For those who see cinema as a form of escapism, a happy ending is paramount. How often do things come to an orderly, pleasant conclusion in real life? Stories are the only place we can count on contentment, determination and peace. Of course, escapism is just one way to approach filmmaking. Many films aim for more, for something real and true, even if it means recreating the ambiguity and pain we often face in life. Often, when people talk about films that go against the Hollywood model, all they mean is that there are no happy endings.
Some filmmakers play a nasty trick on their audience: they present what almost feels like a happy ending, a best-case scenario for the characters we’ve followed. Your desires will be realized; Their conflicts end, they are allowed to ride into the sunset…or so it seems. A closer look reveals that things are more complicated than the fluttering sensation in our chests made it seem. By creating these complicated happy/unhappy endings, filmmakers make us question the catharsis we are looking for in films. Do we really want what we want? Is this desire for resolution healthy or a form of delusion?
Below we take a look at five films that walk that line between happy and unhappy. In sharp contrast to the tell-me-what-to-think model of mainstream filmmaking, these conclusions remind us of an uncomfortable ambiguity: there is no such thing as happy or unhappy. It’s really about how you look at it. madness reigns.
5 Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese taxi driver (1976) is the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely, unstable cab driver fed up with the corruption, decadence and “dirt” he sees around him. Travis decides to take radical and violent action against society’s toxins, with two separate plans: assassinate a politician and return Iris – an underage prostitute – to her parents. He abandons the first plan when security around a rally notices him – but he carries out the second plan, executing the pimp and his accomplices in a bloody shootout that leaves him in a coma. As Travis recovers, Iris is reunited with grateful parents and Travis has been publicly hailed as a hero.
There are a few ironies in this “happy ending”. First, Travis would have been demonized as a terrorist if he had succeeded in his first plan. Because he killed rogue criminals instead of an upgraded politician, his fascist fantasy of cleaning up the streets is validated by a public that might be as sick as he is. Things probably aren’t working out for Iris either, who previously alluded to a tumultuous home life she was running from. The idea of returning a little girl to the protection of her parents is reassuring – but we have no idea what awaits Iris at home, other than that she’s preferred living on the streets.
4 The Graduate (1967)
The graduate (1967) (along with Bonnie and Clyde) sparked the New Hollywood movement with its depiction of conflicting generations. The film follows Benjamin, a college grad who finds rather abruptly that he has no idea what he wants to do with his life – only that he wants it to be different from the elitist materialism he’s grown into. He spends the summer floating around his parents’ house and begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner. Things get more complicated when Benjamin falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine. When Elaine is being pressured into marriage by her mother, Benjamin crashes the wedding and the two run away on a bus. The feeling is triumphant – until they sit in silence, desperately trying to keep the fading smiles on their faces The sound of silence plays ominously on the soundtrack.
The graduate is about a young man who is drowning in a world full of things: fancy houses, nice cars and plastic. This world is seductive, but Benjamin wants something real. The problem is that he doesn’t know what “real” is – he’s more aware of what he doesn’t want than what he does want. When he’s chasing something, he actually runs away – which is what happens when he and Elaine leave the altar. This grand display of romance is an exciting departure from the world Benjamin and Elaine are pushed into by their parents — but it’s not a viable alternative. The two don’t know each other very well and when the excitement dies down they have nothing to talk about. The likelihood of these two staying together, or of this romance filling the void Benjamin is feeling, is pretty slim — but at least Elaine got out of marriage!
3 Midsummer (2019)
If we were just going to describe the ending of Ari Aster midsummer (2019), It’s unlikely it would sound happy: A young woman joins a eugenics cult and murders her boyfriend over an infidelity – but it feels so good! The folk horror follows an American couple – Dani and Christian – who travel with friends to a Swedish commune. Things are not going well between the two: Dani mourns the sudden loss of her family, Christian sticks with her out of a sense of duty – not that he supports her emotionally. The two speak in passive-aggressive clichés, a pseudo-communicative millennial jargon that fails to address the unmet needs beneath the surface.
Initially frightened by the cult’s practices, Dani is enchanted by her attitude towards community, empathy and the cycle of life. After Dani is crowned May Queen, she gets to decide if her boyfriend lives or dies – and she lets him burn. The feeling is cathartic and euphoric. In interviews, Aster has likened it to burning a box of an ex’s belongings – but of course the punishment far outweighs the crime. Christian was a bad friend and a bit of a wet towel, but the audience’s excitement at seeing him burned alive is a testament to the power of Aster to get us into Dani’s headspace.
2 A New Leaf (1971)
A new leaf (1971) is a fast-paced dark comedy about Henry, a rich man who is losing his money and plans to find a rich woman to marry and murder for her inheritance. The woman in question is the clumsy and good-natured botanist Henrietta, who makes minimal use of the vast estate she has inherited. Henry puts her estate in order and takes Henrietta into the woods to kill her – but when she nearly drowns, he has a change of heart and rescues her from the water. He resigns himself to living with her for the rest of his life.
That’s as close to a happy ending this story could have, as is how Henry feels for Henrietta, who’s about as close to love as he’s capable – but it’s still pretty dark. For one, Henry’s change of heart comes when he sees a fern on the bank of the river. It reminds him of the species of fern discovered by Henrietta and named after him, which gives him a kind of immortality. In other words, his affection for her is the sole product of what she has done for him. Poor sweet Henrietta will spend the rest of her life with an unbearable man who loathes her – but cannot kill. In addition, the ending used to be much darker. In the original version by writer/director Elaine May, Henry murdered two men who were blackmailing Henrietta. In this version, Henry isn’t just a sociopathic snob harboring the murder fantasy – he’s the real deal, and the worst punishment he faces is spending the rest of his life with an awkward but lovable woman who adores him .
1 Hereditary (2018)
The final minutes of Ari Aster’s directorial debut do something very odd: her ending is so nihilistic, so utterly devoid of hope, redemption, or humanity, that it comes across as a relief. Hereditary (2018) is a family melodrama about trauma, loss, guilt and blame that eventually turns into a nightmare: the central family’s bad luck turns out to be a literal curse placed on them by the grandmother and cult leader, who dies before the film begins . The film ends with the victory of the demon cult and the devastated family. It’s the worst possible outcome… for the family. A complete success for the sect. Everything went exactly as it should!
Aster captures its twisted ending with soft, warm lighting and a soothing score that contrasts with the screeching drones we’ve been exposed to for the past hour and a half. As the conclusion to his follow-up, Hereditary ends with a strange catharsis. Aster has mentioned in interviews his concerns about how most films about family grief end: Things get hairy, but ultimately the family comes out stronger on the other side. This is a hopeful take on suffering – but it can ring false to those caught in a web of grief and trauma with no apparent ending. The idea of persevering until things get better is exhausting. Hereditary speaks to the fact that people don’t always survive trauma – sometimes it is devastated with no room for recovery. It’s a hopeless conclusion, but it provides an outlet for a fear we don’t let people express: that things are ruined and will never get better. In this hopelessness there is a strange peace; a quiet resignation that almost feels happy. Nearly.