Ambiguous Movie Endings

May 10th, 2020 at 1:56:52 AM permalink
Pacomartin
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
Threads: 963
Posts: 11255
I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 10, and it was probably the first film that I saw with an ambiguous ending (indeed a lot of the film was ambiguous). It was very upsetting to me, but fortunately, the novel was published a few months after the movie was released, and it provided immediate relief to my 10 year old self as it explained the story in straightforward prose.

Most morally ambiguous movies were not possible until November 1968 when film ratings began and creators no longer had to abide by the Hayes code.

  1. The Graduate (December 22, 1967)
    This 1967-flick stars Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a wayward college graduate unsure of what he wants to do with his life. Eventually, he convinces his love interest Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) to run away with him, but as the pair are riding away on a bus they are hit by the greatest mystery of all—the mystery of just what lies ahead in their future. The Graduate has a lot to recommend it, including two of the best Simon and Garfunkel songs in its soundtrack, but the final shot of Hoffman and Ross staring blankly ahead in uncertainty propelled the film into pop culture touchstone status.

  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (April 3, 1968)
    Another Kubrick masterpiece, the ending of this sci-fi epic sees astronaut Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) pulled through mysterious stargate and "beyond the infinite" into a mysterious bedroom and eventually transforming into a cosmic star-child. Ok, so words don't really do this sequence justice, as it is a feast of visuals and effects that few, if any, modern directors could pull off. The movie never explains what, exactly, is going on, but the finale is so awe-inspiring to watch that it doesn't even matter.
  3. The French Connection (October 9, 1971)
    William Friedkin’s cop and robber thriller rushes along at breakneck speed on a seemingly clear path as Popeye chases his target until the depths of his obsession with getting his man twists fate around on him. Famous for its extended car chase sequence, the ending confronts audiences with its grim reveal of the darkness in Popeye’s soul. Throwing police ethics out the window, Popeye coldly shoots the wrong person before rushing into another room, chasing what he is absolutely sure is his villain. The camera does not follow him, rather a single gunshot rings out and neither Popeye nor his enemy are to be found.Without this ending, The French Connection would be a stellar thriller but it elevates beyond the standard by connecting the gritty theme of obsession with Popeye’s character arc in a truly integrated manner, creating a controversial conclusion that demands answers but provides none.
  4. Taxi Driver (February 8, 1976)
    None other than esteemed film critic Roger Ebert raised the possibility that the ending of Martin Scorsese's dark masterpiece, in which protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) becomes celebrated for his violent rescue of a teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster, is simply the fantastical delusion of a dying Bickle.
  5. The Shining (May 23, 1980)
    Stanley Kubrick's acclaimed adaptation of a Stephen King's novel focuses on writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson ) who takes a job as a hotel caretaker for one winter, in the course of which he goes insane. Unless, of course, he was always the caretaker, as the final shot of Nicholson hosting a July 4th party in 1921 at the hotel seems to imply.

