Most movies have a clear beginning, middle and end, with everything being tied up neatly in the final scenes, leaving the audience feeling satisfied. But some filmmakers get a kick out of leaving their movies open to interpretation, even causing decades of debate. Here are some of the most confusing movie endings of all time, with some attempts at explaining them, from “Taxi Driver” to “Birdman.”
Warning: It goes without saying that there are major spoilers ahead.
‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
“Taxi Driver” caused some major debate when it was first released. Robert De Niro plays the mentally ill taxi driver named Travis, who makes it his mission to save a 12-year-old prostitute from her dangerous life. After getting injured during a violent spree where he kills three gangsters, Travis falls into a coma. When he wakes up, he’s being hailed a hero.
But audiences questioned whether the ending was real, or simply one of Travis’ delusions. However, director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader cleared things up a bit — they placed a disclaimer in front of the version of the film that later aired on TV, which read, “In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. ‘Taxi Driver’ suggests that tragic errors can be made.”
So, it appears we’re not supposed to consider the violent and unstable lead character a hero in the end.
‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1972)
At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, “A Clockwork Orange,” viewers are left torn between two possible conclusions: Has Alex (Malcolm McDowell) been successfully treated after his suicide attempt, or has he returned to his former sadistic, violent ways? The last line of the film is Alex saying, in a voiceover, “I was cured, all right,” but the jury’s out on whether he’s being sincere or sarcastic.
If you ask us, given the depraved imagery that appears as Alex says the line, and the constant smirk on his face in the hospital at the end, we think he hasn’t changed a bit. One thing’s for sure: the film is quite different from the book.
‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)
The psychological thriller “Donnie Darko” is confusing in its entirety, but the ending particularly so. The whole film takes place in an alternate universe that was formed when Donnie survives a plane engine crashing into his house. But the climax raises more questions than it answers: is Donnie dead all along? Director Richard Kelly failed to shed any light on the matter, telling NME, “I don’t have an answer to that question. I think the film argues that life and death can perhaps coexist, that time is not necessarily a purely linear thing.”
In that case, don’t feel bad if you were confused when the credits rolled because you were supposed to be.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)
In “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final installment of the hugely popular Dark Knight trilogy, Batman is seen flying a nuclear bomb out of Gotham City. So it’s fair to assume he didn’t survive. But, in the next scene, Alfred thinks he sees Bruce Wayne with his new girlfriend Selina Kyle in Italy, although they don’t speak to each other.
That leaves a big unanswered question: did Alfred really see Bruce or was he mistaken? The most likely answer is that he did. The film’s star, Christian Bale, told audience members at a Q&A for the movie that he didn’t think Batman’s flight out of Gotham City was a dream.
“That was for real and he was just delighted that finally he had freed himself from the privilege but ultimately the burden of being Bruce Wayne,” he said.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
As we’ve already seen, Stanley Kubrick was known for adding elements to the endings of his movies to confuse the audience. “The Shining” is a perfect example of this as it shows the recently deceased Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in a staff photograph at The Overlook Hotel in the year 1921, 60 years before the events of the film. To add to the confusion, he looks exactly the same age.
The most plausible explanation is that Torrance is the reincarnation of a past guest or staff member. However, it’s still up for debate, with some viewers arguing that the photograph shows every person the hotel has “taken” over the years. Will the much-hyped sequel solve the mystery, once and for all?
The sci-fi heist movie “Inception” sees Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a thief who has the ability to infiltrate people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. Throughout the film, objects the characters carry called totems let them know whether they’re inside a dream or in reality. Cobb’s totem — a spinning top that never falls if he’s still dreaming — is seen spinning but teeters ever so slightly right before the credits roll.
So, was Cobb still dreaming, or is he finally back in the real world, at home with his kids? The closest thing to an explanation we’ve got from director Christopher Nolan came courtesy of an interview with Wired, in which he said, “I choose to believe that Cobb gets back to his kids because I have young kids. People who have kids definitely read it differently than those who don’t.”
Like “Taxi Driver,” 2014’s “Birdman” has an unreliable narrator: Michael Keaton as washed-up actor Riggan, who tries to jumpstart his faltering career in a Broadway show. Toward the end of the film, Riggan shoots himself on stage in front of an audience, but somehow he survives and becomes a major star again. In the final scene, he jumps from the window of his hospital room and flies away, as his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), watches in amazement.
Did Riggan actually survive the bullet onstage? If not, everything after that scene isn’t real. While director Alejandro Inarritu never explained the ending, he did tell Indiewire, “We were rehearsing a scene that was about rehearsing a scene that will be presented in a live performance. When we were shooting that, we were mirroring the mirror of the reality of reality. There was a labyrinthine nature that we all enjoyed.”
Given that the subtitle of the film is, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” we’re going to take that as a sign that we’ll never be given a definitive answer about what happened to Riggan. Although it’s obvious he was suffering from some serious mental illness throughout the whole film.
