12 Movie Endings That Try Too Hard to Be Ambiguous
These films left many of us intrigued… and many more – disappointed.
1. Inception (2010)
The infamous ending of Christopher Nolan's mind-bender Inception has been dissected, debated, and discussed ad nauseam. That spinning top, teetering on the brink of either side – reality or dream – was as much of a cliffhanger as the final episode of your favorite soap opera.
The audience was left scratching their heads, turning to their popcorn companions, and asking, 'Wait, what?!' It's like Nolan left us in a lucid dream where the only escape is a cold splash of reality – or another screening. With a whopping 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film received eight Oscar nominations and won four, making that spinning top a successful, if slightly infuriating, gambit.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
This modern-day western-thriller by the Coen brothers is packed with riveting performances, most notably from Javier Bardem as the ruthless hitman Anton Chigurh. The movie, however, doesn't end with a climactic showdown as most would expect. Instead, we get an extended monologue by Tommy Lee Jones' character about two vaguely symbolic dreams.
No Country for Old Men might have scored an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and won four Oscars including Best Picture, but that puzzling ending had more than a few viewers disappointed.
3. Birdman (2014)
Birdman is a bit like watching a beautiful fever dream unfold. Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film tells the story of washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, who battles his ego and attempts to reinvent his career by starring in a Broadway play. The movie's perplexing ending – where Thomson seemingly flies away, much to the astonishment of his daughter – kept audiences on their toes.
The film's unconventional storytelling and that head-scratcher of an ending might have been a tad too ambiguous, but they didn't stop it from raking in four Oscars and a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey is Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic masterpiece, a film that often feels more like an experience than a simple story. The film's final sequence, in which astronaut Dave Bowman finds himself in an elegant bedroom before transforming into a star child, has left viewers dissecting its meaning for over half a century.
In the world of ambiguous endings, this one reigns supreme. It's like a Rubik's Cube that's forever one move away from being solved. However, it seems that the puzzle was well-received, with the film earning a 92% Rotten Tomatoes score and four Oscar nominations.
5. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch is the king of strange and uncanny, and Mulholland Drive is no exception. This fever dream of a movie, initially conceived as a television series, features aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in a dark tale of love and jealousy.
The finale takes a detour into a parallel universe that would leave even the most seasoned puzzle solvers stumped. Lynch probably smirked in his director's chair as confused audiences left the cinema. Despite its enigmatic ending, the film boasts an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Best Director nomination at the Oscars for Lynch.
6. Enemy (2013)
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as both a history professor and a small-time actor in this eerie doppelgänger thriller. Just when you think you've seen everything, the climax sucker-punches you with a giant, room-filling spider. Yes, you read that right. A spider. It's like biting into an apple and finding a whole different fruit inside (you know we didn't actually mean 'fruit', though, right?..)
The film, with its startling and ambiguous ending, left audience members discussing their theories for weeks. Despite its bizarre finale, Enemy earned a respectable 71% on Rotten Tomatoes.
7. Shutter Island (2010)
This psychological thriller from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating a disappearance at a mental asylum. It's revealed that Daniels is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at the asylum who killed his wife.
The final line 'Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?' has sparked countless debates about whether Laeddis had relapsed into his delusion. With an 68% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film clearly managed to keep audiences guessing.
8. Donnie Darko (2001)
This cult classic film by Richard Kelly features Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his earliest roles. The movie, full of time loops and parallel universes, culminates in an ending that can only be described as ambiguously heartbreaking. When Donnie is killed by an airplane engine, it's unclear whether the previous events were an alternate reality or just the delusions of a mentally ill teenager. Despite its confusing narrative, Donnie Darko managed to garner an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
9. Primer (2004)
Primer is not just a movie; it's a full-blown mental workout. Shane Carruth's low-budget sci-fi tale about time-traveling friends, Abe and Aaron, is as mind-boggling as they come. The plot takes more twists and turns than a labyrinth, with a timeline so intricate that you'd need a doctoral degree in Quantum Physics to fully grasp it.
The climax sees Aaron in an audio-recorded phone conversation with Abe, hinting at more time loops, alternative timelines, and an upcoming project. Primer, with its 71% Rotten Tomatoes rating, remains a testament to just how enthralling an ambiguous ending can be.
10. Blade Runner (1982)
This cyberpunk masterpiece by Ridley Scott follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a 'Blade Runner,' tasked with hunting down bioengineered beings known as replicants. The movie's ending, in which Deckard finds an origami unicorn, implying that his dreams might be implanted (like those of the replicants), has sparked one of the most enduring debates in cinematic history – is Deckard himself a replicant? It's a question that both Scott and Ford have answered differently over the years, adding fuel to the speculation fire.
With a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and two Oscar nominations, the film is a beloved sci-fi classic, and its cryptic ending is a masterstroke in ambiguity.
11. The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master provides a probing examination of post-WWII America through the lens of a cult-like movement known as 'The Cause'. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a traumatized navy veteran, becomes entangled with this movement, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The film's ending, wherein Dodd sings a sentimental song to Freddie before their final parting, leaves more questions than answers. Nominated for three acting Oscars and holding an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Master is a brilliant film that leaves its meaning open to interpretation.
12. Under the Skin (2013)
This haunting sci-fi film by Jonathan Glazer is about an extraterrestrial entity (Scarlett Johansson) that assumes the form of a human woman to prey on men in Scotland. The film's unnerving ending, which sees the entity's human form being burnt away to reveal her alien self beneath, leaves audiences with a lot to unpack.
The true nature and motives of the entity remain as elusive as the film's metaphor-laden narrative. Despite its elusiveness, or perhaps because of it, the film has an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.