While discussing Frank Darabont's adaptation of The Mist and its uncompromising - and some might say unsatisfying - conclusion (of which I won't get into any details here), I got to thinking about the general attitude that seems to exist towards downbeat endings. Whenever a movie slants toward a nihilistic finale, the discussion almost always involves a debate over whether the ending was a necessary one. You know, "Did it need to end like that?" or "Did the filmmakers earn that ending?". And I always find that to be a funny reaction.
Why do negative endings need to be justified in a way that positive endings don't? Especially when positive endings usually involve just as many - if not more - plot contrivances to make them happen than any downbeat ending. In life, events hardly ever go the way we plan them to or the way we wish they would but yet when a filmmaker chooses a downbeat resolution for their story, it's seen as stretching to make a point - that there's an artificiality involved. When a filmmakers chooses a negative conclusion, it's perceived that they're forcing it on us as well as on their characters.
Very few audiences ever cry foul when much-needed help arrives for our protagonists just in the nick of time, or when the guy wins back the girl, or even when a medical miracle occurs. It doesn't matter how unlikely these endings might be or what manner of deux ex machina the filmmakers have to introduce to make them happen. But audiences almost always feel betrayed by a negative ending. Maybe it goes back to Alvy Singer's words in Annie Hall: "...You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it's real difficult in life."
And while that's understandable to a point, I think it's unfortunate that downbeat endings are often looked upon as examples of failed storytelling. You know, the implication is that unless such an ending is indisputably at the service of Art, then a movie should never leave the viewers in bleak place - that it's just too glib to do so otherwise, that popular entertainment can't support that kind of ending.
But I think filmmakers should have greater leeway to decide for themselves what ending suits their film and their characters. And that audiences shouldn't always regard downbeat endings as being a cruel punishment.
As a friend who had also seen The Mist said to me in expressing their dislike of the movie, knowing that I had personally enjoyed it "Well, you like those kind of endings." And while I will concede that's true to some extent, my thought is "What's wrong with that?". Nobody questions the favorable response that a happy ending receives. Nobody harasses somebody for liking, say, Enchanted (which I haven't seen but I'm guessing doesn't finish in a blood bath) by saying "Well, you like those kind of endings". But whenever someone expresses a preference for something that smacks of cynicism, it's as though there ought to be a Good Reason for it.
For the record, I'm fine with happy endings. Really. I just think that downbeat endings deserve to have a happy ending of their own. One where it's not viewed a stunt to simply say "And Then They All Died."*
* Note: This is NOT the ending to The Mist, by the way. No hate mail, please.