Movie endings are the culmination of the whole experience. In fact, it’s a sure mark of a bad movie if people don’t bother to stay until the end.
Lots of movies save a surprise for the ending, a jolt that puts the entire movie into perspective. In some cases, though, it goes beyond surprise to outright confusion. You’re left slack-jawed, maybe even angry at the lack of a definitive resolution to the story you just invested 90 minutes of your hard-earned time in. You need to know, dammit, if the heroine really dies in the end, or if the whole plot was a dream and a cruel director had just left you hanging.
On the flip side, some movies end with scenes so bizarre you’re not really sure what you just saw. Or what it meant. Or you’re left looking for meaning where there’s actually none, and you suspect it, but you can never be entirely sure.
We’ve delved into 15 of the most confusing and dumbfounding movie endings of the last few decades and tried to find answers to that burning question: WTF did I just see?
15. Inception (2010)
At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Cobb pulls out of the dream world — maybe — and he’s reunited with his kids. We see a top spinning on the table, and the camera cuts to black just as it seems to begin to wobble. The top is Cobb’s Totem — the object that he can use to test reality vs dream world by the way it acts. So if it begins to fall to gravity naturally, that means it’s real, right? But, perhaps that assumption is already off base. Christopher Nolan said as much in a speech to the Princeton University graduation class of 2015, where he also commented that he gets more questions about Inception‘s ending than any of his other films. According to Nolan, the question shouldn’t really revolve around whether it’s a dream or reality. The point is, Cobb is with his children and is happy, and that’s the subjective reality he prefers — no matter where it lands on the objective reality scale. If Cobb doesn’t care, why should you?
14. Birdman (2014)
The Oscar-winning black comedy Birdman by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu left many viewers scratching their heads. On the surface, it’s about a down-and-out actor named Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. He’s trying to make a comeback on Broadway. Riggan was once famous for playing a superhero by the name of Birdman in a trilogy of movies 20 years ago, but he’s also shown performing superhuman feats in the real world. It’s not until later in the film that we realize none of it is real. Riggan is trying to mount a play while dealing with a daughter just out of rehab, and an influential movie critic, who, on the eve of opening night, promises to kill his production with a bad review. The performance goes well, but after a talk with his ex-wife, Riggan takes a loaded gun on stage so that the final scene suicide will happen for real. It’s a theatrical sensation, garnering great reviews. Riggan wakes up in hospital, having blown off his nose by mistake. His daughter visits him, and when he leaves the room, he climbs out on the ledge after some birds. His daughter returns, looking frantically for him out the window, but then slowly looks up to the sky and smiles. Does this mean he was Birdman after all? The writers and director have been coy but have suggested it’s really about Riggan and Sam, his daughter. Riggan has committed suicide, and Sam has begun to hallucinate the way he did. The film’s subtitle is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” and Sam simply chooses to ignore the truth.
13. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
There have been many essays and editorials written about this film in the almost 50 years since its release in 1968. According to director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, the film’s ending can be understood on various levels. An interview published in the book The Film Director as Superstar by Joseph Gelmis (1970) explains the various levels. The last surviving astronaut, Bowman, reaches Jupiter, where an artifact left by aliens millions of years ago zips him into another part of the galaxy. He ends up as a zoo creature for extraterrestrials inside an environment shaped by his own imagination and dreams. Then, he’s reborn as the superhuman “Starchild” ready to take humanity to the next level. As Kubrick tells it, other meanings and mythological and subconscious dimensions are determined by each viewer’s own reaction to the visuals of the story. In other words, it means whatever you want it to mean.
12. Donnie Darko (2001)
In the surreal cult fave Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal’s titular Donnie gets woken up in the middle of the night by a giant rabbit, who tells him the world is ending and saves him from a jet engine that crashes through the roof into his room. But the jet engine is actually coming from the future, 28 days ahead. The time anomaly creates a Tangent Universe, an alternate dimension where Donnie and Frank-Bunny work to save the world. In this movie, you have to understand the 28 days and the Tangent Universe as a kind of loop. If Donnie can close the loop, he saves the world from endlessly slipping through this rift in the space-time continuum. This is where it gets really complicated. To do that, he has to send the jet engine that has broken off of a plane in the Tangent Universe back to the Primary Universe through a wormhole 28 days from the opening scene, thereby actually killing himself in the Primary Universe as the Tangent Universe disappears. Got all that?
11. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan ends up on this again; he does seem to love a convoluted wrap-up to his stories. The plot of Interstellar revolves around the concept of alternate universes and realities and the idea that time can be experienced in different ways that aren’t necessarily linear, based on work by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former NASA pilot who is part of a team trying to save humanity by finding us a new home. The trip involves a wormhole that lets them slip through time and space to the other side of the universe. It comes down to Cooper thinking he’s sacrificing himself in order to reduce the weight on the spaceship Endurance so his teammate Amelia can make it to the new planet. But instead of drifting through space as he expects to, he gets pulled into The Tesseract, which is the cause of the wormhole, with the help of unseen “future humans.” He ends up being able to bend time back to talk to his daughter Murph, played by Jessica Chastain, and tell her how to save humanity. He then slides back through the wormhole, presumably to reunite with Amelia and begin colonization of humanity’s new home. The only way to understand the ending is to get the concept of a wormhole and the way it manipulates time differently from one end to the other. That and a degree in astrophysics.
10. Total Recall (1990 & 2012)
The story varies slightly between the 1990 and 2012 versions of Total Recall, based on the Philip K. Dick story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. In all versions, though, a blue-collar laborer named Quaid has strangely vivid dreams where he’s a secret agent. He goes to a company called Total Recall that can implant memories of vacations you can’t afford. Quaid decides to implant an adventure as a spy, and the story begins to go sideways as he actually gets caught up in a secretive resistance organization. Or does he? The plot twists in and around itself, eventually revealing Quaid as a double agent who is really working for Vilos Cohaagen, the evil industrialist who’s bent on world domination. Then, in another twist, he ends up a double-double agent who’s only pretending to be a double-agent. He saves the world and gets the girl. Or does he? In the final scene, there seems to be a sign that, in fact, the whole story has only been part of the fantasy implanted by the lab techs at Total Recall. But… The truth of the matter has been a popular subject of debate over the years, and Paul Verhoeven, director of the original 1990 version starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, finally spoke about it in a 2015 interview. His answer was somewhat unsatisfying — it’s both. It’s both true and not true, post-modern dudes — both dream and reality.
9. Black Swan (2010)
Natalie Portman starred as a ballerina with a problem with her mental, if not physical balance in this movie by Darren Aronofsky. If you want to grasp the end of Black Swan, it helps to understand that director Darren Aronofsky thinks of it as a kind of companion to his previous film, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. The Wrestler ends with Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson choosing to die rather than quit wrestling. As Black Swan fades to white, our heroine Nine is lying on a mattress backstage, visibly bloodied. “Perfect,” she says at the end. “I was perfect.” Yes but… there’s really no coming back from the performance that drove you literally insane. Does she die after the credits start rolling? It doesn’t really matter since she’s irreversibly broken from the experience. She’s given it her all, and it took everything she had.
8. Drive (2011)
Drive is an action thriller with an arthouse sense of style, focusing on a character known only as Driver and played by Ryan Gosling. He’s a stunt driver who takes on shady driving jobs for shady people for extra cash. When a heist goes sideways, the Driver turns violent but in the end shows a selfless streak as well as he takes a hit to let the girl and the kid (there’s naturally an innocent girl and cute, plucky kid involved) escape to safety. As the movie ends, he’s wounded in the gut but manages to drag himself back to his car and drive away into the night. The ending is left open, in what is obviously a deliberate move. Does the Driver simply keel over a few blocks later and die? Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has compared the story to a contemporary Grimm’s fairytale, where the underdog hero saves the princess from an evil but powerful king. Refn said in an interview that in his mind, the character does live on to have more adventures.
