While ambiguous endings can leave viewers frustrated, confused and dissatisfied, when done well, it can also be a very thoughtful way to end a story. Classic storytelling techniques have created a “happy ending” standard. This dictates what we expect of a movie’s ending, including that all plots and sub-plots be neatly wrapped up. However, as early as the mid-1940s, people came to appreciate the strength of an open-ended narrative.
Italian neorealism was a style of film-making circa 1944-1952, that was characterized by a slice-of-life approach. The stories were depressing, solemn, and happy endings were a fantasy that such filmmakers refused to indulge in. Although its heyday came to a close decades ago, this influential approach to storytelling never completely disappeared. Today, we see open-endings all the time, especially in horrors and dramas. Unfortunately, this is not always a success. Case in point: 2012’s The Devil Inside left everyone confused with a random cut-to-black ending.
Still, the ambiguous ending certainly has a time and a place. Stories that strive to appeal to our visceral senses, emotions and fears can benefit greatly from this technique. These films can have a profound effect on us, reminding its viewers that life is sometimes strange and confusing. When art imitates life, it can be extraordinarily captivating. Here are 15 films of various genres that took advantage of their ambiguity to create compelling stories that kept us all at the edge of our seats.
15. Stand Up Guys (2012)
Acting almost as caricatures of themselves, legends Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin portray three old gangsters coming to the end of their days. When Val (Pacino) is released from prison, he is thrilled to see his old pal and partner in crime, Doc (Walken) waiting for him. But Doc is full of mixed emotions, knowing Val is set to be his very last hit.
Deciding to give in to nostalgia, they put the old gang back together by breaking Hirsch (Arkin) out of his care facility and take to the streets. But as the day comes to a close, it becomes apparent that the only way for them to go, is with a bang. The film ends as they run into what will likely be their last big battle, guns in hand. Do they make it out alive? Or go out in a blaze of glory?
14. Total Recall (1990)
This cult-classic sci-fi follows Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as he becomes confusingly entangled in a fight against the bad guys. The oculus rift has nothing on this technology. After inexplicably obsessing over the prospect of moving to Mars, Quaid settles for a virtual vacation. However, the “trip” unlocks a barrage of lost memories and lies.
Disrupted by what he finds, Quaid decides that the only thing to do is go to Mars and look for the answers he needs – oh, and play hero. But virtual reality is, by its very nature, an ambiguous concept. Soon enough, Quaid has to ask some very difficult questions; what is real? What has been virtually implanted? How does one tell the difference? And the audience is forced to ask the same.
13. The Wrestler (2008)
Critical acclaim, raving reviews, this film was the epitome of success. It followed an aging professional wrestler, played by Mickey Rourke, who struggles to let go of his youth. His deteriorating health leaves him feeling helpless, as does his difficult attempt to reconnect with the daughter he abandoned long ago.
When the opportunity to re-enter the ring to battle his arch-nemesis arises, he’s sure it is his ticket back to happiness. But those dreams are dashed when his doctor explains the match may kill him. Face-to-face with his own mortality, Randy ultimately decides that it is a risk he is willing to take. The drama ends with Randy entering the ring, but what will become of him after the match, remains a mystery. Did he survive his triumphant return?
12. Black Swan (2010)
The story was first conceived in 2000 by Darren Aronofsky, as part of The Wrester. The story would have followed the couple, a wrestler and a ballerina, but eventually the director decided that it would be too much, and separated the two. Now considered a “companion” to his earlier film The Wrestler, Black Swan stands on its own as a completely disorienting tale.
When Nina is cast as the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake, advances by the director, a controlling mother, and the pressure to prove herself to a company full of jealous dancers sends Nina into a psychological spiral. The curious-timed arrival of a beautiful understudy serves as a much-needed relief, but the friendship quickly becomes confusing. As Nina struggles with all of these things, she loses her sanity, making viewers question what is real, and what isn’t. By the end, Nina loses control, killing her new friend backstage. Or, has she killed herself?
