the storm and always “do the right thing.” Just as it seems he will get everything he wants, our hero questions his God and does something slightly immoral. Soon, the doctor is on the phone with some awful medical news…and a tornado is bearing down on his pot-smoking son’s school. Talk about Old Testament justice!