Beyond endings

I live mostly alone, and mostly work alone, which means that when I do something like watch a film I have limited opportunities to share the experience. Often after watching a film I’ll look at the internet movie database (iMDB), usually to check out details like “where have I seen that actor before?” but also to look through the comments posted by other viewers. With honourable exceptions they are generally crass, but at least it gives some sense of discussion – against which you can gauge your own reactions. Here in these crumbs of sociability is one of the great virtues of the internet. And though most of the iMDB comments are crass, the facility to do this at all seems a good thing, and part of the strength of the site.

I watched the low budget British thriller Eden Lake last night. It’s pretty good, and twists away from the cheap gratification of showing rough justice – which what you’d expect if Hollywood tackled the subject. If you’re planning on seeing the film stop reading now because I need to discuss how it ends.

It’s billed as a horror film, but the most horrible thing about it is that its violence is carried out by a bunch of teenagers on an innocent couple camping for the weekend by a lake in the country. Many of those iMDB comments saw the film as a scathing and all too realistic comment on the youth of today, showing them to be without scruple or any moral feeling. The film asks for that reaction, but it’s not all that’s going on. It plays on our outrage that where we look to children for innocence (hence “Eden” Lake) we could find fully adult corruption. The children are nuanced: some have scruples, but all are pressurised by the leader into sharing the violence. You spend much of the film hoping that the couple will escape this nightmare of monstrous, “abnormal” children to find the normal sanity of the adult world, but when the heroine finally struggles back into that adult world those adults mirror their children exactly. I don’t think the implication is that it’s all the parents’ fault: it’s that the evil shown by the children, their capacity to inflict pain and even death, is elemental and not exceptional (rather like Lord of the Flies).

Judging from iMDB, the ending caused problems for many viewers. There is no redemption, no nemesis for the evil doers. The clear implication is that the adults are going to kill the surviving heroine to cover up the crimes of their children and in revenge for the fact that she has killed two of them (in desperation, including the youngest who is killed at the moment he appears to be trying to make things better – the film is morally unflinching). It’s a great ending, refusing as I mentioned above the facile revenge fantasies of a typical Hollywood survival film, but it also left me thinking “ah they won’t get away with it – there are too many bodies, too many questions to answer – the ringleader will get his comeuppance.” This is probably normal, but it is curious. It shows the way stories suck us in, and cause us to develop a sense of the narrative beyond the events we are shown. Reality is in the hands of the storyteller.

Strictly speaking the story of Eden Lake ends without resolution. We are simply not told about the future fate of some of the people we have been watching, and it would be legitimate for the writer to say that he or she does not know what “happened” beyond the ending, because of course none of this actually happened in the first place. The story ends where it ends.

This illustrates the futility of the notion of alternative endings – a problem with the whole notion of interactive narrative. Stories impress us because we are not in control. Eden Lake might have made us feel comforted if the protagonists had survived and the wrong doers were punished, but its grimmer ending is intellectually more satisfying, and paradoxically makes the film more enjoyable.

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