I was a bit confused too... but apparently the ending is deliberately ambiguous. The viewer is left to decide whether the boyfriend of the final victim (who pulled a knife on Al Pacino in an earlier scene) killed him, or whether Al Pacino is the killer, or whether there were many different killers (I read that the murderer was played by a different actor in each scene). I do like ambiguous endings sometimes, but in this case I have to admit I was a bit annoyed when the credits started rolling. However, the film was supposedly cut by 40 minutes by the censors when released and most of that material has never been replaced, so perhaps the full version would have made more sense...
I first saw the movie 27 years ago and its ambiguous ending in those days raised many questions none of which were ever answered. Perhaps it was deliberate to allow our imaginations to run wild, particularly about Pacino's role in the movie. Did he or didn't he explore further than he should have :o)
One thing that is driving me nuts though is the music used in the movie. One piece, classical (Spanish?) has been playing in my head all day. It was used often as the film progressed. Anyone know what it was?
I wrote a review and posted it a few weeks before the DVD was released. I see today that it has been removed (censored?) so I'll put it here in case they don't put it back up. I've explained the ending as best as I could:
Borderline incompetent but fascinating film *SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW*
This film fascinates me. Is it good? No, it's boring and badly made. Is it worth watching? Yes, it's very interesting.
The film is a mess that comes apart half way in and has an ending that confuses everyone. I've read up on the film and I got a good description of what actually happens in it from a book about William Friedkin (the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist) written by Thomas D Clagett.
The ending is deliberately ambiguous. The director does not know the answers to most of the questions that you're left with at the end.
Is Richards' the killer? He probably only killed the clothes shop owner in the peepshow booth.
The final image of the man in leathers going into the bar? It's up to you. If you think it's Pacino then it is. If you think it's the real killer, or a new killer, then it is.
Who killed the neighbour? It's up to you to decide.
Pacino's sexuality? As far as I'm aware even Friedkin and Pacino never came to a conclusion so I think it's up to the viewer to decide.
The cops at the start who abuse the transvestites? Um, I don't know. There is a suggestion, not in the film but based on the research Friedkin did for the film, that they're not real cops. One of the cops turns up at a murder scene at the end so he is a real cop, so maybe his partner was a fake? Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it?
The big guy with the cowboy hat who beats up the suspect during the interrogation? He's probably a cop, and he's there simply to confuse and disorientate the suspect (the same desired effect as Gene Hackman's "picking your feet in Poughkeepsie" speech in The French Connection).
Who is the murderer? There's more than one killer. For misjudged artistic reasons the one voice (Richards' father) was dubbed onto all the killers, which just confuses things. The hotel killer from the start is murdered in the brambles half way into the film. The theme is supposed to be that there is nothing more infectious than evil. Sadly as no one states this theme in anyway what so ever this idea never turns up in the film. It certainly makes more sense of the copycat carnage that takes place.
There's simply too much ambiguity in the film. The problem with too much ambiguity is that it can leave a lot of interesting looking surface but not a lot of depth. The film has ended up being more hollow and empty than it was meant to be because they've left too much undecided.
Friedkin likes to treat his audience as intelligent adults. He assumes we can all work things out for ourselves. Unfortunately no one watches films that way. We're used to having important information pointed out to us in a clear, obvious and concise way. Even the smartest audience member will be left confused and frustrated by the way the dots aren't connected for us.
Another small example is a scene in a bar where Pacino meets Sorvino for his money drop off. He tells Sorvino that a name keeps coming up when he talks to people; that he might own the bars. Sorvino tells him that he knows who he is but he can't move on him. That's it. No more. By reading up on the film it turns out that we, the audience, are supposed to work out for ourselves that the reason why Sorvino can't make a move is because the person is a mob guy under investigation from a different unit. Friedkin just asks too much of his audience. How is anyone supposed to work that out for themselves?
It's a weird movie and it will give you a headache if you try to understand it. And it's strangely boring as there's an awful lot of Pacino hanging out, watching what's going on. Not a film full of action and excitement.
For all its many flaws, it is a fascinatingly odd film. And if it made sense then I doubt I would have watched it about five times. Maybe if you think of it as a David Lynch style surrealist film, instead of as a conventional thriller, then it might work better for you as a film.
I quite like the movie and I think that if you're inclined to like it then you should enjoy it. If you don't want to like it then you're guaranteed to hate it.
By the way, if the acting seems weird and detached, it's because almost the whole film had the dialogue dubbed on later. This is because protestors made too much noise during filming to use the audio they recorded on the set.
Also look out for the police officer with the moustache (he's in the autopsy scene at the very start). In real life he went undercover like Pacino, so the film is based partly on his experiences.
The music is excellent and it would be nice if they would release the soundtrack on CD. One track called "It's So Easy" by Willie DeVille is on the Death Proof movie soundtrack.
If you want to see something odd then I fully recommend this film. If you want a good thriller then it's probably best to just skip this.
On the theme of ambiguity... in one of the bar scenes you can notice another customer who is the 'spitting image' of Pacino. He is at the bar holding a drink, black hair, same build as Al P. This would fit in with the book Cruising in which there are a number of undercover cops, not just Steve Burns/John Forbes. There is (arguably) just as much ambiguity in the book although it's true that in the film, the murderers are played by different actors, including the past/future murder victims.