The Unsatisfying Ending of Scorsese’s “Silence” That Is Still Perfect

Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) received some of the most mixed reviews of the director’s career.  Adam Graham of The Detroit News called it “a slog,” while Calvin Williams of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it Scorsese’s “most impassioned” film.  In the middle were reviews like the one from The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, calling the movie “strained.”

The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes shows even more of a divide between critics and regular viewers.  While the movie has a respectable 84% rating from critics, the audience member rating is much lower at 69%.  One of the reasons for the divide may be that audience members were disappointed by the ending.  [Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Silence.]

I initially felt disappointment at the ending, but the movie stayed with me much longer than most recent movies.  Many decent films like this summer’s Spider Man: Homecoming (2017) provide enjoyment during your viewing.  And then you immediately stop thinking about the movie once it ends.  But Silence lingered in my consciousness.

The Story

Silence is based upon 1966 novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō.  Although the book is a novel, it is based on real-life persecution by Christians in Japan in the Seventeenth Century.  The story is loosely inspired by the lives of Cristóvão Ferreira (1580-1650) and Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara (1610-1685).

For decades, Martin Scorsese wanted to bring the book to the screen, finally achieving that goal in a film he wrote with Jay Cocks.  The movie stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds.

In the film, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Driver) leave Portugal in the 1640s to go to Japan to seek their teacher Father Ferreira (Neeson).  Amidst word of persecution of Christians in Japan, they have heard that Father Ferreira has apostasized, i.e., forsaken his faith.

Thus begins their journey, which ultimately ends up focusing more on Father Rodrigues.  With him, we see horrible acts done by the Japanese to get Christians to reject their faith by trampling (stepping upon) religious images.

The film is enthralling, for its illustration of some of the horrors of torture, both physical and mental.  While much of the focus remains on Rodrigues, we are surprised by the intelligence of the Japanese characters trying to do what they think necessary to protect their country.  Thus, even while the film focuses on a personal journey of faith, the movie also raises questions about colonialism, with the white priests going to a foreign country to impose their beliefs.

Without spoiling more of the movie than necessary for this discussion, the movie raises questions about faith.  Does one maintain their faith if they believe they must surrender that faith to preserve the teachings of that faith?

Ultimately, we see some who have given up that faith to save other lives.  There is no flicker of hope, except for a final scene of one of the characters, years in the future, dying and being cremated.  At his cremation, hidden from the view of everyone, his hands hold a small cross that his wife put there (Scorsese added this scene, which was not in the book).

Why the Ending is Unsatisfying to Many of Us

We are not used to seeing movies featuring a main character who is so utterly defeated.  The American Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote about how movies and TV shows follow a traditional trajectory to teach us to embrace violence. Generally, we see the “hero” beaten repeatedly to the point where we root for the hero to rise and use violence against the enemy.  When the hero does, we feel satisfaction in the Myth of Redemptive Violence. (For more on Wink’s argument, see our posts on redemptive violence in Westerns.)

Having been conditioned by movies about retribution, a viewer watching Silence and the horrors it portrays expects that one of the characters will fine a way to defeat his tormentors.  We expect a heroic act to solve the dilemma.  Instead, we only see a failed heroic act by another character.

So, we wait for something.  Even after the main character has apostasized, we wait for some resolution, at least an escape from a life without one’s core beliefs.  But it does not come.  We only get a flicker of rebellion after death, and that flicker is far from satisfying.

Why the Ending is Perfect

Yet, it is that unsatisfying ending that is perfect.  Had the story ended with a happy victory, we might forget the underlying questions the film asks.

Like the characters in the film, we are asked to struggle with the definition of faith in an unwinnable situation.  Is it better to be a martyr (or to make others become martyrs in your place) or to surrender?  It is like Star Trek‘s Kobayashi Maru no-win situation training exercise, but without a loophole for James T. Kirk to find.

Others have written more eloquently about the questions asked by the movie and novel.  For example, Amy Welborn in The Catholic World Report notes that the story “is not only [about] the struggle to come to an understanding of faith and ourselves, but what happens after that. How do we live?”

The movie’s spiritual advisor Reverend James Martin has explained, “This isn’t the fake spirituality of ‘If you believe in God, everything turns out great.’ This movie says you can believe in God but bad things might still happen. And then it asks, what do you do with that faith?”

So ultimately, it is in the unsatisfactory ending that the movie gives us the gift of questions to ponder.  If one of the main characters were a super hero who saved everyone and themselves, the movie would spend less time in our consciousness than the popcorn stays in our stomach.  So, we continue to ponder the questions Scorsese wants us to consider.  Why was God silent? What would I have done?  How do you make such choices?


Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Myth of Redemptive Violence (Part Two): The American Western

    In Part One of this two-part series on redemptive violence in American Westerns, we considered how the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma significantly changed the ending from the 1957 film. In making the change, the movie embraced the myth of redemptive violence, a concept explained by writer Walter Wink in several books.