7. Looper (2012)
At the end of Looper, the younger Joe shoots himself, and older Joe, along with the turbulent scene of impending doom, disappears… what? The ending left many viewers scratching their heads. In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a young assassin sent back in time from the future. Criminals from the future send their hit targets back to a time when disposing bodies was much easier. The Loopers do the deed and are handsomely rewarded, but there’s a catch: one day, their future crime bosses send their future selves back, and they have to perform that hit, too. It’s called “closing the loop,” and it’s happening more and more often as a mysterious crime boss from the future, called the Rainmaker, who is said to have supernatural powers, starts eliminating the Loopers one by one. And so, one day, young Joe goes to a hit and is confronted by old Joe, played by Bruce Willis. Taken by surprise, old Joe manages to escape young Joe, determined to kill the Rainmaker as a young child, and thereby avoid the death of his wife at the hands of Rainmaker’s henchmen. Got it so far? The ending comes when young Joe realizes that old Joe’s vengeance is, in fact, the life-changing act that will send the Rainmaker on a path of criminality and revenge on Loopers, resulting in… That’s why he kills himself, eliminating old Joe, and letting the young Rainmaker live his life in peace. Whew.
6. Montenegro (1981)
Susan Anspach had the starring role in this dark erotic comedy by Serbian director Dusan Makavejev. Here, the ending is actually explained but still manages to deliver that WTF factor, along with a detail thrown in at the end that throws another wrinkle into it. Susan plays Marilyn, the bored, listless American wife of a Swedish businessman, living among his boring Swedish family in Stockholm. One day, said husband goes on a business trip, and Marilyn goes to meet him. But her trip to the airport goes awry, and she ends up in a low-end part of town full of immigrant workers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Marilyn spends a couple of days in a questionable nightclub where sex and violence is the norm, and she takes to her new normal like a duck to water. As she opens herself up to the goings on, she gets involved with a gypsy by the name of Montenegro (not subtle, Mr. Makavejev), and they have a spectacular hookup. So, you’re thinking, she finally finds herself or something along those lines. And then you’d be watching in horror as she kills him and then goes home to her uptight family and proceeds to feed them dinner, while a caption tells you the meal has been poisoned. It finishes with “The story was based on real events.” That last part, we weren’t able to confirm. Your mistake, with this movie, was assuming it was about a woman finding empowerment. Instead, it was a story about senseless violence. Or insanity. Or something.
5. Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972)
German director Werner Herzog is responsible for this meditation on the insanity of imperialism and people in general. The movie was made with a minimalist approach to plot and dialogue and a progressive/Krautrock soundtrack and quickly became an art house cult favorite. It stars German actor Klaus Kinski as one of a group of Spanish conquistadors trying to make their way down the Amazon River in an ill-conceived quest to find El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. Kinski and Herzog famously feuded throughout the whole shoot, which happened on location in Peru, terrorizing both their fellow actors and the Amazonian people they were working with. In the movie, the expedition is doomed as the nutty Spaniards try to negotiate their way through the jungle in heavy armor. They’re soon dropping like flies, their supplies running low, and then their rafts are lost when the river rises. In the end, Kinski’s lone-surviving conquistador is standing on a raft in the river, under attack by hostile natives and overrun by monkeys (yes, monkeys), and he’s mumbling about this being only the beginning of his empire. Just to add to the delirium, Okello, the slave, has suggested earlier that the Indians are an illusion. Is there some twist to the ending? Is there an illusion inside the illusion? No, not really. It ends with madness, and that’s the only message there is. Madness.
