Over and out: When movies end abruptly

Cries of bewilderment rend the air (or maybe just muttered complaints) when movies end abruptly (we're talking about you, 'All Is Lost')

Do you need closure?

Then the following story may disappoint.

It will leave you with few answers, only questions. It will frustrate you, entice you with its potential, and then, just when you think you're seeing an act of resolution, it will simply, and abruptly, stop. I apologize. But it seems fitting. It is about audience reactions to the endings of three movies: "All is Lost," which finds Robert Redford alone on a sinking boat (now playing); the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," about the early '60s folk scene in Greenwich Village (opening Dec. 20); and "August: Osage County," the Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts drama culled from the Pulitzer-winning, Steppenwolf-born Tracy Letts play (opening Jan. 3, 2014).

Because this story is about endings, it would seem polite to post a requisite SPOILER ALERT, but the truth is that I will not give away the endings of these films, because I could not tell you what happens anyway.

Neither can the filmmakers.

Neither can the audiences.

By design.

After much shouting, scheming and cataclysm, each of these films (though arguably less so with "Osage County") simply ends. The resolutions, abrupt and ambiguous. The conclusions, decidedly inconclusive.

"What!?!" shouted the burly guy behind me as the end credits of "All is Lost" suddenly kicked in.

"Huh?" asked the young woman seated in front of me as "Llewyn Davis" cryptically faded to black.

And "What the hell does that mean?" whispered the elderly man beside me as "Osage County" concluded.

I shrugged and thought: I'm not meant to know.

You've heard of the "cold opening," the blunt, flourish-free opening pioneered by "Saturday Night Live"? This is the flip side: the cold ending, the unexpected, unannounced exit. Being an art-house convention (even cliche) for at least as long as there have been art-house theaters, it's not exactly a revolutionary technique. But with audiences — and even many art-house audiences — the cold ending remains radical. Even infuriating. That guy behind me during "All is Lost" sat quietly through the film, seemingly absorbed. The audience itself felt perched forward, edge of its seats, anxious as the water rose around Redford and his options fell. And then, at the moment when the film appeared to settle Redford's fate, director J.C. Chandor faded the screen to black — or rather, to white, the brightness of the movie screen illuminating the theater.

No winding-down, no speech — none of the comforting familiar beats we expect from an ending.

Nothing but white.

Dude behind me? Lost it, loudly: "That's it? Really? Really? Worst movie ever! Oscar contender!?"

He wasn't alone: I heard several variations on that theme as I left the theater, all from moviegoers who were so enraged by this sharp, jarring conclusion that they were literally throwing Bobby out with the bathwater.

Similarly, at the end of "Llewyn Davis," once the story of the yearning title character (played by newcomer Oscar Isaac) is brought full circle, and a few loose ends are tied up (though you are keenly aware of just how many remain unresolved), the Coens fade to black. When I saw it, a puzzled silence settled over the theater. And this was closing night of the Chicago International Film Festival — with Isaac in attendance.

The heart hates what it hates.

And all too often our collective moviegoing heart cannot abide not knowing how a story turns out, from cradle to grave. That festival audience, while not as outwardly incensed as the "All is Lost" audience, could not bring itself to even politely clap. But it gives away nothing to say that Llewyn, who arrives in the folk scene just before Dylan, is positioned as a cult star, an almost success — his story, as ramshackle as his ambitions, is not about careerism but a personal, increasing self-awareness, if not necessarily growth.

CHICAGO

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