Ending a movie on an ambiguous note takes a delicate touch. Some filmmakers, like the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese can make it look easy. But the truth is, the difference between an “ambiguous ending” and simply a non-ending is a very fine line. Even though it sometimes feels this way, ambiguous endings aren’t just endings that just suddenly stop without wrapping up the story. Ambiguous endings provide all the information the audience needs to draw their own conclusions and absorb the themes of the film, then step back and let the viewers fill in the rest. The best ambiguous endings leave viewers thinking about the film for weeks afterwards. They are endlessly discussable and constantly the subject of fan theories.
We’ve rounded up our 15 absolute favorite ambiguous endings in film. Obviously, we’ll be discussing spoilers for the fifteen films below, so if you haven’t seen an entry, you’re advised to skip that one. These are the endings that don’t tie a neat bow on everything. These are the endings that stay in your head and leave you wondering. These are The 15 Most Ambiguous Endings in Movies.
15. No Country for Old Men
Honestly, we could have almost filled this list with Coen Brothers endings. In the interest of fairness, we chose to limit ourselves to just a few of their most classic endings. We’ll begin with the poignant, mysterious finale of the Coen’s bleak, neo-western drama, No Country for Old Men.
In a few swift, brutal moments, several of our lead characters are left dead. Chigurh, the unholy force of evil sweeping the state, drives off, his fate uncertain. The movie finds Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the film’s ostensible conscience, talking to his wife over breakfast. Jones murmurs an enigmatic monologue, about the dreams he had the night before. Both dreams are about his father, who Bell observes is now the “younger man”, as Bell is 20 years older than his old man ever was. In one, he was supposed to receive some money from his father. In the other, he sees his father pass him on horseback on a cold mountain path, and he knows that he’ll join him up ahead. The screen goes black on this quiet moment, and the movie is over.
Like a great piece of literature, film enthusiasts have pored over and discussed this monologue at length. It can be read in any number of ways, from a commentary on the changing society to a meditation on life and death or a eulogy for a simpler time. And like any great ending, all interpretations are valid.
14. The Blair Witch Project
Upon its release, The Blair Witch Project was shrouded in mystery. Audiences wondered how much, if any, of what they were watching was actually real. The bare-bones marketing campaign made brilliant use of the nascent internet to fuel speculation and generate authenticity. All of this culminates in the final shot of the film, which is able to be completely terrifying without really revealing anything.
The mysterious, chilling final shot of Mike standing in the corner is elegantly simple, yet arouses so much dread and mystery. Of course we never see an actual witch, or a killer of any sort. That would tie things up too neatly and inevitably leave us disappointed. Much more effective is the filmmakers’ choice to incorporate details learned earlier in the film from the townsfolk. Early on, an old man tells the kids that a murderer in the woods used to kill children and make their friends stand in the corner as he did so. With this information in the back of our mind, that final shot of Mike in the corner sends shivers down our spine, without the film explicitly having to solve anything. We’ll have to see if the upcoming Blair Witch sequel is able to craft an ending as chilling as the original.
John Patrick Shanley’s profound, subtle, and intelligent drama Doubt is all about the unknown. The movie, based on a play of the same (also written by Shanley), tackles the thorny concepts of faith, religion, and trust with a nuanced and delicate touch. It’s only logical then that the emotional finale would resist easy answers as well.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic new priest, Father Brendan Flynn. He charms his students and peers alike, with the notable exception of Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep. Sister Aloysius is determinedly traditional in her management of the church, and she disapproves of the sweeping changes that Father Flynn represents.
When Sister James (Amy Adams) informs Sister Aloysius that Father Flynn may be spending too much time with one particular student, Sister Aloysius begins a crusade to ruin Father Flynn. Are her suspicions justifiable? Is she letting her personal feelings inform her work? These questions are tackled deftly by the miraculous script, and all the actors provide some career best work. And of course, it ends in a beautiful and heartrending finale, where Sister Aloysius finally falters, if just for a moment. She confesses that she has her doubts. The ending beautifully sidesteps ever confirming or denying the allegations against Father Flynn. The film is far more interested in the dire consequences that doubt and suspicion and paranoia can have on the faithful.
Though it certainly has its detractors, Inception made an enormous cultural impact when it was released in summer of 2010. Despite its flaws, the Christopher Nolan blockbuster was unapologetically ambitious. A twisty, winding plot fused with stunning, mind-bending effects to create a dazzling, refreshingly original, summer spectacle.
No doubt aiding in the film’s cultural impact was the famously ambiguous ending. Throughout the movie, Nolan plays with the audience, bending our trust, and making us question what was a dream and what was real. The characters themselves get lost in this from time to time, with Marion Cotillard’s Mal character being the most obvious example. We learn that Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) uses a special spinning top to help him keep reality separate from fantasy. Inevitably, when Cobb reaches his happy ending in the finale of the film, he gives the top a spin. The camera lingers on it as Cobb goes to join his family. The top keeps spinning, and spinning, and spinning and then– the screen goes black.
So is Cobb dreaming or did he make it back to reality? Nolan provides no easy answer. The point isn’t whether or not the ending is “real”, Nolan has stated. The point is that Cobb isn’t paying attention to the top at the end. This ambiguity is refreshing and unexpected in a tentpole summer blockbuster, and we appreciate the audacity.
11. 2001: A Space Odyssey
“Ambiguous” somehow doesn’t even begin to capture the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As soon as Bowman is pulled into that colorful vortex, the film shakes loose any concerns with coherence or narrative. It becomes solely about feeling and is all the more powerful because of it.