4. Chinatown (1974)
The infamous Roman Polanski directed this noir story about Jake Gittes, a private eye played by Jack Nicholson, as he unravels the horribly twisted tale of a wealthy Los Angeles clan that keeps you guessing until the end, and then stuns you with the last shot. There are so many twists, and it all unravels so quickly that you may not get it all in just one viewing. Gittes is hired by a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband around. Said husband just happens to be the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and he’s found drowned in a reservoir. Soon, Gittes is involved in dirty deals that see municipal employees deliberately drying out parcels of land so they can be sold at a low price, and it turns out that Evelyn’s father is the culprit. The story gets even darker when it’s finally revealed that Evelyn was a victim of her father’s incest and that their daughter is now his new victim of choice. In the end, it turns out the cops are in on the whole thing, and they shoot Evelyn as she’s attempting to flee with her daughter. The last shot we see is of Katherine, the young girl, being driven away with grandpa. Yuck. Really? Yes, really. As one of the cops tells Gittes at the end, “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The moral of the story is that rich, evil people can do whatever they want. You need a hot shower after you watch this one.
3. American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale stars as a wealthy investment banking exec in NYC with a double life in this adaptation of the book of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis. Bale’s Patrick Bateman is banker by day, vicious serial killer by night. We see him murder a colleague, Paul Allen, with an ax because he’s annoyed the man has a nicer business card. He has a threesome and kills first one partner, then the other as she tries to run away horrified through an apartment full of dead bodies. One day, after a conversation with an ATM, he kills a woman in public and ends up in a police chase, slaughtering a few more people on the way. Finally, rattled, he confesses all on a long voicemail message to his lawyer. But… the next morning, Bateman ends up at Paul’s apartment, which is empty and for sale, and the Realtor tells him no one named Paul Allen ever lived there. All the decomposing bodies he’s been storing there have disappeared. Later, his secretary is horrified to discover Bateman’s notebook filled with drawings of murder and rape. Confused, he runs into his lawyer, who laughs off the phone confession and mentions that he’s just had dinner with Paul Allen in London. So was the whole thing just Bateman’s sicko fantasy world? That conclusion may be true, but it misses the true point of the ending — the absurdist way that no one believes him and that he won’t get the punishment he now wants. “This confession has meant nothing,” he laments.
2. Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink is a period drama by the Coen Brothers, a dark satire about Hollywood, the nature of relationships, and creativity. Fink, played by John Turturro, begins the story as a successful playwright in 1940s New York City. He’s persuaded to migrate to Hollywood to cash in on a lucrative screenwriting gig, but once he’s in the city that manufactures the world’s dreams and fantasies, he finds a seedy hotel room and abuse at the hands of various studio executives. On the peeling wallpaper of his spartan hotel room, there’s a print of a girl in a bikini on the beach — the Hollywood of the ideal. One by one, his illusions are dashed, including an admiration for fellow writer W. P. Mayhew that he learns is misplaced, and a friend and neighbor who turns out to be a homicidal maniac. After he escapes his burning building, his career equally in ruins, Fink wanders, dazed, to a beach, and there she is, the beautiful woman in a bikini of his dreams — and that picture on his wall. Does that mean the story was a dream of Fink’s? Not entirely, according to a 1991 interview with Joel Coen, who says they were trying for “a logic of the irrational.” After all, you’d be plenty freaked out after seeing your neighbor kill a couple of cops and set the building ablaze. “We wanted the film’s atmosphere to reflect the psychological state of the protagonist.”
1. Enemy (2013)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam in this movie that follows the lines of a game or puzzle. Adam is a history professor who one day discovers an exact double named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, and everyone mixes them up, including Adam’s wife Mary and Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen. Everyone sleeps with everyone, and near the end, Mary and Anthony end up in a car crash that we assume has killed both. We then see Adam ready to assume Anthony’s identity with Helen. The last shot follows as he enters the bedroom and finds a tarantula that fills the room but is apparently scared and shrinking against the wall. What? Now, if you were paying attention, you’d have noticed a recurring spider theme throughout the movie, one that’s linked with women. There’s the spider that an erotic performer is about to crush with her platform heel in front of Adam at a private show and the spider that seems to hover menacingly above the city skyscrapers as the two doppelgangers meet in a hotel room. The movie has a nightmarish quality about it, and it’s probably best understood as such. Adam and his double are really two sides of the same character, a man who’s trying to evade his issues with women, and, in the end, introvert Adam chooses to become the cooler extrovert Anthony.