‘It Follows’ (2014)
David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 horror movie “It Follows” tells the story of Jay, a girl who catches a “sexually transmitted ghost.” The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on to someone else via sexual intercourse — which is exactly what Jay tries to do when she sleeps with her friend, Paul, who, in turn, is shown considering hiring a prostitute. At the end of the film, when Jay and Paul walk down the street together, a sinister figure can be seen behind them.
Mitchell explained that the ambiguity was intentional, telling Vulture, “It allows people to make up their own mind of what it means.”
‘The Witch’ (2015)
One of 2015’s biggest horror hits, “The Witch” (starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson), sees a Puritan family slowly driven insane by witchcraft in 1600s America. After Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), the eldest child of the family, kills her mother in self-defense after many claims that the girl was a witch, she disappears alone into the forest and approaches a coven of witches who appear to welcome her. It appears clear that if she wasn’t already a witch, she was driven to become one by all the suspicion others subjected her to, including her own family.
Despite being one of the most critically-acclaimed sci-fi movies of all time, “Arrival” (starring Amy Adams as Louise, a linguist who figures out how to communicate with mysterious aliens) still leaves viewers frustrated when the credits roll. What appeared to be flashbacks throughout the film turn out to be flash-forwards (glimpses of Louise’s future with her unborn child, Hannah). Through the final monologue, we learn the identity of Hannah’s father and the fact that the girl will develop an incurable cancer.
Louise, who could’ve avoided this future, sees how painful this will be, but still chooses to have her daughter and subject both of them to the pain — and joy — of their short time together.
‘No Country For Old Men’ (2007)
The Coen Brothers’ modern-day Western “No Country For Old Men” gave audiences a lot to love (a stellar cast including Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Javier Bardem as evil hitman Anton Chigurh for starters) — but also plenty to complain about. Its confusing ending revolves around Bell’s two seemingly random dreams, as he explains them to his wife over coffee. In fact, the dreams he describes aren’t as random as they first appear; they both directly relate to the film’s underlying theme of the inability to avoid mortality.
It is revealed the Bell retired rather than trying to hunt down Chigurh and risk his own precious life but that he’s satisfied to face death at his own time. The other dream he describes restates another theme in the movie: that material gains are fleeting and aren’t worth as much as life itself.
‘The Matrix Revolutions’ (2003)
The conclusion to “The Matrix Revolutions” has triggered numerous fan theories about the end point of the trilogy. The movie ends when Neo (Keanu Reeves) dies at the hands of Smith (Hugo Weaving) — or does he? Nobody knows for sure whether Neo survives, is simply unconscious, or lives on in some state of higher consciousness. The ending is left open for the viewer to draw their own conclusions — at least until a fourth installment of the franchise is released, whenever that may be.
In the final scenes of the twisty sci-fi flick, “Looper,” Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stops his older self (Bruce Willis) from killing Sara (Emily Blunt) by taking his own life. Naturally, as young Joe dies, so does old Joe (because he can never exist). So, why does Sara remember old Joe, and why does her son still have a gunshot wound inflicted by old Joe?
Writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t help clear it up much, telling Huffington Post that those mysteries were “largely just semantics,” adding, “that, to me, is really just how you would go back and graph the whole thing out. What’s important is what the experience of these people are in the events that happened in the movie. And that, you have to experience in a linear fashion.”
‘Black Swan’ (2010)
Throughout Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, “Black Swan,” we see ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) struggling with her role as The Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Fellow ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), who is cast as the Black Swan, adds even more pressure as a heated rival. In the climax of the movie, the two appear to fight backstage with Nina being stabbed but killing Lily and hiding her body before continuing her performance. However, Lily shows back up to congratulate Nina after the show, apparently fine, while Nina still has a severe stab wound that’s causing her to bleed out.
It begs the question, with whom did Nina actually fight? The likely answer is that she fought with her own insecurities, and the battle is symbolic of Nina’s devotion to her art over everything else.
‘American Psycho’ (2000)
At the end of the film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel “American Psycho,” audiences were left scratching their heads. Did anything they’d witnessed actually happen? It’s just not clear whether the supposedly murderous investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is really a savage killer or simply delusional. After Bateman is cornered by police and makes a confession via a voice message for his lawyer, all traces of his crimes suddenly disappear and his admission is dismissed as a joke, letting him walk free.
Director Mary Harron even admitted that she failed with the film’s final scene.
“One thing I think is a failure on my part,” she told journalist Charlie Rose, “is everyone keeps coming out of the film thinking that it’s all a dream, and I never intended that … I think it’s a failing of mine in the final scene that I just got the emphasis wrong, because I should have left it more open-ended … It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.”
‘Planet of the Apes’ (2001)
Tim Burton’s remake of “Planet Of The Apes” — starring Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth — was a box office success, but a critical failure. In particular, it’s lamented for its confusing climax, in which Roth’s villain General Thade interferes with the time stream to let apes take over the Earth. Roth gave Crave Online an explanation: he was sent back further in time than astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg), which gave him the opportunity to take over the planet and create the planet of the apes on Earth before Leo arrived there.
