I read the end of the movie as pure fantasy in his head after leaving Albuquerque. If not, The Man is far more benign and forgiving than Chomsky, Mortenson's character or even I imagine.Thank you! And spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the movie. (You can stream it from Amazon, here. Please do that first, then join this discussion.)
That was my morning-after theory about what happened. The father drove away alone and remained alone. He accepted the grandfather's benevolent takeover of the family, because the injury to the daughter had shown that what the father had been doing endangered them and because they had grown to the point where they needed to learn how to live in society and they had used their intellectual powers — which they'd learned from him — to make that clear. He drove off into the sunset, and that could have been the end of the movie, as it is the end of so many westerns. But there was a long epilogue, an alternative ending, essentially his fantasy (perhaps a gentle dream or perhaps a psychotic break).
We now get a sequence of scenes, leaping from one to the next, like in a dream.
1. The children emerge from under the floorboards of the bus. Evidence that this is fantasy: How could 6 kids have fit in that compartment and kept quiet enough not to be noticed? How could they fit in that space (which we saw earlier in the movie as the place where they kept the Noam Chomsky poster)? How could they look fresh and unrumpled after they climbed out of that dark, tight space? Why didn't the grandfather — who seemed chummy with the police and intent on getting his way — not get after the father who was driving in a very conspicuous vehicle (a painted schoolbus)?
2. After the children confront him with their need for a mission, we see them in the graveyard digging up the mother's body. Evidence that this is fantasy: Earlier the children had convinced him not to go to the burial ceremony, which he had wanted to disrupt. That was his wish, his wish to fulfill her wish. Suddenly, the children are all in. How could the flashlight-waving group escape detection in a cemetery for the time it would take to dig up the body? Why was the headstone already etched and in place? Why was there no concrete slab blocking access to the casket?
3. We're back on the bus, there's unworldly lighting and music, and we see the children around the opened casket communing with the still-beautiful corpse. They have beatific smiles as they're transported by the beauty of her death. Unlike in earlier scenes, no child takes a dissident view. It's all very weird and all strangely perfect.
4. Suddenly, we're in a beautiful outdoor space on the edge of a cliff — where?! — and the enshrouded body is atop a funeral pyre. The wish is fulfilled, the body is disposed of by burning, and there's thrilling, charming singing and dancing. Clues: Too pretty, too perfect, too over-the-top, too wish-fulfulling. All are forgiven. All are happy.
5. We're in the San Francisco airport, seeing off the ashes, into a toilet (as the mother had requested), and seeing off the oldest boy — except he's not going to college (as was his plan all along thus far), he says he's going to Namibia (which is entirely random and therefore more likely to be a figment of his father's mind (the father had never liked the idea of his going to college)).
6. And lastly, we see the family resettled in some kind of beautiful compromise. The bus has been repurposed into a chicken coop, and the children are gathering eggs and the father is preparing bag lunches: They go to real school now. There's a real house for them to live in. It's perfectly wholesome. And the movie ends with them not scrambling to get to the school bus they're told is coming. They settle in for what looks like the eternal breakfast. All are quiet. The children are reading. The most rebellious son pours cereal for his father — a sign that the younger generation is now self-sufficient — and the father's face goes through 10 different expressions as he seems to be involved in an elaborate mental exercise of absorbing what is happening. A telling, precise detail is that he's drinking yerba mate....
It took me a long time to absorb that detail, because you know how I feel about a man drinking from a straw, but Meade dragged me out of that. I thought it looked like some child's drink and had a theory about the generational change that went with the son serving the cereal and the resolution of the problems understood as a realistic story. But when I finally accepted that the drink was obviously yerba mate, I became even more absorbed with the reading of the ending as a fantasy.
I won't elaborate on the part of our discussion that was about how a fictional movie is always entirely a fantasy and so it is fruitless to try to decide whether the ending was real or fantasy. Is there some interpretation that is what you're supposed to think and if so is there any reason to work at getting to the intended theory?