Best Picture winner Birdman leaves us with plenty to marvel over. The illusion of one long, unbroken take is hypnotizing and impressive. The film is stacked with marvelous actors, from Michael Keaton to Emma Stone, to Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. The writing is a pitch perfect satire of celebrity and show business. Most importantly, the movie ends on a cryptic and bizarre note that leaves viewers thinking for days.
After his botched onstage suicide attempt, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is left disfigured in the hospital. He’s been met with the best reviews of his life, and his daughter is no longer ashamed of him. On this high note, he makes his way to the bathroom and, seeing birds through the window, climbs out and jumps off the ledge. Sam (Emma Stone) returns, rushes to the window, then looks into the air and smiles. It’s a perfectly bizarre ending to a perfectly bizarre movie. What did she see as she looked up into the sky? That’s up to you to decide.
3. American Psycho
One of the most notoriously ambiguous endings in the history of fiction, American Psycho has shocked and titillated filmgoers for years. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel, the film, directed by Mary Harron, is divisive and perplexing.
The entire last act of the film is a genuine descent into hell. Patrick Bateman (an incredible early performance by Christian Bale) becomes more and more violent and insane, until he careens off the ledge and things explode into full-blown chaos. He attempts to feed a kitten to an ATM, he confesses all of his crimes to his lawyer over the phone, and he murders about half of Manhattan. And in the morning, nothing has changed. There are no bodies. His friends won’t believe his confessions. He must continue living his life, unpunished.
This bizarre ending defies reality, but it drives home the themes at play in the film. Bateman, like the audience, is denied the catharsis of a punishment. He continues to live in a fugue state, not quite living and not quite dead. This purgatory is the state that we leave him in. As the sign behind him reads, “This is not an exit.“
2. Broken Flowers
The mystery that propels the loose plot of Broken Flowers is never really solved throughout the course of the film. Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a former Don Juan type who is now living out his retirement in peace. He is disrupted from his bliss by a letter claiming that he has a nineteen year old son out there somewhere. This leads Don on a journey to meet with several women from his past and attempt to untangle his messy past lives.
At the end of the film, Don is no closer to answers than he was at the beginning. He begins to believe the whole “son” thing might have been a hoax. As he stands by the side of the road, a car drives by. Recognition flashes across Don’s face. The car is driven by a young man (played by Bill Murray’s real son, Homer Murray) and he is listening to the same song as Don. The movie never explicitly spells out whether or not that was Don’s son. Instead, it does something far more interesting. It asks us how much our memories are colored and affected by our present. Can we trust our past? The film, directed by Jim Jarmusch, is ponderous and deeply affecting, due in no small part to its vague ending.
1. The Thing
Our favorite ambiguous ending of all time comes at the end of one of the greatest horror films of all time: John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s haunting, eerie, and somehow entirely satisfying without being pandering. It leaves us replaying everything we’ve just seen in our heads, and trying to come to a conclusion. It’s brilliant.
A shapeshifting alien has wiped out almost every man on a remote Antarctic research station. Only two men remain: Mac (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David). With flamethrowers trained on each other, and their camp destroyed around them, they sit in the snow. Either of them could be the alien in disguise. There’s no way to know. Of course, if one of them was the alien, he can’t reveal himself, or he’d be killed. “What do we do?” asks Childs. “Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?” is Mac’s response. With that chilling final line, the movie fades to black.
Did the alien survive? Will it slumber in the ice, only to wreak havoc on the world when it is set free once again? Carpenter brilliantly realized that not knowing is so much scarier than knowing.
What are some of your favorite ambiguous endings? Let us know in the comments below!