The final chapter of Jane Eyre begins with a four-word sentence – “Reader, I married him.” – which neatly conveys Charlotte Brontë’s acerbic attitude towards those rules governing not just nineteenth-century popular fiction, but also, indistinguishably, the society wherein fiction, rules and the writer herself existed. Censorship, in its many forms, demanded Bronte’s novel end with its eponymous heroine marrying Mr. Rochester, and if the author could not have provided a more ‘satisfying’ denouement – one in which Jane decides to reject patriarchal rule and live as a single woman – she nonetheless conveys her opinion of both Jane’s fate and the conventions determining it by communicating theoretically joyful news in a manner so terse it evokes resignation, surrender, the closing of a trap.
As literature became progressively freer to explore once proscribed themes, the deliberately unsatisfying happy ending took up residence in Hollywood, being closely identified with melodrama, a genre full of resolutions which fail to satisfactorily resolve conflicts. Of all the conventions associated with classical American cinema, this is the one that causes the most problems for modern audiences, who often find it difficult to project themselves back into a time when an artist’s refusal to accept the available options for narrative resolution constituted a form of protest. As Charlotte Brontë understood, tones of voice cannot be easily censored. The feeling of disappointment with which many melodramas leave us is not a fault, but rather a strategy for saying the unsayable.
With Hollywood itself released from externally imposed restrictions – only to become subject to commercial ones so stringent as to make the days of the Hays Code look like a period of breathtaking freedom – the intentionally unsatisfying ending has been rendered virtually redundant, at least in an American context. It has essentially been replaced by the ironic endings of postmodernism, in which we experience not a protest against the conditions preventing radical critiques being pursued to their logical conclusions, but rather the dandy’s disdain for the very codes that made those critiques possible in the first place.
Yet this convention has not completely vanished, one of its most fascinating twenty-first century appearances being in Quentin Tarantino’s four most recent films, all of which close with acts of vengeance that, on the surface, are presented as eminently reasonable. We are asked to stand up and cheer as our identification figures – the women of Death Proof (2007), Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django (Jamie Foxx) in Django Unchained (2012) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) in The Hateful Eight (2015) – avenge themselves on malignant individuals: Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell), Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), Stephen (Jackson) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet, as with the problematic endings of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor and Max Ophuls, these finales are troubling in ways which suggest something other than a straightforward indulgence in brutal excess.
It may be useful to recall the climaxes of Tarantino’s earlier work: of Pulp Fiction (1994), which ends with Jules (Jackson) deciding not to kill a pair of small-time crooks who are robbing a restaurant he happens to be visiting; or of Kill Bill (2003/2004), which dedicates much of its last hour to allowing Bill (David Carradine), the object of Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman)’s revenge quest, to justify his actions, thus robbing his eventual demise of its expected catharsis. The gleeful joy with which those assaults that conclude the four subsequent films are presented appears to contradict Pulp Fiction’s pacifism, but is actually a way of continuing it by other means. The beating of Mike McKay goes both too far and not far enough, its comical feel at odds with the audience’s desire to see this vile misogynist meet his just desserts. The ending doesn’t even make it clear if McKay has been killed, or, if he has, what the consequences of this might be for his murderers, as if the film (which keeps reminding us of its status as a material object) took place in an abstract world where such things were of little importance.
Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, is set against the backdrop of an actual historical event: Germany’s occupation of France. Yet its climax is every bit as problematic, involving two violent gestures which, although superficially presented as cathartic, are deliberately ‘spoilt’, the first by our knowledge that Adolf Hitler was not assassinated in a burning Parisian cinema, the second, the carving of a swastika into Hans Landa’s forehead, by the adoption of a tone which is gratuitously sadistic (“I think this just might be my masterpiece”), and intended to be perceived as such. Similarly, the murder of a slave who has colluded with his owner in Django Unchained can hardly be enjoyed unproblematically, though the film seems to be suggesting we do precisely that, since Stephen’s role as oppressor is inextricably linked to his status as victim.
Most complex of all is The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue, a criminal who has been arrested by bounty hunter John Ruth, and who, despite her use of racist epithets, initially seems deserving of sympathy. Although Ruth fills the role of ‘hero’ about as adequately as anyone else here, the way he responds to his female prisoner’s taunts by mercilessly beating her suggests the sheer arbitrariness of this category (it is hardly coincidental that Ruth is played by Kurt Russell, previously cast as the killer in Death Proof). By the time Daisy’s scheme has been revealed, the value system which might permit any of the male characters to perceive themselves her moral superiors has been decisively undermined, setting the stage for the most disturbing ending in all of Tarantino, one which posits “Viewer, I killed her” as the modern equivalent of “Reader, I married him”.
As with much of the violence meted out by the ‘Inglourious Basterds’, the gratification, even amusement, with which we are invited to view Daisy’s execution is precisely the means by which Tarantino makes us confront our willingness to embrace vengeance as an adequate means of resolution, since it is clearly impossible to accept the proffered invitation (one might compare the way in which Robert Altman asks us to laugh at The Long Goodbye’s Coke bottle scene). Tone here becomes a critical tool, obliging the viewer to interrogate her reactions to onscreen events instead of identifying with specific characters; indeed, the very concept of identification is rejected, every position taken by the various characters being exposed as compromised and untenable.
The Hateful Eight’s climax, which implies that the Civil War’s wounds can only be healed by an act of shared misogyny and suppressed homoeroticism, is moral precisely to the extent that it is unsatisfying, revealing the influence (surely a conscious one) of Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah, three other radically pessimistic American auteurs who asked cinema-goers to explore rather than indulge savage impulses, and were accused of exploiting precisely the thing they were exposing.