The other night, the wife and I caught the last forty minutes or so of the classic film THELMA & LOUISE on television. The story of two BFFs on the run from the law after a weekend getaway from the troublesome men in their lives turns deadly, it’s a movie I greatly enjoyed when it was first released in 1991. The late Callie Khouri’s script is fantastic and the two leads, Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, are simply brilliant (not to mention gorgeous).
Iron-willed feminist that she is, I expected my wife Tessa would be a fan, but just before fade-out, she surprised me by demanding we turn the movie off.
Turns out she can’t stand how it ends.
If you’ve seen the film yourself (or have just watched the clip above), you know that its big payoff is a flashy suicide: With the law fast closing in, and facing an almost certain future behind bars, the girls decide to show all the men who’ve ever wronged them one final, giant-sized “Fuck you!” by taking a flying leap (actually, it’s a driving leap) into the Grand Canyon. Better to die in a blaze of glory than go on living as a second-class citizen under the oppressive, sexist thumb of the Man.
Those who have found this ending to be extremely satisfying — and there are many — would probably describe it as a happy one. After all, aren’t Thelma and Louise breathlessly fist-pumping as the curtain falls, having left Harvey Keitel and a small army of lawmen holding nothing but dust in their wake? Haven’t they escaped the injustice of going to prison for a crime they committed only in self-defense? In driving off that cliff, rather than surrender and submit for the ten-thousandth time in their lives, aren’t they realizing the ultimate dream of oppressed people everywhere: self-determination?
Well, yes . . .
Except that they fucking die!
That’s your happy ending? Victory in death? Really?
Oh, hell, no. There’s nothing “happy” about that ending at all. Suicide under any circumstances is an act of desperation; it’s a capitulation to forces making life too unbearable to hold on to. And yet, this is not to say the ending to THELMA & LOUISE is not a perfectly fitting one. In fact, one might argue it’s the only ending to the film Callie Khouri could have written that would have been true to all that came before it.
But was it?
Were there other, equally authentic but far less tragic ways to bring the saga of Thelma and Louise to a close Khouri could have devised instead, had she been motivated to try? Or was this a story that simply demanded the downer ending it was given?
I don’t know.
For all the love I have for Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (actually, I prefer to think of it as Robert Towne’s CHINATOWN), the ending to that film has always left me asking the same question: Was that really the best Towne could do? Was there really no other way to bring Jake Gitte’s conflict with Noah Cross to a satisfactory conclusion other than to have Cross — as evil and twisted a villain as has ever darkened the silver screen — win?
Again, I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that, had Towne not chosen to take the path he did, he might never have written one of the greatest last lines in movie history: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” And that would have been a tragedy.
Personally, I think both Robert Towne and Callie Khouri nailed the endings to their respective films, whether viable, more upbeat alternatives were available to them or not. But I don’t believe the same can be said for every screenwriter (or novelist) whose film (novel) ends on a similar, fatalistic note. Sometimes, a writer runs his ladies off a cliff, or has his private eye taste the bitter taste of defeat, simply because finding another way out of the jam he’s placed them in is too terrible a thought to contemplate.
Readers call authors to task all the time for slapping happy endings on books that don’t logically point to one, and with good reason. But affixing sad endings to stories that don’t necessarily require them is just as egregious in my opinion.
Like the old saying goes: “Tragedy is easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”
Questions for the Class: Can you think of a book or film that ended badly more out of obvious convenience than necessity?