    This movie has inspired so many fan theories and debates that they have become the subject of a movie themselves, the documentary Room 237.
  6. Inception
    The last shot of Inception focuses on a shot of Dom Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) "totem" top still spinning, indicating he may be stuck inside a dream world. Star Michael Caine says that Cobb was in the real world, while director Christopher Nolan takes the more philosophical stance of, "The way the end of that film worked . . [Cobb] didn't really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."
  7. Memento
    Yes, Nolan's first brain-teaser of a movie, Memento, is told backwards-and-forwards through the perspective of a man who can't form new memories. Said protagonist Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is supposedly hunting down the killer of his dead wife, only to be told at the end by a shady cop that he murdered his wife by overdosing her on insulin. But Memento is a movie built around the idea of ambiguity—of memory, and of people—and the whole truth is never really made clear, leaving viewers to decide for themselves what they want to believe.
  8. Shutter Island
    Another Leonardo DiCaprio flick, his protagonist Teddy Daniels believes himself to be a U.S. Marshall investigating an insane asylum, that, he discovers, he is actually a patient of. The movie ends with Daniels seemingly slipping back into insanity, and thus has to undergo a lobotomy, but a cryptic comment Daniels makes to his "partner" indicates that a still-sane Daniels is simply choosing to " . . . die as a good man."
  9. Lost in Translation
    Director Sofia Coppola's mesmerizing story of a middle-aged movie star (Bill Murray) striking up an unlikely friendship with a newlywed (Scarlett Johansson) ends on a shot of Murray whispering something into Johansson's ear. Said whisper has become one of cinema's greatest mysteries, even Coppola says she doesn't know, as that bit was improvised by Bill Murray. Tech savvy film buffs have tried to suss out the dialogue over the years, although nothing definitive has emerged.
  10. The Wrestler
    Darren Aronofsky's heart-wrenching drama about a washed up wrestler desperate to reclaim his glory years ends with Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) suffering from chest pains in the ring, indicating that the heart condition a doctor warned could kill him if he kept wrestling is about to flare up. The credits roll before viewers can see what finally happens to Randy, but the real tragedy is that Randy probably didn't have anything left to live for at that point.
  11. Birdman
    At the end of this recent Best Picture winner, the insane, washed-up actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) jumps out of a windowsill, believing himself to actually possess the titular Birdman's super powers. His daughter (Emma Stone) sees and rushes out to the open window and looks up in… joy? Did Riggan actually have superpowers? Was his daughter insane? Is this another dying-man's-fantasy ending? I suppose we'll have to wait for Birdman Returns for the answer.
  12. In Bruges
    Colin Farrell gave what might be his greatest performance as Ray, a depressed, guilt-wrecked Irish mobster who, at the end of the film, is being rushed to the hospital and on the edge of death due to gunshot wounds. Ray's final fate is unknown, but the ambiguity and in-between-life-and-death nature of the character's ending may have been inspired the concept of Purgatory, given how much writer-director Martin McDonagh appears to have been inspired by Catholic dogma for this black comedy.
  13. American Psycho
    This violent satire of yuppie culture features a young Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street Banker and serial killer. Yet just as Bateman's acts of gruesome murder seem to reach their boiling point, it's revealed that at least some of Bateman's murders never happened, raising questions as to how much of the film was actually real and how much of it was the delusional fantasies of a sociopathic member of high society. Side note: a lot of actors turned down this role; read all about the story here.
  14. Mulholland Drive
    OK, so this entire movie is a mystery, and your guess is as good as ours.
  15. The Sopranos
    Astute readers will note that The Sopranos was in fact a television show, and not a movie. This is true. But no discussion of ambiguous endings would really feel complete without this epic mob saga's infamous cut to black moment, leaving the final fate of Tony Soprano up in the air. Some fans believe that the finale was simply an attempt to depict the constant ceaseless anxiety that a man of Tony's chosen profession must experience, while others argue, in extraordinary depth, that Tony was killed.
May 10th, 2020 at 3:54:04 AM permalink
odiousgambit
Member since: Oct 28, 2012
Threads: 110
Posts: 2834
"Life of Pi" could be on there. To me the explanation of what really happened is revealed, but I've had others disagree. Definitely it is ambiguous as to whether or not Pi admitted it, or knows it deep down but is clinging to the fantasy for his sanity.
The light at the end of the tunnel can be a freight train coming the other way!..Fleastiff
May 10th, 2020 at 4:31:45 AM permalink
AZDuffman
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
Threads: 124
Posts: 12092
Quote: Pacomartin

  • The Sopranos
    Astute readers will note that The Sopranos was in fact a television show, and not a movie. This is true. But no discussion of ambiguous endings would really feel complete without this epic mob saga's infamous cut to black moment, leaving the final fate of Tony Soprano up in the air. Some fans believe that the finale was simply an attempt to depict the constant ceaseless anxiety that a man of Tony's chosen profession must experience, while others argue, in extraordinary depth, that Tony was killed.


  • It is generally accepted that Tony was killed. There was a clip on YT of the ending before HBO edited it down, the black screen lasted about three times longer. The effect was amazingly different even though it was just black screen, showing some of these directors really know what they are trying to accomplish.

    As to movies, how about the first part of "V." Made for TV, aliens invaded. It ended with a few people sending a radio signal to the enemy of the invaders with a plea for help in hopes the enemy of my enemy is my friend. After the movie they decided the special effects were too expensive to make into a series and it just sat for a bit. A sequel came because audiences demanded it, but they found ways to cut the cost. Then after we beat them back they made a series which died.
    The man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it
    May 10th, 2020 at 5:16:16 AM permalink
    ams288
    Member since: Apr 21, 2016
    Threads: 17
    Posts: 5518
    No Country for Old Men

    It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it, but I remember thinking “huh, it’s over?!” when the end credits started to roll.

    Come to think of it, there are probably several Coen Bros. movies that could be on this list.
    Righties in 2020: “It’s okay if grandma dies, but NOT the buildings she shops in!!!”
    May 10th, 2020 at 5:59:11 AM permalink
    terapined
    Member since: Aug 6, 2014
    Threads: 49
    Posts: 5966
    12 Monkeys - the movie
    Sometimes we live no particular way but our own - Grateful Dead "Eyes of the World"
    May 10th, 2020 at 9:13:19 AM permalink
    aceofspades
    Member since: Oct 24, 2012
    Threads: 78
    Posts: 1727
    Quote: ams288
    No Country for Old Men

    It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen it, but I remember thinking “huh, it’s over?!” when the end credits started to roll.

    Come to think of it, there are probably several Coen Bros. movies that could be on this list.


    The movie is just like the book - the ending just comes and you're like - wait, what? where's the rest of the story?
    May 10th, 2020 at 1:52:43 PM permalink
    Pacomartin
    Member since: Oct 24, 2012
    Threads: 963
    Posts: 11255
    Quote: terapined
    12 Monkeys - the movie


    An homage to the 28 minute 1962 French film that inspired 12 Monkeys.