Movies are usually fairly straightforward in their presentation of a story. There’s a hero, a bad guy, a confrontation, and it all works out in the end, but not every film ends with the audience in complete agreement as to what happened.
Movies with ambiguous endings leave it up to the audience to decide how the story concluded. It’s rarely done well, but when a solid ambiguous ending works, it often results in a great movie.
And of course, SPOILERS ahead…
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10 Inception (2010)
There were plenty of people confused about the movie Inception, but most agreed that the ending was the most ambiguous part of the entire movie. It was confusing for a lot of folks due to the layered story within a story within a story approach, and while that made it hard to follow, it is widely thought of as an excellent film with a great ending. The movie establishes that the confusion isn’t just hed by the audience; the characters within the film can also lose track of what is real and what is a dream.
To keep themselves grounded, they have a totem or item, which will only behave a certain way in reality. For Cobb, it’s a spinning top. In a dream, it spins forever without falling, while in reality, it inevitably falls down. When the movie comes to an end, Cobb has been reunited with his family, but before heading outside, he gives the top a spin, and the camera focuses on it. Just as it looks as if it will tip over or keep going, the screen goes black, leaving it up to the viewer to decide Cobb’s fate.
9 Total Recall (1990)
If you ask someone what they think happened at the end of Total Recall, there’s a good chance their answer will differ from the next one you ask. The movie follows the chaotic adventure of Douglas Quaid, a mild-mannered construction worker, looking for adventure and excitement. Unable to do much about this, he goes to a place called Total Recall and purchases a memory package where he gets to be a secret agent on Mars. Everything goes wonky as he’s being implanted, and his life does a complete 180.
It turns out, he was a secret agent all along and was secretly working for the bad guy running Mars. He kills a bunch of people and succeeds in saving all of Mars by initiating an ancient alien artifact that transforms the atmosphere into an oxygen-rich one. Or did he? The ending could be interpreted in two very different ways: he went through the events of the film as they were laid out, and it’s straightforward, or he suffered an embolism during the memory implantation and was dying in a chair.
8 Blade Runner (1982)
When Blade Runner was first released, audiences were treated to an ending that was forced on the director by the studio. It didn’t sit well with Scott, and he was able to release an authorized Director’s Cut a decade later. In that version of the film, things changed considerably, and the ending wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows like it had been in the previous cut of the film. The best part about the ending of the Director’s Cut is that its ambiguity reshapes the entire structure of the movie.
Rick Deckard spent his days hunting down replicants, which were bioengineered androids made to look like humans. The ones who made it to Earth were hunted and “killed” by Deckard, but the ending of the Director’s Cut suggested something rather intriguing. The ending made it seem as though Deckard himself was a replicant, which changes the entire scope of his character. Ridley Scott once said he thought Deckard was a replicant while Harrison Ford believed he wasn’t. The whole thing remains rather ambiguous, even after the film’s sequel was released.
7 The Graduate (1967)
In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock has recently graduated from college but has no idea what he wants to do with his life. While living at home without any real drive to do anything, he attracts the attention of an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. The two carry on an affair for some time, but when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine comes into the picture, Braddock agrees to take her on a date with the intention of ruining it, so he took her to a strip club.
Ultimately, he apologizes and finds that he likes her, so things didn’t end well with Mrs. Robinson, who told her daughter he had raped her. Braddock then stalks her for a bit, and by the end of the film, Elaine is getting married, so Braddock crashes the wedding and absconds with the bride. The film closes with the two sitting together in the back of the bus, and the camera holds on them for a while. Their faces change from elation to uncertainty. Did they truly love one another, or have doubt and fear taken hold at this crucial moment in their lives?
6 Shane (1953)
Shane is a gunfighter with a mysterious past, and when he moves into the sparsely settled Wyoming Territory after the Civil War, he’s a drifter. He takes a job as a farmhand on a ranch, where he learns that a ruthless cattle baron and his henchmen are trying to drive the family off their land. Inevitably, Shane gets drawn into the family’s problem, and as an employee of the ranch, the baron’s goons set their sights on him, and after a fire, he is compelled to meet up with the baron and his men.
