The God And The Machine

I watched an interesting movie several weeks ago.  Interesting because of the ending.  The movie was “Absence of Malice,” with Paul Newman and Sally Field.  Newman plays the son of a mobster, but isn’t himself involved with the mob.  Sally Field plays a newspaper reporter to whom is leaked by an unscrupulous Justice Department employee some information that Newman is involved in the murder of a labor leader in Florida.  (The movie was shot in Florida.)  The newspaper she works for prints the story and Newman’s reputation is destroyed, and it leads to the murder of a close (female) friend of his.  But what interested me most about the movie was the ending.

Wilford Brimley portrays a member of the US Justice Department sent to Florida to do damage control when the accusations and news stories get out of hand.  Brimley was well cast; he’s a larger-than-life character with a gruff manner who gets the principal players in a room together and lays down the law.  He shuts down the investigation and threatens to prosecute anyone who doesn’t go along.  Newman is exonerated (viewers know that he was never involved all the way through the movie anyway) and Field is revealed as the naïve, gullible reporter she really was.  Then the movie ends.

Okay, so what?  This type of ending is a form of deus ex machina, or literally, “God out of a Machine.”  It refers to ancient Greek and Roman drama when a god (“deus”) was introduced near the end of a play by means of a crane (“machina”) to decide the final outcome.  So often it has a bad connotation, that using it is an indication of lazy writing.  More recently, in fiction especially, it refers to some device that is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly at the end to provide a solution.  Shakespeare even used it occasionally.  (As You Like It, for example)  If used improperly, and even willy-nilly, it can seem contrived.  As though it was something thrown in to end a play because the writer got his characters in a too convoluted plot line and/or was simply too comatose to figure a more appropriate ending.

In the movie, Brimley’s character plays the deus ex machina.  He doesn’t come in on a machine, he just walks down the hall and enters the room where the others are waiting.  But his pronouncements and decisions basically terminate the movie.  And rather abruptly, too.  However, it’s important to realize that, in this particular case, the ending isn’t contrived or staged.  The investigation was part of the Justice Department, and when it got out of hand and threatened to destroy several lives, it was natural that the higher-ups in the Department would want to end it.  Enter Brimley.

Actually, I liked the ending that way.  I found it uplifting to realize that the Justice Department took sufficient interest in the case to lower the boom on everybody.  In short, I enjoyed it.

That brings up the most important thing about a deus ex machina ending.  It has to be foreshadowed in the early part of the narrative.  Otherwise, just having a character make pronouncements right at the end without any build-up will be grossly unsatisfying and just simply fabricated.  I used the deus ex machina ending in one of my (so far unpublished) science fiction novels, but I made sure that the ending was logical and reasonable, based on incidents taking place in previous parts of the book.  So don’t reject the deus ex machina ending out of hand.  Used properly, it can work.  It’s not for everybody, sure, and shouldn’t be used in every book you write.  You are a writer, aren’t you?

Oops.  I’ve gone over 600 words.  Time to stop.

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