It might be a little early to call it, but I’m going to say it now: Duncan Jones revels in the bittersweet.
As Jones’ stunning debut MOON was coming to a close, I couldn’t help but feel those oh-so-familiar pangs of bitterness in what appeared to be a happy ending. Oh, sure – Sam Bell escaped from his captivity. He escaped from his endless loop of perpetual servitude. And maybe that’s enough for most people; maybe, just maybe, that’s enough of a victory to merit celebration. But for this viewer, there’s something that nagging about the ending – I can’t think about Sam’s victory over Lunar Industries any more than I can think about him finally returning to Earth after his endlessly prolonged stay on the Moon. The only thing that I can think about is how utterly horrible Sam’s dream of returning home is going to be. This isn’t a happy ending – far from it.
Sure, sure: I heard the newscast that plays over the final scene of the film. I know that Sam will go on to take own the evil corporation that enslaved him and that he’ll get his revenge. That does not change the fact that the love of Sam’s life is dead, his daughter has aged beyond his recognition and his original host is already living whatever remnants were left of the life that Sam planned to return home to. And not only that, Sam is programmed to die in three years. All personal victories and philosophical notions of the inevitability of man’s death aside, this is not a happy ending. This ending is bleak. And as I mentally prepared myself throughout all of Jones’ sophomore release SOURCE CODE, I could not shake the feeling that it was happening all over again. The sheer inevitability of the logic that would be presented in the final few minutes of the film ensured one thing and one thing only: this was going to be another one of those “blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-horror” Duncan Jones endings.
And before I go any further, I want to make one thing very clear: I’m not faulting Jones for any of this. I’m not nitpicking or calling him out. In fact, I’m celebrating it – I love the bitter sweetness, the pure dichotomy of his push-and-pull endings. They make for far more enjoyable closure than the typical standard fare, because they don’t stop once the film does. If anything, they only give implied closure, and for those that require it, it’s there for the taking. Yet, for those of us who need a little bit more, he leads us down a path that can end as darkly or as happily as we see fit. You get the overwhelming feeling that the story you’re watching isn’t over; it’s just beginning, and what lies beyond the moment the audience is disconnected is anybody’s guess. Will they live happily ever after? Will they achieve everything that their hearts’ desire? Probably not. There is an understated stance that with all of the complexity of stories like these, there may not ever be a happy ending. So, instead, Jones chooses to end his films on a high note – the high note immediately prior to the one where the proverbial shit hits the fan.
Such is the case with SOURCE CODE. I don’t think I’ve ever been so horrified by a so-called “happy” ending in my life. It’s an ending so selfish, so inconceivably and purposely limited by the overarching scope of the film’s narrative that to fully reveal its true implications within the context of the film itself would be to end the movie in what might only be described as despair-porn. And that’s sort of what’s so amazing about it. Jones leads his audience into believing that this is a happy ending: that Colter Stevens gets the girl, gets to win and gets to live. All of which is true, of course, assuming that you ignore the fact that to get the girl he’ll have to pretend to be Sean Fentress for the rest of his life, to get to win he had to kill innumerable, additional people over and over again and to get to live he had to erase another man from existence. And they call this a happy ending.
This is a commonly missed point about the ending of the film that demands discussion. If you’ve yet to listen to the commentary on the SOURCE CODE BD, I strongly recommend that you check it out: Jones, Ripley and Gyllenhaal discuss the horrors of the ending in frank and succinct detail. This discussion solidifies the claim that these bittersweet endings may not be innate to Jones’ subconscious; rather, he seems to be very aware of them. His comments in regards to how amusing he finds the misdirection of the film’s “happy” ending mirror my own, and it makes his approach to closure an infinitely more compelling discussion:
“…each time source code is used, Rutledge is actually responsible for a whole new series of deaths, because when Colter is unable to stop the explosion on the train, there are a whole new set of casualties… We’ve got a number of casualties, we’ve got Sean Fentress dead, we have multiple source code realities which are permanent where the train has exploded because the source code has been run, we have a relationship that’s a mess, we have Goodwin that’s confused out of her mind… And it’s a happy ending. [laughs]” – Duncan Jones (via the SOURCE CODE BD audio commentary)
It doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to start putting together all of the disturbing pieces from the film’s shunned narrative devices into forming this unsettling continuation of the story. It’s enough for most people that the characters appear to live happily ever after, and yet for those in the audience that have followed the logic through to its obvious conclusion, there is an internal joke at play in the film, wherein there is simply no way that this can end well for any of the characters. It’s a fine joke, too: while those who take the film at face-value are content as Colter and Christina skip off into the sunset, the rest of us are sniggering behind her hands at the hell-storm that’s about to be unleashed on all of these people’s lives.
