Some of the best films often leave us scratching our heads at their conclusions, inspiring hours of debate with friends over what really happened after the credits rolled. Was Patrick Bateman really a killer? Was ‘Inception’ all just a dream? Is anyone ever okay at the end of Darren Aronofsky’s films? We’ve gathered 14 great films with ambiguous endings to get you contemplating them all over again.
1. ‘A Serious Man’
Our neurotic protagonist spends much of the film getting the crap beaten out of him — literally and figuratively — but he manages to begin to find his own voice and stop being such a doormat by film’s end, and everything starts looking up for him. He’s probably getting that tenure he wanted, things are okay with his son, and he’s making peace with his divorce, but then he gets a call from the doctor’s office about a chest x-ray and his son’s teacher struggles to open the storm cellar door as a tornado bears down on the school… Is everyone going to die? What does it mean?
2. ‘American Psycho’
The suave Patrick Bateman spends most of the film as a sociopathic serial killer in this adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, but in the film’s final act he has a total mental breakdown and fears apprehension by the police. He phones his lawyer to confess to his crimes, but later discovers that the dead bodies he’s been hoarding are missing. Where did they go? Is he really a serial killer, or has this all been in his mind?
3. ‘Blade Runner’
Ridley Scott’s futuristic sci-fi classic tells the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford), a man tasked with retiring beings known as replicants, whose lifespan is only four years. But several of them have escaped to Earth to try and find a way to live longer. He falls for an experimental replicant named Rachael, and the pair of them escape together at the end of the film leaving us wondering how long they survived, and if Deckard himself was really a replicant the whole time.
4. ‘Dawn of the Dead’
In George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ a group of people take refuge from a zombie outbreak in a local mall in Pennsylvania, but when their safe haven is no longer safe, they must find a way to survive. This leads our remaining protagonists Stephen and Francine to a rooftop helicopter, where the pair fly off, their future uncertain.
5. ‘Ghost World’
Rebellious and artistic Enid (Thora Birch) falls in love with an older man (Steve Buscemi), but after finally sleeping with him, he awakes to find her gone. At the end of the film we see Enid with a suitcase at the bus stop where she had previously told an old man the bus no longer stopped. It could be symbolic of her growing up and moving on, or maybe there really was a bus after all, and maybe Enid has left everyone behind.
Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream opus tells the story of Cobb, a man desperate to return to his family in France, so he helps a Japanese businessman infiltrate a corporate rival’s dream to “incept” the idea of giving up his company. Cobb’s totem, a spinning top that helps him tell the difference between reality and the dream world, is placed on a table as he is finally reunited with his children, but the top keeps spinning and the film cuts to black. We’ll never know if the entire film was a dream, if Cobb died, or if he really did find his way back home.
7. ‘Lost in Translation’
Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray play Americans who meet and form a strong, but unlikely connection in Tokyo in Sofia Coppola’s dreamy ‘Lost in Translation.’ At the end of the film Murray whispers something inaudible into Johansson’s ear as they bid each other a tearful farewell. Was it his phone number? A declaration of love? Maybe they’re agreeing to meet again and be together, or maybe he just told her she looked super cute that day. Who knows.
8. ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’
Martha escapes a cult and takes up with her sister and her husband, but there’s this feeling that she’s being watched. ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ trips between the past and present fluidly, as we — and Martha — are unable to separate the two. As her sister drives her to a mental institution, a man Martha had spotted earlier on the other end of a lake runs in front of the car, then hops into a truck and begins to follow them. Maybe Martha is crazy and just imagining things (and maybe the cult story is entirely made up), or maybe these people are very real, and very dangerous.
9. ‘Synecdoche, NY’
The brilliant Charlie Kaufman made his directorial debut with this film from 2008, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman is a playwright given a MacArthur genius grant, which he uses to move into a warehouse with a troupe of actors used as stand-ins for his own life. Things wildly unravel near the end, becoming increasingly dreamlike as actors switch roles and Hoffman gives up directing, joining the play himself. The play is his life and the life is his play, but does it matter? ‘Synecdoche, NY’ is a film you just can’t rationalize.
10. ‘Take Shelter’
Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a husband and father whose mind begins to deteriorate into schizophrenia, much the same as his own mother’s did. He starts building a bomb shelter in his backyard, believing there’s an apocalypse coming, and he dreams of oily yellow rain that will fall from the sky. And though his family doesn’t believe him, they go along with it to keep him from devolving into complete madness. As the family relaxes at a beach house in the end before delivering Curtis to therapy, rain begins to fall, but the water is oil, and his family sees it, too. Was he right all along, or is this a metaphor for his family’s acceptance of his fate?
11. ‘The Fountain’
Darren Aronofsky is quite fond of his ambiguous endings, as evidenced by ‘The Fountain,’ the story of a man (Hugh Jackman), whose wife (Rachel Weisz) is dying of cancer and his quest to find a cure. The film moves between time periods to two other stories about lovers (Weisz and Jackman play these roles as well) — one about Tomas, the lover of Queen Isabella on a journey to find the fountain of youth for his love, and one about Jackman as himself in the future, traveling to the star where he said he’d meet his wife. But are these just stories, or are they real? Both interpretations are equally romantic.
12. ‘The Thing’
Upon uncovering a frozen alien life form, a team of biologists in Antarctica slowly become infected and replicated by the parasitic alien. Kurt Russell plays a bad-ass scientist named MacReady in this chilling classic from director John Carpenter. At the end of the film, MacReady finds his colleague Blair, who claims he was off chasing one of their infected peers in the blizzard. Unsure if either or both of them have become “the thing,” the pair share a bottle of booze while they watch the camp burn to the ground.
13. ‘The Wrestler’
Another entry from Darren Aronofsky on this list, ‘The Wrestler’ focuses on aging wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to stage a comeback amid heart problems due to steroid abuse. He falls in love with a stripper named Cassidy and attempts to rebuild the relationship with the daughter he abandoned, but his redemption is so hard to grasp. Ultimately, ignoring the pleas from Cassidy, Randy returns to the wrestling ring even though his doctor has warned him he will die. The final shot is of Randy jumping off the ropes to crush his opponent — does he die? Does he return to his former glory?
14. ‘Total Recall‘
In this film from Paul Verhoeven, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Quaid, a man with weird dreams of Mars who goes against advice and visits Rekall, a company that can take users on fantastical vacations using memory implants. But something goes wrong and Quaid starts to believe he is a secret agent, his marriage a fraud, and his co-workers out to get him. The big question throughout the film is whether the Rekall memory implant worked, meaning that the entire film is a falsified memory, or if Quaid really has been an agent and the interaction with Rekall simply restored his legitimate memories.