Endings are important. Nothing lasts forever and it’s only when something has ended can we properly reflect on all that’s come before. Usually, endings act as the icing on the cake. They tie up all the loose threads spun throughout a movie’s runtime and provide us with a satisfying resolution and a closing of the book before we go back to our dull, gray, pedestrian lives.
However, some choose to end on an ambiguous note, cutting to black before everything’s finished and leaving the audience questioning where the story went next or just quite what the ending meant. More often than not, these endings provoke fierce discussion and pages of online arguments over whether this particular shot or that line of dialogue had any significance or not. Here are Screen Rant’s 14 Movie Endings Where We Still Don’t Know What Happened.
HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
14. Total Recall (1990)
Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick book We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall is a sci-fi classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by schlockmaster Paul Verhoeven. Arnie plays construction worker Douglas Quaid, a man who approaches Rekall, a company that specializes in memory implants of vacations and fantasies. Quaid chooses Mars as his mind vacation location as well as to roleplay as a secret agent. Something goes wrong with the machine and throughout the entire film, both Quaid and the audience are left questioning how real the events in the film are and whether Quaid actually got his ass to Mars or not. The film ends with Quaid having killed the bad guys, getting the girl and saving the planet in the process. He and Melina (Rachel Ticotin) share a climactic kiss in front of Mars’ newly blue skies.
There are many clues throughout the film as to what actually happens. When Quaid is pitched the Martian secret agent package, he’s told that he’ll “get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet” as well as one of the Rekall engineers specifically mentioning the blue skies on Mars. However, despite these details, there’s evidence for both sides of the “was it all a dream?” debate. If it was a dream, poor old Arnie won’t have saved Mars and will wake up next to his same old wife (who just so happens to look like Sharon Stone). Tough break.
13. Mulholland Drive (2001)
If we were doing a “Movies That Hurt Our Brains” list, we could populate it almost entirely with David Lynch films. Mulholland Drive is a twisty, nonlinear tale about a woman, later named Rita (Laura Harring) who survives a car accident and is left shocked, confused and with a hefty case of amnesia. She’s helped by an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) to get to the bottom of what happened and as the story plays out, the two women fall in love and the very nature of reality comes into question as the movie is packed with hallucinations, non-sequiturs and creepy dreamlike images.
The film ends when Betty is left in the apartment alone, with a plot-important key in front of her. Someone or something pounds on the door, but Betty doesn’t answer. She is soon confronted by a nightmarish vision of an old couple advancing on her, laughing and jeering. She screams, collapses on her bed, pulls out a gun and shoots herself. Smoke appears around the bed and the image fades to a slow montage of her and Rita smiling over a cityscape. Our final shot is of a theater and the name of it, “Silencio,” being spoken aloud before cutting to black. Many different interpretations of what actually happens have been suggested since its release.
The entire film is a mystery and unlike some of the other films on this list, it doesn’t give us any real clues as to the true nature of it all. Perhaps the entire point is to get people talking about it and engaging with the art. However, we still don’t know for sure.
12. The Wrestler (2008)
Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler follows the aged and physically broken professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) after his career in the squared circle. Over the course of the film, we see Randy’s desire to get back in the ring, despite his body pulling the ultimate heel move and suffering a heart attack. Doctors warn him that getting back in the ring could kill him, but the world of wrestling is the only thing that makes sense to Randy, and we see him make his comeback despite medical advice. Randy climbs to the top rope, with a cheering crowd backing him and he leaps off, with the film ending before he lands.
The question we’re left with is whether Randy survives. Were the doctors wrong and did he get the last glorious comeback he wanted or did Randy die in the ring as predicted? Either way, Randy is where he wants to be and is taking control of his life (and possibly death) on his own terms. Whether he dies or not is mostly irrelevant in narrative terms, but it’s natural to want him to live to see him reconcile with his daughter, his relationship with her having been on the rocks throughout the film.
11. Enemy (2013)
In Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a college professor who becomes obsessed with finding an actor who he discovers looks exactly like him after seeing him in a movie. Bell tracks down his doppelganger and the two men’s lives change forever. The film is designed to keep you uncomfortably shifting in your seat as the surreal tale unfolds, especially with its recurring motif of giant, Toronto-sized spiders and the general creepy vibe.
Adam slowly assumes the identity of Anthony Clare and returns home, where Anthony’s wife is waiting for him. After a brief conversation with her, Adam rounds the corner to be greeted by a room-sized tarantula. However, the gigantic spider seems frightened of him and backs into a corner. Instead of being understandably terrified or trying to find a football field-sized newspaper, Adam seems strangely resigned, almost bored. There’s been a lot of speculation as to what the imagery and symbolism represent, but there’s been no solid explanation. The film’s opening line: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” no doubt teases a definitive answer to all of the film’s hairy-legged happenings.
