Here’s the deal. Storytellers craft a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Audiences spend about two hours, hopefully becoming invested in the story, and at the conclusion, there’s a payout. The writer is expected to wrap up the story, giving audiences some kind of closure. Except, of course, when a screenwriter doesn’t pen a cut and dry ending, and instead chooses to leave the audience hanging with a serious cliffhanger or otherwise open-ended movie.
This list ranks the best films that have ambiguous endings. You may ask yourself why a screenwriter would choose to leave an audience gasping, “What the heck happened, how does the story end!?” Some spectators don’t think it’s fair and feel cheated when they don’t know what really happens, while others believe that it’s sort of cool and interesting to work through plot points upon repeated viewings and attempt to analyze a conclusion.
Of course, everyone has their own interpretations of these open-ended films. For every person who watched American Psycho and thought that Patrick Bateman was really a murderer, there is another person who is absolutely positive that he was just delusional.
Controversy is just one of the reasons why these movies are so brilliant; they create thought through deconstruction. All of these films contain multiple layers, each features plot points that beg to be examined, and several ultimately blur the line between reality and fantasy. We can’t trust our eyes and we have to ask questions. We are forced to think outside the proverbial box to try to create order out of a filmmaker’s chaos.
Have a favorite open-ended film that’s not on this list? Let us know in the comments section and be sure to cast your votes for the greatest movies below, despite (or maybe because of) their ambiguous and unclear endings.
4 people just voted on Inception
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends so much time inside of other people's subconscious that he needs to carry a totem, a spinning top, in order to tell what's real and what's a dream. At the end of this science fiction heist story, Cobb finally gets his kids back. He spins his top to make sure it's all real, however, writer/director Christopher Nolan cuts to black in the middle of the spin. Was it all just a dream? Is Cobb really with his kids? Is Cobb even alive?
#57 on The Greatest Movie Themessee more on Inception
2 people just voted on American Psycho
Is Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) a sociopathic serial killer or just a crazy loon? Audiences spend the entire movie watching him kill people, or so it seems. The successful New York businessman is able to keep his psychotic side in the closet, until the third act when he goes totally bananas. In a hysterical state, he calls his lawyer and confesses his crimes. However, the dead bodies he was keeping around disappear into thin air. Did Bateman hallucinate killing people, or did he actually do it?
Also Rankedsee more on American Psycho
3 people just voted on Memento
There are only a couple things we know for sure about Christopher Nolan's non-linear masterpiece Memento. Leonard's (Guy Pearce) wife was brutally attacked in a home invasion that left him with short-term memory loss, so he makes it his single mission in life to find out who killed her. He has a system to help him with clues that he can't remember: tattoos, written notes, Polaroids.
However, the big twist at the end of the film makes the audience question everything. We realize that we can't trust anyone, not even Leonard (especially not Leonard), a man who is the definition of an unreliable narrator. He even says, "How can you trust a man with brain damage?" In fact, our protagonist may just be chasing his wife's supposed killer because he doesn't have anything else to do and Leonard may actually be the one who killed his wife! This is a film filled with liars who can't be trusted. At the end of the movie, which is actually the beginning of the narrative, there are more questions than there are answers.
#66 on The Best Movies of All Timesee more on Memento
This 2010 Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio psychological thriller once again asks the question: Is the protagonist a crazy loon or is he being played? DiCaprio plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels. He and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to investigate the disappearance of a murderess on an island for the criminally insane. The plot-twisty narrative leads spectators to the possibility that Teddy may actually be a patient, not a Marshal.
Also Rankedsee more on Shutter Island
In the original version of Ridley Scott's 1982 dystopian sci-fi classic, audiences were treated to a sweet ending. Deckard and Rachel were on the road to happily ever after. However, when the director's cut was released, the original ending was thrown out the window. Was the paper unicorn dream actually a planted memory? Is Deckard a replicant? Are Rachel and Deckard actually on the run?
#58 on The Best '80s Action Moviessee more on Blade Runner
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) loses his mind in Stanley Kubrick's horror classic The Shining. A harsh, cold winter of solitude combined with a deadly helping of writer's block and a creepy hotel up in the mountains not only make Jack a dull boy, but they also make him want to murder his wife and son. Jack is killed at the end of the film, however his image lives on in an old photograph that we see on the wall of the hotel. Do you believe in ghosts? Is Jack now the evil spirit that haunts the hotel?
Also Rankedsee more on The Shining
Christopher Nolan is another director with a penchant for ambiguous endings. In the final chapter of his Batman trilogy, the masked crusader dies a hero's death. Or so it seems, anyway. Perhaps, Bruce Wayne just needed to escape from the demanding life of a superhero? Does Alfred see Wayne in Vienna at the end of the film? Or is Alfred's immense grief playing tricks on him?
#86 on The Most Rewatchable Moviessee more on The Dark Knight Rises
Time travel, alternate and tangent universes, supernatural powers, destiny, death, the end of the world, and a crazy looking rabbit. To say you need a Ph.D. in the theory of time travel to understand this movie is probably an understatement. Whether or not Donnie saves the universe at the end of the film is certainly up for debate.
#2 on The Best Hipster Moviessee more on Donnie Darko