11. The Shining (1980)
A horror masterpiece, this film is sure to send a chill up your spine — again, and again. When author Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) becomes overwhelmed by writer’s block and an impending deadline, he decides some peace and quiet is just what he and his family need. Taking a job at an old picturesque hotel in the mountains, Jack and his family move in for the winter, only to find that solitude can be deadly.
As Jack grows more impatient and fonder of the bottle, his wife and son realize there is no escape. Once finally off the deep end, Jack sets off on a rampage attempting to kill them, but the demons he faces are a little more than metaphorical. By the end, Jack is killed but his image remains, forever framed in an old photograph that hangs on the wall. Has a malevolent ghost trapped him? Is he now himself the malevolent ghost?
10. American Psycho (2000)
If there isn’t enough pressure to uphold a certain image on Wall St., Patrick (Christian Bale) is dealing with a whole different set of rules: Don’t show the crazy. Attempting to hide his psychotic episodes and keep them separate from his life as a successful NY businessman, Patrick falls deeper into a fantasy world of chaos and murder.
But how much of it is fantasy, and how much of it is real? By the end of the film, viewers are forced into Patrick’s shoes, and like him, are left to question what brutal actions Patrick has really committed, if any.
9. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Fantasy has a way of tricking the audience into believing anything is possible. But what happens when the final scene disrupts the magic? Here, Dorothy (Judy Garland) is transported during a tornado to a new world, populated by witches and munchkins. Lost and confused, she is forced to put together a group of misfit pals and set off on an adventure to find her way home, and avoid being killed.
After a series of incidents, she is finally given the ticket home: a pair of ruby slippers. When Dorothy wakes up in her own bed, viewers are initially thrilled that everything has worked out. But there are some questions to be answered. Did she really visit Oz? Or was it all a strange dream, the result of losing consciousness during the tornado? If Oz does exist, how were all of her loved ones there? If it doesn’t, where did the ruby slippers come from?
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The third, and what we believe will be the final chapter of this dark superhero trilogy, has received quite a bit of criticism. Nonetheless, there are many who loved it despite its flaws. Love it or hate it, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the ending was a surprise, and a bit confusing.
After nearly three hours of watching a film filled with plot-holes, cheesy one-liners and incredibly dramatic music, most were still disappointed to see Batman (Christian Bale) die at the end. And then, one last twist, Alfred spots his late master in Vienna, having lunch.
That may seem like a sufficiently closed ending, but given director Christopher Nolan’s apt for intentional ambiguity, it seems worth considering the fact that the spotting may all be in the grieving mind of Alfred. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, so the audience just keeps guessing, debating and arguing.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
This epic is structured into four acts, revolving around a series of encounters between humans and the mysterious black monoliths. Sci-fi to the core, the themes include human evolution, technology (including artificial intelligence) and alien life.
It began with a lukewarm run in theatres, but has eventually become one of Kubrick’s most treasured masterpieces, and a favorite among Sci-fi fans. Today, it is considered one of the most influential films of all time, and yet, there are still so many unanswered questions.
At the end, the protagonist confronts the monolith, only to be thrown through time and space. His transformation into a powerful and worshipped baby makes one have to wonder, is he God? Or (for the skeptics), is it just all a hallucination?
6. Memento (2000)
If you can manage to follow this non-chronological plot for long enough, you are rewarded with a twist-ending that changes everything. Mind-blown, you come to the realization that nothing makes sense, nothing can be trusted, and you still don’t know who John G is and if he’s dead. Now, that is open-ended closure.
The story follows a man on a mission to avenge his wife who was murdered in a brutal home invasion. The trouble is, the event also left Leonard badly injured. Suffering from anterograde amnesia, he has completely lost his short term memory and, consequently, the ability to create new memories.
As he wanders about, attempting to investigate, he must document all of his findings on post-its, scrap pieces of paper and even his body. What he knows is that at some point, he tattooed himself with the words “John G Raped and Murdered Your Wife”. But who is John G? By the end, a friend admits to him that he helped Leonard find and kill John G years ago, and that he has been given false information, on a goose-chase to kill others. But in a world where nothing can be trusted, you have to ask yourself: True? Or false?