    “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” appears in the media and popular culture to teach the lesson that violence provides redemption. In these scenes of redemptive violence, the audience feels a release and joy that the hero, often in an apparent beaten state, rises up in a flurry of violence to save himself or herself, save another, or save an entire town. It is through the act of violence that the hero and society is redeemed and saved. {Note: This post and the previous post discuss the ending of classic Western film and thus include spoilers.}

    Classic Westerns: Shane, High Noon, & The Searchers

    Although redemptive violence seems more common in today’s action films like in the updated 3:10 to Yuma, it has been present throughout film history. Many old Westerns perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence.

    But the best of them add a layer of complexity and avoid the simple violence-as-redemption lesson. For example, the classic Shane (1953) fits Walter Wink’s pattern of redemptive violence with Shane beaten until he rises up to redeem himself through violence. But the movie adds something more as we realize that Shane’s acts of violence do not bring him happiness.

    A similar theme is present at the end of High Noon (1952), where we are relieved that Gary Cooper killed the bad guys. But his redemption comes from the fulfilled duty more than the violence. Ultimately, he rejects the violence when he throws his badge on the ground at the end and rides off with his Quaker wife to be a farmer.

    Similarly, Robert Altman’s beautiful McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) still offered a nod to redemptive violence with the killing of the bad guys.  Yet, it also showed us the hero’s tragic death and the consequences of violence.

    The Searchers (1956) bucked the redemptive violence myth further. Although the film promises violence at the end, instead we get mercy.  The hero then is left with a troubled future because of his violent past.

    In the scene below, we see Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, finally capturing his niece stolen by the Native Americans. Edwards is an angry violent man who hates the Indians so much he plans to kill his niece who was taken into their culture. But near the end of the film, his character finds redemption through a small nonviolent act.

    Modern Westerns: Unforgiven, Appaloosa, Dances with Wolves

    In this new century, movie makers often create movies that fail to grapple with the complexities of violence and instead offer violence as redemption. Even in the highly regarded “anti-Western” of Unforgiven, where many critics praised its realistic treatment of violence, the movie ends with acts of redemptive violence just like other Clint Eastwood Westerns. The movie promises more, but in the end it slips back into the pattern of redemptive violence as we enjoy watching Eastwood kill the wounded and unarmed Gene Hackman.

    Similarly, Appaloosa (2008) offers us a complex vision of the West.  But it still settles on a final shootout so viewers are satisfied that the bad guy is killed.

    Dances with Wolves (1990) attempted to get out of the cycle of redemptive violence. It does have flashes of it though, such as where the white men – whose evil is shown by the fact they kill Kevin Costner’s horse and the wolf – are killed in a battle at a river. Had the movie ended there, it would have been a redemptive violence lesson.  But the film continues.

    We see then Kevin Costner troubled by his future.  And the movie ends with him and Stands With a Fist sacrificing their life with the tribe to go on their own to protect the tribe. Thus, the movie ends with an act of sacrifice rather than an act of redemptive violence.

    The ending of Dances With Wolves, though, is somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps it is because the movie led us to believe that it would provide us with redemptive violence due to its previous acts of violence. But at the end there is no big act of violence to put an end to the bad guys and make the good guys heroes. Maybe because the good guys of the movie are the Native Americans, and we all know they do not win, the movie could not end differently. Costner and the tribe never get their redemptive violence because the Native Americans of history never did.


    The themes of Shane, High Noon and The Searchers — with their ambiguities and troubled heroes – almost seem too complex in comparison with the modern version of 3:10 to Yuma. The modern movie says, “the bad guy is now good because he killed the bad guys.” But in these older movies, it was not enough to vanquish the bad guys because there was something troubling lingering after the acts of violence.

    Of course, not all old Westerns were as complex as The Searchers, so maybe it is unfair to make a comparison across time to a few classics. Still, watch for redemptive violence messages in any modern action film you watch. Because so many films teach us that redemptive violence solves problems, we must consider what our entertainment teaches us.  And we must consider how that entertainment may reflect our society today.

    What do you think about the use of violence in film? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Myth of Redemptive Violence: 3:10 to Yuma (Part One)

    {This two-part series examines the use of redemptive violence in some movie Westerns to present a message that violence brings healing. This post contrasts the choices made in the original and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Note these posts discuss movie endings and thus contain spoilers.}

    Recently, the Trayvon Martin case in Florida has raised a number of complicated issues, including ones about the use of violence and when one should be able to use deadly force. Thus, it seems an appropriate time to consider portrayals of violence on the big screen. The original 1957 version and the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma, based upon an Elmore Leonard novel, show different treatments of violence, perhaps reflecting different views we have today than we had in the late 1950s.  The key difference is in how the movies end.

    In both versions, an upstanding farmer, Dan Evans, shows his courage by taking the bad guy, Ben Wade, from a hotel in the town of Contention to a prison-bound train.  As they try to get to the train, Wade’s gang tries to kill the farmer and free Wade.

