Robert Fulford's column about fraudulent movie endings

(The National Post, May 8, 2001)

Should a code of ethics govern relations between the makers of movies and the people who see them? It would be hard to concoct such a document, but movies that use a trick ending can leave you feeling like the victim of fraud. For instance, No Way Out (1987), an otherwise pleasing thriller, has stayed in my mind for 14 years as essentially a piece of chicanery.

No Way Out has Kevin Costner as a U.S. Navy officer drawn into a spy plot. He begins an affair with the mistress of the secretary of defence (Gene Hackman), who senses she is seeing someone else and kills her in a rage. Costner gets assigned to find the killer, though he's already sure it's Hackman. The innocent Costner runs the risk of being prosecuted, and the plot points fall neatly into place. But at the end the Costner character, through whose eyes we have seen the story, reveals that all along he's been a Soviet agent.

In other words, the film sold the audience a deception, which is different from fiction. Roger Ebert's review said it had "a final twist that some people will think is simply gratuitous but that does fit in with the overall logic of the plot." Yeah, sure. It fits in like a mugging fits into a walk in the park. It's bare-faced robbery.

We wouldn't want, retroactively, to deprive Alfred Hitchcock of a shock ending, as in Psycho ("Omigod, the mother's been dead all along"). That's not the problem. And nobody could argue against the ethics of a clever film like Memento, about a man who has lost the ability to form new memories. The narrative runs backward, and we see effects before causes. There's no fraudulence here: Memento offers itself as a narrative puzzle.

Filmmakers accused of fooling their audiences may look for justification to literature, where the "unreliable narrator" is a familiar figure. The narrator of Ford Madox Ford's masterpiece, The Good Soldier (1915), is at every moment fooling himself or the reader. Agatha Christie used a similar but less subtle technique in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). William Golding, who won the Nobel Prize, wrote Pincher Martin (1956), about the tortured memories of a shipwrecked man fighting for survival on a bare rock in the ocean; the ending discloses that he died in the wreck, so whatever happened on the island was either a dream that passed in a few minutes or purgatory. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a famous 19th-century story by Ambrose Bierce, concerns an Alabama farmer being hanged as a Confederate spy by federal troops. The rope breaks, he falls into a river, eludes capture, gets home and dies there. In the last sentence, Bierce tells us he died hanging from the bridge: The escape story was a fantasy compressed into his last seconds.

But in literature one writer speaks to one reader at a time, in an individual style. Movies, on the other hand, show the world through an apparently objective instrument, the camera. That makes us trust the authority of the moviemaker, once we accept the basic story. The original Planet of the Apes (1968) ends with Charlton Heston uncovering the tip of the Statue of Liberty in the sand. This tells us that Heston and his fellow astronauts haven't landed on a separate planet run by apes, as we've been told. They've circled in a time warp back to Earth, where thousands of years in the past New York was destroyed, presumably in a nuclear war, and is now covered with sand. We can see that faulty instruments misled the astronauts, but who misled the audience? Tim Burton, director of the soon-to-appear remake of Planet of the Apes (with Heston as an ape this time) has already said he won't repeat that gimmick but will provide a new surprise ending. One hopes it won't undercut what the audience has been told in the rest of the film.

A more egregious example is The Sixth Sense, in which Haley Joel Osment plays (beautifully) a disturbed little boy whose psychic burden is that he can see and talk to dead people who walk among us; eventually he convinces his therapist (Bruce Willis) that he's not crazy. It works, most of the time, until the ending, when writer-director M. Night Shyamalan discloses a crucial fact and pulls the rug from beneath the audience. By the time we mutter, "but I invested some emotion in that story and you're telling me it wasn't at all what you told me it was," the credits are rolling.

That also happens with Jacob's Ladder (1990), directed by Adrian Lyne, in which Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran back home in America, driven crazy by his war experience. The script reveals at the end that his entire post-war life was a dream, presumably dreamt on the operating table in Vietnam where field surgeons were trying, without success, to save his life.

This tendency appears to have leapt the ocean and lodged itself within L'Humanité, the French film that won the grand jury prize at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. The central figure (Emmanuel Schotte), a small-town policeman, lives a life of unrequited lust. His only friends are a man and woman who are passionate lovers; he's reduced to voyeurism. He has another reason for agony: He's investigating the rape-murder of a child. But this mainly honest and beautifully made film ends when an arbitrary solution of the murder comes out of nowhere. Here the victim of the swindle is not the audience but Bruno Dumont, the writer and director: He's undermined his own work.

The techniques of cinema have created a few assumptions over the years. One is that what we see on the screen is true, within the premise of the story. That was what made The Usual Suspects (1995) so fraudulent -- Kevin Spacey was telling a story, we were seeing it acted out, and later we discovered it just wasn't that way. Another assumption is that filmmakers won't lead us down a certain road and then abruptly reveal at the end that the road not only doesn't lead where they said it would but didn't start out where they claimed it did. The techniques of cinema, wonderful as they are, carry responsibility. They communicate in such a literal way that using them with anything less than an honest consistency amounts to the artistic equivalent of larceny.

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