Still confused? Just watch the 1968 original or the 2011 reboot series and you’ll be more satisfied anyway.
‘The Tree of Life’ (2011)
It’s no surprise that Terrence Malick’s epic drama “The Tree of Life” isn’t easily understood. Malick, who’s done acclaimed movies like “Badlands,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” is known for playing around with structural lines and challenging the linear storytelling tradition.
In “The Tree of Life,” the final, dream-like scenes of the film see protagonist Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) on a beach with his parents and dead brother, but are they intended to be taken literally or symbolically? The answer is, that’s entirely up to you. As Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Salon, “‘The Tree of Life’ is designed to elicit unique, personal responses in viewers, as unique and personal as what Malick is putting onscreen.”
There are no wrong answers here, folks.
Another example of a space explorer playing around with time travel, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is pretty difficult to get your head around — and the climactic sequence takes the confusion up a notch. Astronaut Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, enters a black hole and finds himself in a bizarre “space library,” which is part of his daughter’s childhood bedroom. In fact, the library is really a user interface created by humanity’s descendants to let their ancestors send messages to the past, in this case, allowing Cooper to give his daughter the key to saving humankind.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Nolan is a fan of ambiguous endings.
‘Barton Fink’ (1991)
The Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” follows a young playwright in 1940s New York whose life has taken a turn for the worse. Some people would say the same for the film itself, which ends in a less-than-satisfactory way. Audiences were split on whether the second half of the film was a dream sequence, but Joel Coen went on record to say this wasn’t the case, and that the events that take place are supposed to represent Fink’s ever-declining mental state as he finds himself trapped by his career prospects.
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990)
Tim Robbins stars as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from strange visions and hallucinations, in “Jacob’s Ladder.” His visions are attributed to psychedelic drugs used by the military to turn some soldiers into killing machines. But toward the end of the film, his visions become more tranquil. The best explanation for the change comes from Louis, Jacob’s chiropractor, who says that the more you resist death, “you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it.”
‘Life of Pi’ (2012)
The ending of Ang Li’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel, “Life Of Pi,” definitely throws viewers a curveball. It’s left to the audience to decide what version of Pi Patel’s survival story (after getting lost at sea) they prefer: multiple animal companions or a much darker tale of murder and cannibalism, as the writer himself tries to figure out how it should go. There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer because the outcome was always pretty brutal, but the writer prefers the happier version.
‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)
There are a few different explanations out there for the ending of David Lynch’s acclaimed “Mulholland Drive.” For instance, one theory is that struggling actress Diane/Betty (Naomi Watts) shoots herself, unable to live with the guilt of arranging for her girlfriend to be killed, and that anything else that happens is mere fantasy, created by Diane to portray herself in a more flattering light.
“To me it was clear that the film was divided between Betty’s dream world and her reality,” said British film critic Jonathan Ross. However, Ross added that he thought it was “counterproductive” to keep analyzing it. “It could be a drug-induced fantasy, or even a personal reinterpretation of someone’s life before they die, but it is a viewer-created film where you discover only what it means to you,” he said.
‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)
As well as being considered one of the most influential films in history, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” is famous for its ending, which could be baffling if you aren’t watching closely in the final scene. It boils down to one, seemingly random word from the lips of dying publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane: “Rosebud.” But, if you pay close enough attention to the final scene, you’ll notice that one of Kane’s numerous possessions being thrown into a furnace to be destroyed is his childhood sled, which has “Rosebud” painted on it.
In a statement to the press before the movie was released, Welles wrote, “Actually, as it turns out, ‘Rosebud’ is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious, it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.”
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Stanley Kubrick shows up on this list again by taking the audience on an unexpected detour toward the end of his sci-fi masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” switching from a measured thriller to a weighty arthouse flick. When the lead character, astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), is sucked into an extraterrestrial monolith, he has a quasi out-of-body experience that sees him aging in an 18th Century French bedroom before he is apparently reborn as a gigantic “star child” floating in space.
That’s a lot to get your head around; basically, Bowman is the first person to reach a higher stage of existence, and presumably, the rest of the world will now follow suit. When Kubrick was asked about the ending (and other confusing parts of the film), he said, “They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, [their] mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded.”
Others have also said that the film should remain unexplained because many of the universe’s greatest mysteries are also unexplained.
Denis Villeneuve’s psychological thriller, “Enemy,” tells the story of college professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) who begins stalking an actor named Anthony Claire, who happens to be his physical doppelgänger. Spiders appear throughout the movie, and during the final scenes, a giant arachnid appears to take the place of Anthony’s wife, Helen, just at the point that Bell is poised to steal the now-dead Claire’s life.
Yes, it’s completely crazy! One of the most plausible explanations is that the giant spiders represent Bell’s issues with women — he is unable to see them as anything other than either innocent mothers or sex objects.