5. How I Live Now (2013)
In this dystopian future, WWIII is just around the corner, when Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is sent from NY to her aunt’s house in England. Suffering from depression, anger, OCD and a fear of germs (among other things), Daisy’s aggressive behavior becomes a very disruptive addition to the household. With her aunt busied by secretive work having to do with the war, Daisy is forced to get to know her three cousins. Slowly coming around, Daisy begins to feel as though, for the first time, she belongs somewhere.
And then a nuclear attack hits London, and everything changes. When the town is evacuated, the kids decide to stay holed up on their farm, in the hopes that their mother will soon return. But the military has other plans. The children are split up and Daisy dragged off with her youngest cousin, a little girl for whom she now feels responsible.
Her exceptionally violent journey to get she, and the little one back home, is filled with chaos and danger but when she finally does, only one cousin remains — the boy with whom she fell in love. He has been beaten, tortured and whatever else. Unable to connect, or even speak, Daisy submits to being his caretaker. But what will become of them after the war? Will he ever recover? Will their parents ever return? It’s a bittersweet ending indeed.
4. Blade Runner (1982)
This cult classic neo-noir follows Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired Blade Runner who is forced to take on one last job. In this dystopian LA, replicants (robots that are virtually indistinguishable from people) have invaded earth in an attempt to blend in. When Deckard is assigned to find and destroy them, he is surprised to find that one in particular is special. In fact, she’s nearly human. With fake memories implanted in her mind, she believes she is a real woman who has had a real life.
As he struggles to decide if and how to save her, he also proves himself to be the best Blade Runner out there, taking out all the other replicants, one by one. In the end, he has succeeded against all odds, but it leaves the audience wondering how. Is this a case of “it takes a monster to kill a monster?” In other words, is Deckard a replicant himself, designed to specifically to be a trustworthy destroyer? The kicker is, thanks to memory implants, even he can’t know the truth.
3. Shutter Island (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio shows off his ability to play a driven nut in this, one of the many impressive DiCaprio/Scorsese successes. Set in 1954, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels heads to the eerie prison-island for the criminally insane, to investigate the escape of a murderess.
The plot thickens again and again, until viewers are sucked into a twisted and unpredictable drama. Teddy begins to question the ethics of the doctors on the island, and wonders if he himself is in danger. Following a promising lead only leads to more distress when a hurricane leaves him stranded and vulnerable. But none of that action could prepare the audience for the sudden discovery that Teddy is himself a patient — maybe. Is he crazy? Has he always been? Or have the doctors trapped him into one of their sinister experiments?
2. Black Christmas (1974)
In the spirit of the holidays, this festive slasher cannot go unrecognized. In what can be described as the first modern slasher flick, a sorority house is harassed by a perverted prank caller over the Christmas holidays. When the calls become excessive, and a girl goes missing, it becomes dangerously clear that they are dealing with something more than a bored teenage boy.
“The moaner”, as they refer to him, is actually in the house. It may sound cliche, but this is the first horror to play on that urban legend. The film does an excellent job of creating a tense atmosphere by switching points of view, back and forth between the girls and the killer.
By the end, Jess (Olivia Hussey) fears that her own boyfriend is the assailant. Trapped in a basement with him, she does what she thinks is the right thing to do — she kills him. Unfortunately, a final shot of Jess in bed sedated from the shock of the event, plays the creepy laugh of the killer from the attic. Yes, he’s still in the house. Jess has killed the wrong man.
1. Inception (2010)
A little corporate espionage, anyone? Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a expert in theft. Not just any petty robbery though, he is skilled at stealing ideas while the mind is in a vulnerable dream-state. The life of risky crime has left him a fugitive so, having lost everything, he jumps at the change for redemption.
One last job can give Cobb his life back. But it’s no usual job. Rather than stealing secrets, Cobb is now tasked with the intrepid mission of implanting an idea into the mind of a CEO. If he can pull off the impossible, all will be right again. By the end, things have gotten so out of control that the audience has to wonder where the dream ends and reality begins. A dream within a dream, right? Or is it?