Colter and Christian have founded a relationship on a lie, one that will take a miracle to be avoided for the duration of their lives together. It’s not just any lie, either – it’s a “holy shit, you’re actually a guy trapped in another guy’s body that has been using fifth-dimensional time-travel in order to get into my pants” kind of lie, and those generally don’t wind up going over too well in the long run. Not only that, but there are horrible other moral implications, as well. If it’s true that each source code run produces a new reality which succeeds in existing beyond the eight minutes they believe it to, then they have killed all of the people on that train over and over again in differing and permanent realities just to save them in a single one.
[Of course, there’s also a more optimistic spin to it, wherein these realities were already there and source code simply taps into and allows Colter to visit them, meaning these people would have inevitably died were it not for Colter’s heroic attempts to save each timeline from the same fate. But as comforting as this idea it is, it doesn’t overly jive with Jones’ apparent dark sense of humour.]
And so we come back around to the inherent selfishness of the ending. Of all of these horrific conclusions that can be drawn from the natural continuation of the storyline, none of them matter in the world of the film. In the film, all we care about is Colter Stevens getting the girl and saving the world. And he does. And we’re happy. The end. And what’s fantastic about how Jones handles the ending is that he chooses not to let us rest on our laurels and savour the romantic ending. Does he end the story at the freeze-frame kiss? No. Does he end it at their moment together at the “Bean”? No. Jones rightfully keeps the story going just long enough to remind us that, despite their apparent happy ending, there are some “OMG” moments going on in the background that, if you weren’t paying attention, you might have forgotten about. Jones holds up the mirror to the audience as if to say:
“I know you wanted your happy ending. Here it is. I crafted a fine one for you. Now stop and think about how the sheer insanity of this entire situation and these two people’s happiness may just have destroyed many, many other lives, both literally and figuratively. Think about that the next time you watch your favourite movie couple walk off into the sunset together.”
In this way, Jones deconstructs the notion of the happy ending by giving the audience just enough clues and reveals to demonstrate how monstrously unhappy the circumstances of the plot have made things. It would be like ending THE LORD OF THE RINGS on a shot of a wife being evicted by the bank because her husband, a solider who died in the war, is no longer alive to pay the bills. It would be like ending one of the James Bond films on a scene where a traumatized agent gets divorced by his wife over the shell-shock that has made it impossible for them to continue a romantic relationship. It’s cynical, and it’s pessimistic, but it’s kind of amusing in the way that it satirizes what the audience perceives as a victory.
There’s a metaphysical aspect to it, as well. Jones and Ripley may be conditioning us to the deconstruction of the archetypal happy ending, but he does it through a very particular device: a machine that creates an alternate reality, much the same way the art of cinema creates a temporary, alternate reality that we can visit, explore and interact with. Maybe we don’t get eight minutes in the source code – maybe we get two hours. This isn’t time-travel; this is time re-assignment.
So the next time you watch a movie, don’t forget to give a nod of your head to that poor soldier who left his family in tatters so that Frodo Baggins could be a damned hero. Because, you never know: maybe after the two hours are up and the lights come on, the world of the film just keeps going after we leave it, and those poor casualties of war need all the help they can get once we’re done with them.