We are living through an undeniably cursed age of the fan theory. People exit movie theaters or close their streaming apps, then run howling, posting and posting, determined to outsmart what they just consumed. The latest subject of hot takes is Todd Field’s cancel-culture fun-house maze, Tár, which has inspired possibly the worst type of “ending, explained” take: It was all a dream.
Specifically, the theory is about the last act of Tár, in which Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), freshly canceled for being too close to a promising up-and-comer’s sudden death by suicide, is set adrift and finally takes a gig in the Philippines, where she conducts the Monster Hunter video-game score to an audience of cosplayers. Fin. Some have indignantly read this as a jab against video games and convention culture (Monster Hunter is no Mahler), while others have side-eyed the depiction of the global East as the last resort for canceled people. Others have seen humor in a classical conductor “reduced” to performing for an audience less genteel than she’s used to. Or maybe, now that she has the time to concentrate on The Work instead of insulting colleagues, flirting with employees, and threatening little German schoolgirls, Tár is finally happy. We can all agree that the ending actively demands interpretation. One interpretation that it definitely doesn’t demand, though, is that none of it is real.
The “it was all a dream”-ification of Tár started soon after the movie’s release in the fall. The New York Times’ Joe Bernstein is perhaps patient zero for the theory’s virality, which was picked up by Mark Harris, then written about (extensively and convincingly) by Dan Kois of Slate. Now we’re all arguing about it again, because Facebook’s Tom Gara tweeted about it, provoking the latest avalanche of quote tweets either agreeing or disagreeing. The last act of the movie is so very strange, they all say, that it must be a dream sequence. There’s no way that any of this could possibly take place in reality.
Subscribers to the theory seem to forget, though, that the entire movie is weird. It’s weird for a film to start by playing the credits backward, then making us sit through an entire Adam Gopnik interview before we meet any other characters. And did you not notice the little jump-scare ghosts all over Tár’s house? The repeated Shipibo-Conibo maze patterns? The unexplained ticking metronome? The random screams in the woods? The dog? There’s weird stuff going on during the whole thing. There is, yes, a lot of it right at the end: Tár rushes the stage and knocks out a rival conductor, returns to her childhood home and tearfully watches a Leonard Bernstein recording, tours the Philippines (accidentally entering a brothel she thought was a massage parlor), then conducts Monster Hunter for a bunch of nerds. The reason the movie’s weirdness intensifies in this stretch is because that’s what a climax is. It doesn’t mean that what you see is not happening. If anything, it’s extremely happening.
I don’t necessarily blame whoever gets caught up in this type of thinking. (I should say that I have nothing but respect for everyone I called out by name in this piece. I’m sure they’re all very nice people, but on this topic, I will not be swayed.) In the past two decades especially, we’ve been trained to expect twists, reveals, and hidden messages in much of what we watch. Television built the “mystery box” genre (Lost, Westworld, Yellowjackets), in which information gets doled out in small enough chunks to keep even the most Reddit-brained poster guessing until the final episode. Film has become more serialized too — with sequels announced weeks or even days after a project proves lucrative at the box office. Questions posed in one installment are often answered in the next. And when that doesn’t happen (I don’t think Todd Field is planning a 2 Tár 2 Furious), some of us take on the burden of “solving” the movie ourselves. To be sure, there are films that encourage this kind of engagement (Tune in next time to find out who Rey’s parents are!), and entire comic-book franchises are built on it. It’s a great way to keep audiences talking after a movie ends. But it’s a terrible way for us to actually enjoy it as it plays.
What bothers me most about the “it’s all a dream” theory is that it’s not constructive. What, exactly, do you get out of “solving” a movie this way — except something to post about? How does a story become more interesting after you decide that a whole portion of it “never happened”? Why are we still debating the ending of Inception when the whole point of that ending is that answers don’t matter? Surely, watching a movie like Tár lean further and further into its own oblique narrative logic is more fun than determining that all the cool stuff we just saw can be ignored and we all just wasted our time.
Whenever this theory does bear out onscreen, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a bad twist. Isn’t it kind of a bummer when Dorothy ends up back in her drab, brown world at the end of The Wizard of Oz? Have we forgotten the seething rage of teen girls after the climactic battle in Breaking Dawn: Part 2 was revealed to be nothing more than a vision? Do we not look at that Dallas season finale with scorn (and, perhaps, awe at its audacity)? Reducing the fascinating, troubling, and hilarious final act of Tár to a supposed dream sequence absolves the viewer from grappling with the strangeness of what Lydia Tár is seeing and doing. To do that, and to actually engage with art, you have to be awake.
More Vultúr on Tár
- Vulture’s Final 2023 Oscar Predictions in Every Category
- Michelle Yeoh Spices Up the Best Actress Race at Last Minute
- Lydia Tár Studying Under Leonard Bernstein Is Canon Now