(SPOILERS: Doubt, Inception, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Dracula 3000)
There’s a saying in filmmaking: Ambiguity is good, confusion is bad. Ultimately most movies don’t have either…and that’s okay. We know exactly why Rick does everything he does in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch). We find out what rosebud is at the end of Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles) even if the reporter doesn’t. That’s mystery, not ambiguity or confusion.
Ambiguity can be fun and have important thematic value. Two great recent examples are Doubt (screenplay by John Patrick Shanley) and Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). At the end of Doubt we don’t know if Father Flynn molested boys or not…that’s the whole point of the movie! Sister Aloysius, so sure of everything, has doubt about whether she did the right thing or not because it’s impossible to know the truth of the situation. There is no certainty, no matter how much she wants it.
Inception’s ending is equally ambiguous though with a very different impact. At the end of Inception we see the top spin and then cut out before we find out whether it falls – before we learn whether the main character is dreaming or not. That’s fun for the audience and allows us to have endless debates and what-ifs with our friends afterward.
But it’s important to note that neither of these endings are confusing. In Doubt we understand what Sister Aloysius knows and doesn’t know. The possibilities are clear – either Father Flynn did it or he didn’t. Similarly, in Inception we understand that the possibility exists that Cobb may be dreaming…or not. Having two clear possible choices allows a fun ambiguity but not confusion.
And that’s important because the audience won’t tolerate confusion. If we don’t understand what’s going on in a movie we will reject it. We need coherence if we’re to care about the characters and the outcome of the story. Ambiguity is coherent, confusion is not.
That doesn’t mean we have to know everything at all times. But the audience has to feel like things are leading logically from one to another. Planting and payoff are crucial here. So is laying out the rules of the world. Inception tells us in the first ten minutes that in the world of the movie people can enter other people’s dreams, and the dreamer doesn’t necessarily know they are dreaming. Scene to scene everything is logical even though we may not be able to see the big picture. That logic lets us trust that the filmmaker knows what’s going on.
On the other end of this scale is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown). At its core it seems to be pretty straightforward – a guy has made a bet with the Devil. But as the movie goes along nothing really makes any sense. Tony constantly asks Parnassus to explain what’s happening and Parnassus just replies that it’s way too complicated. We feel like Tony and as a result we stop caring about the characters and what will happen to them.
(Heath Ledger’s death famously necessitated some changes to the movie as other actors stepped in to play his part in some scenes. You might think that is the reason for the confusion, but those scenes actually make more sense than most of the movie.)
(Special SPOILER alert: Sucker Punch – if you don’t want to hear plot twists skip the next four paragraphs)
Sucker Punch (story by Zack Snyder, screenplay by Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya) has a similar problem. At the end we learn what’s going on, but during the movie it’s confusing. We start in the real world of the insane asylum. Then we switch to a fantasy world of a brothel. But I wasn’t clear when we made the switch or why (after seeing the end I’m pretty sure I know, but in the actual scene it really threw me.)
The next level of reality is the fantasies Baby Doll has whenever she dances. Those transitions work a little better because they have a clear “trigger.” But as I was watching the World War I era fantasy I felt strangely detached. I was surprised because it seemed like something I would totally dig. I realized it was because I didn’t have any idea what the point of the scene was. What happened if they failed in the fantasy? Did that affect the bordello world? And did the bordello world have anything to do with the insane asylum? I didn't know. And therefore I didn’t care because I didn’t have any context for the action.
Even when we get the big answer we’re left with unsatisfying questions. When Blue shot the girls in the dressing room did they die in the asylum? Why? How? These aren’t the kind of questions that provoke great discussion like those in Doubt or Inception. Instead they promote frustration.
I found myself thinking about Inception a lot during Sucker Punch. In Inception we always know when we enter or leave a dream, and we know why. The rules of the dream world are laid out clearly and when something significant happens in the dream we know how it impacts the next levels up and down. The only thing we don’t know is whether that top level is reality or another dream. It’s coherent ambiguity.
Confusion is why I think Mulholland Drive (written by David Lynch), Vanilla Sky (screenplay by Cameron Crowe) and The Fountain (story by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, screenplay by Darren Aronofsky) don’t work (though all have their fans). David Lynch admitted even he doesn’t understand Mulholland Drive – and he made the movie! Vanilla Sky tried to explain everything at the end but it was just too late. I’d lost interest long before.
Parnassus, Sucker Punch, Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky and The Fountain are all visually stunning movies made by talented filmmakers who stumbled. But of course there are worse examples.
One of the most jaw dropping movies I’ve ever seen was Dracula 3000 (written by Ivan Milborrow and Darrell Roodt). The movie is about a vampire on a space ship. That should be simple but nothing makes sense from beginning to end. And at the end…the space ship explodes. For no apparent reason. That’s not fun or thematically relevant ambiguity.