Often, a film feels like a speeding freight train filled with rapidly developing characters and plot threads. When it stops on a dime, answers aren’t always provided in the way that we expect.
There are films that abruptly or otherwise unexpectedly cut to black or a freeze-frame with closing music. We see this in films like Inception, when we are left uncertain about the nature of reality, or in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the protagonists’ fates remain a mystery.
Confusing movie endings aren't necessarily good or bad. The most ambiguous movie endings of all time have left fans wanting more, while some classic films are great despite their lackluster conclusions. For better or worse, the following films left viewers asking, “What?”
- Photo: Universal Pictures
John Carpenter's The Thing takes place in an arctic research facility that is terrorized by an alien or, "the thing." The thing can imitate and assimilate other organisms, making it virtually unstoppable. The movie is famous for its ambiguous ending, which occurs after the film's protagonist, MacReady destroys the station and stumbles outside with what appears to be a bottle of scotch. Childs, a mechanic on the station who supposedly survived the events of the film, returns claiming he was looking for Dr. Blair. Both men are suspicious of the other.
MacReady suggests that they should just wait around and see what happens, and smiles. The men are almost certainly doomed, but which, if either, is a thing?
Fans theorize to this day which of the two men is infected. MacReady could have put gasoline in the bottle he offers to Childs, as a test. Or perhaps he smiles because he - or both of them - is the thing.
- Actors: Kurt Russell, Keith David, John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau, Wilford Brimley
- Released: 1982
- Directed by: John Carpenter
- Photo: Miramax Films
At first glance, the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is a thriller. Hunter Llewelyn Moss comes across a cartel deal gone south and decides to go on the run with the money. This decision puts the cartel hitman Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Tom Bell hot on his tail. As fans of McCarthy’s novel and the Coen brothers know, the plot isn’t as essential as what lies beneath.
No Country for Old Men laments the nature of mortality and fate. Much in the same way that Moss comes to an unexpected end, so does the film. Chigurh isn’t defeated, caught, or even eluded; instead, the character appears to embody a debt-collecting grim reaper - as impartial as a coin toss.
Bell doesn’t do much of anything to change the outcome of Moss and Chigurh’s conflict. In the end, a retired Bell discusses two dreams he's had, both about his father. All he remembers about the first dream is that he met his father in town to receive some money (that he thinks he lost). In the second one, him and his father are on horseback in “older times.” His father rides ahead into the darkness without saying a word. Bell loses track of his father but assumes he is fixing a fire, one that will warm them both. Then he wakes up.
Depending on how you look at it, those two dreams are the story’s message: fortune is foggy and unclear while the end is certain. The first time you saw that ending you most certainly said, “What?” The second time, you pondered its possibilities.
- Actors: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald
- Released: 2007
- Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
- Photo: Artisan Entertainment
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s low budget independent film, The Blair Witch Project, made waves in 1999. Using the internet as a marketing tool, the “found footage” documentary-style "project" freaked everyone out - and a lot of fans thought it was real. Myrick and Sanchez's well-crafted backstory has left fans guessing at The Blair Witch Project's ending for years.
Film students Mike, Heather, and Josh investigate the Burkittsville forest, rumored to be haunted by a witch. Their footage, supposedly found after the trio disappeared, shows them experiencing all sorts of trippy stuff. Josh disappears shortly before Mike and Heather are led to the house of Rustin Parr, which supposedly burnt down in 1941, but is then heard screaming.
The two enter the house. Mike rushes upstairs to find Josh, only to drop the camera when he is attacked. Heather then finds the camera, picks it up, and goes downstairs. She finds Mike facing the corner, then screams and drops the camera.
Who went after them? A possessed Josh? The Blair Witch? Are they in a time loop? These are the questions that viewers have pondered for years.
- Actors: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason
- Released: 1999
- Directed by: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
After having a falling out with their crew, Butch Cassidy and his trusted companion, the “Sundance Kid,” go to Bolivia. Fearing a life of crime may end their lives, the outlaws eventually go legit and begin working as payroll guards. After being ambushed by local bandits, whom they slay, they return to their previously lawless ways.
By the end of the film, the pair are cornered by Bolivian soldiers in a small town. Badly wounded and outnumbered, Butch suggests that their next destination should be Australia. The film’s closing seconds see Butch and Sundance charge out of cover, guns blazing before freezing frame, leaving their fate uncertain.
Ultimately, whether or not the outlaws survive isn't as important as the way they decide to "go out." The semi-ambiguous ending only adds to the film's reputation as one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
- Actors: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Cloris Leachman, Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross
- Released: 1969
- Directed by: George Roy Hill