10. Inception (2010)
How do you follow up a film like The Dark Knight? For Christopher Nolan, the answer was with a complex dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream story starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is an extractor, a man who deals in stealing business secrets from people’s subconscious dreams. He’s recruited to pull one last complicated job, where instead of taking information out, he’s asked to place an idea in. The film deals with multiple dream worlds and subconscious levels. Due to the reality-distorting nature of his job, Dom has a trick to tell whether he’s in a dream or not- a spinning top. If he sets it going and spins continuously, he’s in a dream, if not, he’s in the real world.
The film draws to its conclusion when Cobb is reunited with his long-absent children. He spins the top as usual, but goes to meet his children playing outside. The camera lingers on the top, which wobbles slightly before the credits roll. It’s a fantastic ending that has led to great debate. Many argue that the fact that Cobb leaves the top spinning shows that he doesn’t care whether what he’s seeing is real or not. Some have argued the significance of the wedding ring Dom wears on and off during the film, being a subtle indicator of which reality he’s in. It’s definitely up to interpretation and for people who require closure from their movies, it has proved to be an ongoing source of debate.
9. American Psycho (2000)
In Mary Harron’s black comedy thriller, Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a yuppie investment banker at the height of the consumerist 1980s. As the film progresses, we see that something as simple as an apparently superior business card is enough to send him into a homicidal rage. Bateman tortures and murders many people over the course of the film, which leads him to confess his crimes, including the murder of Jared Leto’s Paul, which has to be one of the only instances where Batman has straight-up murdered the Joker. His confession is laughed off by his lawyer, and the film ends with Bateman narrating, telling the audience that his punishment “continues to elude” him and his confession “has meant nothing.”
Questions have been raised as to whether any of the events in the film happened the way they’re portrayed. The film slowly becomes more surreal as it goes on, even including a cat-hungry ATM at one point, which would suggest it’s all in his head. Could the wild sex, tortures and murders just be fantasies of a bored banker looking for an escape from the monotony of it all? It’s up to us to decide.
8. The Thing (1982)
Since its release, The Thing has become a horror classic and is regarded as one of John Carpenter’s best films. It’s a claustrophobic tale set in the Antarctic and concerns Kurt Russell’s MacReady and a crew investigating a Norwegian camp, looking for answers to a helicopter crash. There they find charred corpses and a body with two faces. It soon transpires that a creature of some kind is responsible, one that has the power to imitate other lifeforms. Soon, everyone and everything is a suspect and paranoia grows as the crew realize death could be sitting next to any of them.
The film reaches its climax with MacReady and Childs (Keith David) sitting nearby the recently exploded and currently burning camp. Childs had been missing up until this point and claims he was lost in the storm. Both men realize that if one of them is the creature, they’re too exhausted and hurt to do much about it. The two share a drink after MacReady suggests they both wait there “for a little while, see what happens.” and we see a wide shot of the destroyed camp before the credits roll. Many theories, even one including MacReady testing Childs by giving him something other than scotch to drink, have been floated, but it remains one of the great unresolved endings.
7. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film The Shining has had a huge impact on popular culture, not to mention it inspiring one of the best Halloween episodes of The Simpsons ever. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a writer who takes a winter job at the isolated and deserted Overlook Hotel, planning to use the peace and quiet to write (we’ve all been there). Torrance and his family encounter numerous supernatural phenomena and visions before Jack succumbs to the ghostly influence and goes crazy. He goes on an ax-wielding rampage and hunts his wife and son. Obviously, we’re undercutting the masterful horror and tension here, but it’s the final image that has kept people talking for decades. After we see Jack freeze to death outside in the maze, the film shows us a photograph in the hotel hallway, dated July 4th, 1921, showing a smiling Jack as he appears in the film, but a good 60 years before the film is set.
There are some wild theories out there ranging from time travel and a Groundhog Day style loop of violence to the hotel not being real at all and Jack being a ghost all along. In any case, it’s a chilling final image and a perfect cap on one of the best regarded horror films ever made.
6. Shutter Island (2010)
Leo clearly couldn’t get enough of messing with people’s minds back in 2010. His first film of that year, Shutter Island, had him playing U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels as he investigates the disappearance of a patient from Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. After many mysteries and plot twists, Teddy finds that he’s actually Andrew Laeddis, the most dangerous patient at the hospital and that the hospital has engineered his experience over the past handful of days to help him play out his delusions as a last-shot alternative to lobotomizing him.