Spanning across millions of years, it makes sense for the film’s finale to be suitably epic. The film truly is an “odyssey” in every sense and, like every odyssey, the journey is more important than the destination. Viewers aren’t necessarily supposed to fully understand what happens to Bowman at the end of the film, as he slides around in time and space. The logical part of our brain turns off as we witness the psychedelic colors and shifting cosmic landscape. We embrace the unknown, just like Bowman. A meditation on aging, history, and our place in the universe was never going to provide easy answers, and it shouldn’t. Kubrick simply asks the questions and lets us do the rest.
10. A Serious Man
One of the most thrilling, exhilarating, and ultimately haunting final shots of all time comes at the end of the Coen’s A Serious Man. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a middle-aged physics professor who is undergoing a life crisis. His wife is leaving him, his unemployed brother is staying in his home, and his chances for tenure are growing slim. A plotline throughout the film is Gopnick struggling with the ethics of fudging a student’s grade to allow him to pass the class. In the final moments of the film, Gopnick makes his fateful decision. We then cut to his son on the playground as a tornado descends. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” blares as the screen goes black.
It’s a beguiling and devastating ending to a brilliant film. There’s so much to unpack. Those final moments play out like a Shakespearean tragedy, and yet they don’t provide any concrete resolutions. We’re left to parse out the mystery of what we’ve seen, just as Gopnick tries to do with his own life.
9. The Graduate
This ambiguous ending is arguably the moment that propels The Graduate from a great film to a masterpiece. The beautifully understated, darkly comedic drama is a wonderful film from the first frame. But in those last few moments, Mike Nichols shows us a glimpse of something very rarely seen in romantic dramas: uncertainty. As Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) settle down in the back of the bus, the adrenaline they’ve just experienced from ditching her wedding begins to fade. Without any dialogue, we see reality set in on the actor’s faces. There’s doubt. There’s fear. There’s anxiety. And then, the film is over.
These final moments are so brave and authentic, it’s hard to believe a studio allowed them to be included at all. The story goes that this ending wasn’t planned, but that Nichols allowed the cameras to go on filming longer than expected, and this was the reaction that he caught from Bancroft and Hoffman. Whether intentional or not, Nichols captured a profoundly human moment that cements this film as a classic.
A lot of questions are left unanswered at the end of Drive. What becomes of the Driver? Does he ever see Carey Mulligan’s character again? Does he even still drive? Nicolas Winding Refn boldly chooses to not lay this all out for his audience. He’s generous enough to show us that, no, the Driver is not dead. After a long, suspenseful take, the Driver blinks and we know he’ll survive. Any answers beyond that are not given though.
This ambiguous ending is very fitting for the odd film that comes before it. Refn subverts tropes left and right as he tells the story of the getaway driver who falls for the girl next door. Refn traffics in gorgeous, violent visuals and pulsing action. He’s not terribly interested in cut-and-dry fairy tale endings. Like most of the movies on this list, the ambiguous ending is one of the main reasons we’re still talking about it years later. It sticks with us.
7. Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is as lovely and affecting now as it was when it first released in 2003. Bill Murray plays aging movie star Bob Harris, on location in Japan. In his hotel, he meets a lonely young college graduate named Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson. The two develop a sweet friendship, and bond over their adventures through Japan. The time goes when Bob must depart. In a wonderful move, Coppola chooses not to let the audience in on what Bob says to Charlotte as he leaves her.
The choice to leave Bob’s farewell a mystery is absolutely perfect. We see the reactions on both of the actor’s faces, and that’s enough. Anything that we as the audience come up with in our heads is better than anything Coppola could have written. It’s a quiet, sweet ending to a quiet, sweet movie.
Of course, with the internet being what it is, some jokers manipulated the audio to actually parse out what Bob says. But we’re not going to share that here. Coppola didn’t want us to know and we’ll respect that.
6. Blade Runner
Is it still an ambiguous ending if the director goes and spoils it? That’s a question for philosophers! For our purposes, we are going to include Blade Runner’s ambiguous finale in our list, despite Ridley Scott’s attempts to ruin all the fun.
Blade Runner famously ends with the question of “Is Deckard a replicant?” still lingering in the air. The film isn’t explicit one way or another, but there is evidence to suggest that he is in fact, a replicant. At the end of the film, Deckard finds a small origami unicorn left as a gift for him. This is a callback to a dream he had earlier, implying that Gaff had access to his memories, which would only be possible if Deckard was a replicant.
Of course, Ridley Scott made headlines a while back by announcing officially that Deckard was in fact a replicant the whole time. This certainly drains some of the mystery from the film, but taken on its own, we can still appreciate the ambiguity and mystery surrounding that finale.
5. Barton Fink
Though it initially was a box office bomb, only grossing $6 million back from its $9 million budget, Barton Fink has gone on to become one of the most revered entries in the Coen’s incredible career. Not only is it one of their most revered films, it is also one of their most puzzled over works. Much of this is due to the absurd, heightened ending of the film.
With the help of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton Fink (John Turturro) escapes the two detectives holding him in his room and flees the burning hotel that has been the source of his torturous purgatory for the past few days. Fink goes to the beach, where he encounters a woman just like the one in the picture he’s been staring at above his desk. She asks what’s in his box (which may or may not be decapitated heads) and he says he doesn’t know. The woman then assumes the pose of the girl in the photograph, and a bird flies straight into the ocean. Audiences are left with this baffling note. The ending is delightful in its absurdity. You can puzzle over it for hours and not even scratch the surface of this perplexing, dazzling film.
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!
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