Of course, it’s a double-cross, and Shane knows that, so he heads into the saloon by himself (after knocking out his buddy who wanted to go), and kills all the bad guys. He gets wounded in the fight, but it doesn’t appear to be a serious wound, and the movie concludes with Shane riding off into the sunset as the young boy calls out, “Shane, come back!” That’s the ending of the film, but few could agree on one thing: did Shane die? He was slumped over in his saddle, so many people argue that he did, while just as many argue the opposite.
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5 Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink is probably the best movie you’ve never heard of before. The film came from the minds of the Coen Brothers, and it was a box office bomb. It only managed to make $6 million off a budget of $9 million, and while it didn’t make an impact when it was first released, it has since been lauded as one of the brothers’ greatest films. The movie follows the surreal journey of Barton Fink, a playwright who leaves New York behind to become a screenwriter in Hollywood.
While there, he meets Charlie Meadows, and the two get along as they share adjoining hotel rooms. The hotel becomes a sort of purgatory, and when Fink is being questioned by a couple of detectives, the whole thing shifts into a surreal Nazi-fueled inferno that ends with Fink on a beach with a box, looking at a girl who shares a remarkable resemblance to a picture he’d stared at through most of the film. The audience is left without knowing much of anything—was it all some sort of fabrication? There’s really no way to know for certain.
4 No Country For Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men follows a man who stumbled upon a large amount of cash and heads out of town to try and find a way to keep it for himself. This action brings a group of people into the mix, and most of them are bounty hunters or killers. One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is that it is presented in a straightforward manner, and only gets ambiguous at the end, which serves to make the audience question everything they just saw.
The film’s protagonist ultimately gets killed by the ruthless Anton Chigurh, who promised he would also kill the man’s wife. By the end, he’s in the widow’s house, and the two have a discussion. It doesn’t show him killing her, but it also doesn’t show him not killing her. When he leaves, he wipes something off his foot and ultimately wanders off after a car wreck. The scene then shifts to the ending with a monologue by the sheriff, who recounts two existential dreams he had the night before, which describe a fatalistic view of the world, bringing into question the events depicted through the movie.
3 Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle returned from Vietnam to find New York City a cesspool. He got a job driving a taxi, and through this, he meets two important women. One is just a girl who is working as a prostitute for an angry and aggressive pimp. The other is working to help elect a politician. Bickle falls for the latter, but as he does, his mind continues to warp as he walks along the razor’s edge between sanity and violent insanity. He comes close to assassinating the politician but ultimately directs his loathing toward the pimp so that he could rescue the girl.
The film finishes with Bickle raiding the whorehouse, where he kills several men and nearly dies himself. He did it. He saved the girl, and by the end of the film, she makes her way back to her hometown. The thing is, it doesn’t seem realistic, and after slaughtering a crew of bad guys, he returns to his cab, and continue to struggle with his unique form of mania. Did he truly rescue a young girl, or was it all some sort of idealistic dream? Thee’s no way to know for sure.
2 American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is one of the strangest movies that appeal to most people, because, odds are, you know someone that’s a little like Patrick Bateman. In the film, he’s a cutthroat businessman who does deals by day, and murders people by night. He truly is a psychopath, and the film follows his increased depravity as his homicidal nature unfolds. As the movie builds on his insanity, his grip with reality begins to break, little by little. By the end of the movie, he’s killed a number of people and evaded the police, who were on his tail.
He holds up in the apartment of one of his victims and calls his attorney, but he doesn’t answer. He leaves a message detailing what he’d done, and it was a full confession of the crimes witnessed in the movie. The next day, things have blown over, and his attorney thought his message was a joke. The audience is left almost as confused as Batemen, because there’s no way to tell if the murders really took place, and Bateman is either completely delusional or completely homicidal. The question is never answered.
1 The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing was a remake of a much earlier film, yet it is often considered to be the best adaptation. The movie takes place in a remote outpost in Antarctica, where researchers find a dog other men were chasing, only it’s not a dog at all, it’s an alien in disguise. The alien in The Thing can alter its appearance and shapeshift into anything or anyone, which leaves the humans in a bit of a pickle. As the film goes on, and the alien becomes a clear and present danger to everyone’s survival, worried eyes begin to cast doubt on one another.
There’s no way to tell who is an alien, but a test is devised, and it turns out the guy you thought was the Thing all along wasn’t. It carries on like this up to the ending, where only two men are left standing while the compound burns in the background. There’s no way to tell if either one of them is the alien. Maybe the Thing has been killed, and they’re both human, but the movie leaves this completely up to the audience to decide.
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