The film ends when “Daniels” talks to Sheehan, calling him “Aule” (his fictional partner’s name) and making plans to escape the island. Before he is taken away, Laeddis asks Sheehan “Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”, implying that his relapse is an act and he’s willingly getting a lobotomy to escape the horrors of his past. Even the original author, Dennis Lehane, has doubts over the meaning of the ending of the film, settling on the notion that it might be a “moment of sanity mixed in the midst of all the other delusions.”
5. In Bruges (2008)
In Bruges is a dark comedy about two Irish hitmen, Ray, a rookie (Colin Farrell) and his mentor Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who are sent to hide in Bruges, Belgium after a botched hit and told to await further instructions. Most of the film concerns the two men being bored tourists, but when a call finally does come through from Ralph Fiennes’ Harry, it’s ordering Ken to kill Ray, something which, for one reason or another, isn’t happening fast enough for him.
Ray is eventually shot multiple times. The film ends with Ray in the back of an ambulance being rushed to hospital, comparing Bruges to hell and also reflecting on his life. Whether Ray survives is left up to the viewer and it makes for a bittersweet ending. It’s a darkly funny, well-written and endlessly quotable film. We’d love to quote the movie as proof of this, but we’re unable to as all the best and funniest lines contain the choicest four letter words.
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Known as one of the first virally marketed movies and responsible for the explosion in popularity of “found footage” films, The Blair Witch Project has had a large impact since it was released (whether this legacy is good or bad is up to you). The basic story is that three film students set out to make a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch, a supernatural entity that lives in the woods. As the film progresses, their confidence and bravado soon dissolves into genuine fear as creepy things start to happen to them and they hear more and more stories like the tale of Rustin Parr, a hermit who kidnapped children and would force one to face the corner and listen to him murder the others.
The film ends when Heather (Heather Donahue) and Mike (Michael C. Williams) are searching for their missing friend, Josh (Joshua Leonard). They come across a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere and investigate. Mike runs in first, followed by Heather. The last image we see is of Mike standing in the corner as Heather is hit from behind and the camera falls to the floor. Theories over whether the actual witch is real, whether it was crazy ol’ Rustin Parr up to his old tricks or whether Josh was behind it all, flooded the then-still new internet and it has kept fans in the dark ever since.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner has probably the most hotly-contested ending on this list, with forums and threads to this day discussing what they think happens in Ridley Scott’s seminal classic. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an ex-“blade runner,” someone who hunted lifelike bioengineered beings known as “replicants” and killed them. Deckard gets threatened back into his old role and becomes involved in finding four illegal replicants and forcibly retiring them with his big, shooty gun.
Deckard’s world view is changed over the course of the film, mostly revolving around meeting Sean Young’s femme fatale Rachael. Deckard starts to question whether he himself is a replicant, especially when he finds a small origami unicorn left outside his apartment, recalling a recurring dream featuring a unicorn he had (in the Director’s and Final Cuts anyway, though not in the original theatrical version). Sir Ridley has since said that he believes Deckard is a replicant, but others aren’t convinced.
2. The Italian Job (1969)
Seasoned actor and three-time Alfred Pennyworth Michael Caine stars in this ’60s British heist movie involving Italy, gold bullion and the use of three Mini Coopers. The majority of the movie is a light-hearted crime caper complete with one-liners and a catchy Quincy Jones soundtrack. After many hijinks and japes, the crew manage to get the gold and plan to escape with it, disguised as a bus full of soccer fans.
Things go awry when the driver loses control of the coach and it ends up teetering precariously over a cliff edge, with the gang one end and the gold the other. After several unsuccessful attempts to grab the gold, Caine’s Charlie Croker says “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea” before the camera pans out of the coach, still rocking dangerously, leaving us with a literal cliffhanger ending. What that idea was, we may never know, but based on Croker’s wits displayed during the film, they’re probably be alright.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Often considered one of the greatest films ever made, next to Citizen Kane and Bad Boys II, 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps Kubrick’s masterpiece. It charts the entire history of man, from apes learning how to use tools, inspired by a black monolith, to space travel in the far future. We follow astronauts Drs. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) on their mission bound for Jupiter. The ship’s AI, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) soon starts to question the mission and begins to act strangely, sabotaging the men.
In the last act, Bowman reaches Jupiter and discovers another monolith in orbit. Bowman’s pod is pulled into a vortex and is whipped across space and time in a colorful and trippy sequence. Bowman eventually sees himself as an old man laying in a bed. A monolith appears at the foot of the bed and when old Bowman reaches for it, he’s transformed into a fetus in a transparent bubble. The film ends when the starchild floats beside Earth in space and serenely looks at it as Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” plays. The ending has been open to all sorts of interpretations with ideas ranging from religious to more general allegorical theories.
When questioned about the ending, Kubrick stated that people were “free to speculate” and that he didn’t want to “spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”
What other movies left you feeling confused? Should they be on this list, too?