    Also, in both versions, Evans believes that his family does not respect him.  His act of getting Wade on the train will not only give him payment to save his farm, but it will gain him respect from his wife and sons, who are children in the original version and young men in the 2007 version.  In the 2007 version, Evans is a Civil War veteran with a wooden leg, symbolizing that his family does not see him as a whole man.

    The Original 1957 3:10 to Yuma

    In the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, the movie ends with Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and the farmer (Van Heflin) going through the streets of town as the gang shoots at them.  They get close to the train and the gang closes in.  Then, at the last minute Wade saves the farmer’s life by risking his life to stand between the farmer and the gang.

    Wade’s act allows the farmer and him to board the train for the prison. As both Wade and the farmer ride off on the train, Wade says he saved the farmer because the farmer had saved him earlier when the brother of one of Wade’s victims tried to kill Wade. But the subtext is that Wade respects the farmer, who has inspired Wade to be a better man.  Wade also mentions that he has escaped from Yuma Prison before.  And the farmer replies that his only obligation was to get him on the train.  As the train goes out of town, the farmer’s wife sees that her husband is alive with Wade on the train.

    The 2007 Remake

    In the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma, Wade (Russell Crowe) also gains respect for the farmer (Christian Bale).  But throughout the 2007 film, Wade and his gang commit additional acts of violence that are not in the original. For example, the original does not have the gang burning alive a man to find out where Wade has been taken.  In the scene where the farmer is taking Wade to the train, they face not only the gang, but a number of townspeople who have been promised money by the gang if they kill the farmer.  This change in plot allows the farmer to shoot some people on the way to the train while leaving most of the gang members alive for the final scene.

    As Wade and the farmer finally get near the train, the farmer explains he is doing what he is doing so his sons respect him.  And then, Wade begins to help the farmer get to the train.

    Once they get to the train and Wade is just on the train, though, the farmer is mortally wounded by the gang members.  The gang members give Wade his guns back.  Wade, who had discussed the Bible in several earlier scenes, looks at the stock of his pistol, where there is a gold image of Christ on the cross.  Wade looks at the dying farmer, and he pulls out the gun and shoots all of the gang members.  After a few words, the farmer dies, and Wade gets on the train by himself.

    The farmer’s sons are present to see that their father died getting Wade on the train.  Wade had earlier stated that he had escaped from Yuma Prison in the past.  And as the train takes off, he whistles and his horse follows the train, implying that he will not be on the train when it arrives in Yuma. (Embedding is disabled, but you may see Wade’s act of “redemption” here.)

    In many ways the movies are very similar, and much of the dialogue in the original is used in the remake.  The remake is longer, though, and adds some more background on the farmer’s plight.  We learn more about Wade and some new characters on the trip to Contention.

    The Myth of Redemptive Violence

    A key difference in the messages of the movies is the different endings.  In the original, the turning point and Wade’s redemption comes from Wade’s sacrifice for another.  Wade risks his life to save his captor and then gives himself up to get on the train to Yuma prison. It is redemption in the Christian meaning of self-sacrifice.

    In the 2007 version, while Wade does similar acts and implies connections to Christianity in symbols, Wade’s redemption is not getting on the train at the end.  After he gets on the train, the movie leaves us with the promise of immediate escape.  The true moment of redemption, we are led to believe, is Wade’s act of shooting all of his former gang members. Wade’s act of killing is apparently motivated by vengeance for their killing the farmer, a man he now respects.

    Thus, the 2007 film implies that killing is the character’s act of redemption.  To make sure the audience realizes it is a moment of redemption, Wade looks at the gold Jesus on his gun handle right before he does the killing. Apparently, Jesus now saves through acts of violence.

    The 2007 ending of 3:10 to Yuma portrays what Prof. Walter Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence,” in the ways that media and popular culture teach us that violence provides redemption.  Wink describes the typical movie practice of featuring a fallen hero beset by various troubles who finally provides release for the audience in a final act of violent revenge. The ending of the original 3:10 to Yuma was not enough, apparently, for 2007 audiences.  We can only feel the release and satisfaction if the hero’s redemption comes with an act of violence.

    The redemption is misleading, though.  Is Wade a new man if he kills all of his gang and then escapes from the train?  Are we to believe that he will no longer kill, and instead may go back to the farmer’s wife?  I don’t think so.  Because his redemption is violent, there is no hint that he will stop killing.  In the original, though, we might have some hope for Wade in that his redemption was an act of self-sacrifice to save another person.

    I am not sure why the 2007 version preaches redemptive violence and the 1957 version does not. I do not believe the difference is merely a matter of the films being made in different eras.  Certainly, there are many old Westerns that perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence.  In Part Two of this discussion, Chimesfreedom will consider 3:10 to Yuma and its illustration of redemptive violence in the context of other classic Western films.

    Why do you think the 2007 3:10 to Yuma changed the ending from the 1957 version of the film? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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