Martin Scorsese does not know how to end a movie. This has been my belief for quite a while now, and I'm usually very careful about whom I say it to. But it's time I explained.
There is an expectation of finality when the end of a movie approaches--not any specific type of finality, but certainly a sense that the movie has indeed come to an end. When the audience's hopes are dashed by an artlessly ambiguous final scene that is suddenly cut off by the end credits, one may hear a theater-wide sigh of disappointment like the one I heard (and contributed to) at the deeply unsatisfying close of Martha Marcy May Marlene. When the screen suddenly goes black after an artfully ambiguous final scene like that of the Sopranos series finale, audiences at home may hope their TVs have all broken at once. But one is never completely unsure of whether a movie has ended--never, that is, unless you're watching a Martin Scorsese original.
His 1976 hit Taxi Driver features a shattering let-down of a final scene after a most dramatic climax and revealing denouement: Cybill Shepherd, playing Travis Bickle's (Robert DeNiro) former obsession Betsy, exits the backseat of his cab where she just spent an entire ride looking blank but pretty in the rear view mirror as both of them contributed sparsely to a static conversation. After a close-up of his very suddenly very intense right eye, Travis refuses her money and drives away as she disappears into a townhouse. Then, without cause or warning, the film enters a brief fast-motion period where Travis readjusts and stares intently into his rear view mirror--at what we're not sure, for neither Betsy nor the townhouse can be visible by then. The credits begin to roll over tracking shots of New York City streets at night. So, what happened?
Even Robbie Robertson's charming interviews can't save The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 concert-based documentary about The Band. This disappointing ending takes them out of the crowded concert hall and make an unnatural spectacle of them on an abandoned stage, playing the only odd, circus-y song in their repertoire as the camera zooms farther and farther away from them. This final shot makes the musicians we have gotten to see at their absolute best, have gotten to know so well in the course of the film, suddenly seem distant and unremarkable. They appear confined and insignificant playing an aimless song on a dimly lit stage in the middle of an empty room. The rest of the movie shows amazing live concert footage from the packed theater alongside close-ups of each Band member recounting absurd stories from the road. We get a powerful sense of each musician's character, his feelings about his band mates and even the way he's feeling depending on the song he's playing. But the off-key ending nearly ruins all the film's hard work (I say "nearly" because nothing could hope to ruin their live performance of "Don't Do It").
Goodfellas (1990): Great movie, great performances, great monologues all around! Excise the final photo series of Ray Liotta's Henry Hill looking awkward outside his Witness Protection-provided house and we're in business.
In his 1991 remake of Cape Fear, Scorsese repeats his early mistake of placing the burden of complex communication on close-ups of eyes: we still don't know what these eyes are trying to say, we only know that this time they belong to Juliette Lewis rather than Robert De Niro.
In 2006, Scorsese reinvented his "style" of ending with The Departed, and perhaps he shouldn't have. Instead of seeing a few confusing seconds right at the end of the film, we must instead watch a clunky anvil of finality crash through the otherwise solid final action. Jack Nicholson's scene-chewing performance sets the bar for subtlety extremely low in this movie, but Scorsese's ending manages to drop it even further. A shot of the just-murdered "rat" Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) lying dead on his living room floor pans up to show his expensive apartment's view of the golden dome of a nearby government building, a constant reminder of the political ladder he so desperately aspired to climb. And on the railing of his balcony, crawling conspicuously across the shot of the gleaming dome, is an actual rat. Yikes.
To be fair, I haven't yet seen his latest, Hugo, so I can't say whether Scorsese has learned anything in the last few years. To its credit, Hugo did not win the award for best picture at the Oscars; that award is now tainted for me, as no amount of elbow grease could ever wipe away that self-righteous Crash residue.
~ Natasha Hirschfeld