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The 20 Best Movies With Ambiguous Endings

21 January 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Samuel Rafuse


Humans love closure, feeling a need for everything in the world to make sense or offer resolution. Telling stories is one of the ways we pass on information and create catharsis, learning from the successes and failures of others and the movies are the leanest and meanest form of storytelling.

There is less room for experimentalism in Hollywood, as confusing movies means a smaller box office profit, but the auteurs of cinema have always found ways to make ambiguous movies mean something more than just the sum of their parts.

An ambiguous movie can be one that ends with a mystery, defying the rational need for answers, or it can be one that presents a story with multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is difficult to pull off, but when it works, it can triumph as a testament to the power of emotion and penetrate past some of the boundaries that pure reason comes with.

These movies that transcend the definitions of traditional storytelling tend to stick with moviegoers long after they leave the theatre, and even though they sometimes provoke controversy, they are more than worth watching.


20. Drive


Nicholas Winding Refn’s art film masquerading as an action thriller that features minimal dialogue and ends with an exceptionally long take of Ryan Gosling sitting in his car, motionless. Drive doesn’t really tell us what happens to its characters. Sure, the Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan) have a sweet romance, but she will move on and probably won’t be all too happy to see the man responsible for her husband’s death, albeit indirectly, show up at her door again.

It is that long shot of Gosling though, that really bring the film together at the same time as it takes it all apart, and we don’t really know whether Driver survived his final showdown or not – he comes alive again and drives away but is severely wounded – and whatever resolution we thought the movie would offer, especially in the romance department, fades into the sunset with him.


19. The Thing

The Thing

Horror movies are the perfect venue for filmmakers to explore the fear of the unknown, but rarely do they venture beyond the runtime of the movie as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing. Capitalizing on the public’s fear of unseen enemies – a clever metaphor for disease and sickness or even prejudicial differences – The Thing remains one of the most deeply affecting horror movies of the 80s. It doesn’t hurt that it contains some of the best makeup and practical effects either.

What makes The Thing really great is that it doesn’t offer any answers. Maybe the thing is dead and maybe it isn’t by the end of the movie. Kurt Russell’s MacReady could be an unreliable narrator in that only up to a certain point can he prove that he is human.

The assumption is that the thing has survived, either in one of the survivor’s bodies or is frozen beneath the snow, waiting for another rescue team to awaken it just like the Norwegians did at first, or just like the cast of this movie provided a new series of hosts after the Norwegians failed to contain the threat.

That the uncertainty stretches past the end of the film – a lesser movie would have had a definite ending – makes The Thing a classic unknown fear.


18. Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers

Talking about plot in a Jim Jarmusch movie is kind of like talking about life in a cemetery – it isn’t that it’s not there, it’s just that it doesn’t look like what we expect. Broken Flowers follows Don Johnston (another subdued performance from Bill Murray) as he revisits his past lovers after learning he has a son from one of them. Unfortunately for Don, he doesn’t find any answers, making the movie seem somewhat impenetrable. In the last scene Don sees a boy ride past him in a car and for a moment a look of recognition flashes on his face.

Jarmusch cast Murray’s real son as the boy, making a seemingly clear statement – yes, Don does have a son. However, the film offers no conclusion to this suspicion. Don never meets the boy and after glimpsing him never sees him again. The ending brings up the question of whether any of the stories Don heard from his past lovers were accurate or whether they were just retellings of memory, flawed and modified by the years, much like Don himself has become.


17. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Movies that blur the lines between fact and fiction are often the subject of much debate but rarely do they venture into the territory of memory versus dream. Martha Marcy May Marlene follows a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who, after joining a beautiful on the surface but sinister underneath cult, seeks refuge with her sister.

Struggling with PTSD and having difficulty reconciling her trained behaviours with the social norms of the real world, Martha tries to recount her stories to her sister but finds herself torn between the two worlds.

As Martha becomes increasingly unhinged, her sister and brother-in-law’s concern that she might be lying or mentally ill threaten her security in the refuge she has taken, while Martha’s paranoia that the members of the cult are chasing her becomes a burden on the whole family. Martha’s true mental state is never revealed as the movie cuts back and forth between past and present, dream and reality, memory and fantasy, crafting a waking nightmare for Martha and her sanity.


16. Synecdoche, New York


Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is a Russian nesting doll of stories within stories within stories. Following Caden Cotard, a playwright as he attempts to create his masterpiece, a play about himself, featuring an actor playing him, the writer, an actor playing an actor who plays him, the writer, an actor playing the actor playing the actor… and so on, Synecdoche New York is Kaufman’s most ambitious and perplexing work so far.

A rumination on life, consciousness and dying, Kaufman crafts layers upon layers as Caden’s life falls apart, all providing inspiration for his play, which eventually becomes his entire life.

After a while it is hard to say what is part of the play and what is not, until Caden is devoured by his work, ultimately giving his life, and his final breaths over in an effort to make his masterpiece work, completely obsessed with finding meaning in the most meaningless aspects of existence. Whether he succeeds or fails is up to the audience’s interpretation of not just the movie, but of life itself.


15. The Wrestler

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky captured Mickey Rourke’s comeback in the best way by casting him in the role of a washed-up wrestler attempting to make a return to fame. Randy “The Ram” Robinson gives everything he has to get his life back together but can barely keep himself from falling apart.

After suffering a heart attack but insisting on pushing through, Randy finally gets his big comeback match, but his health doesn’t hold up. He knocks down his opponent – of course the move was agreed upon beforehand – and sets up for his signature move, a diving headbutt called the “Ram Jam,” balancing himself on the top rope, before diving off. The film abruptly cuts to black before we see what happens.

A perfect example of the power of an edit, Aronofsky holds the black screen for an extended period of time before the credits roll, leaving Randy’s fate completely unknown.



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  • chirantan

    I can’t believe Interestellar didn’t make it to the list.

    • Diego Salom

      Tell me why should be posted here? I dont see the final ambiguous at all.

    • Darren

      There is nothing ambiguous about that film

      • Brian Lussier

        Yes there is. The ambiguity is how a genius like Nolan made such a piece of crap!

        • It wasn’t ambiguous! It was overstuffed AND prepping for a sequel…

  • Brian Lussier

    Happy to see 2001 at #1. I expected it, but I was afraid the writer would be too afraid to be considered cliché. Also love how the author states that it’s not just one of the greatest films ever, but also one of the most important works of art ever made, period. I’ve always thought that, too, and I agree the film transcends cinema itself. Spielberg was right when he said 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first time the cinematic form had actually been changed, and it remains the last time to this very day!

  • IdioticVirus

    well good job deleting my comment

  • Harsha Raman

    Whoa! Seriously?! This list is totally incomplete without Friedkin’s Killer Joe(2011) which contained one of the most perplexing endings among all Friedkin movies. With some powerful performances by McConaughey and Junah Temple,I had expected it somewhere in the top 10s but was pained to see how ignorantly it was overlooked.

    • thegoddamnbatman

      He included the French Connection though.

  • Richard McLin

    Missed a few,
    “Cast Away”
    “The Usual Suspects”
    I’m sure there’s more.

    • Brian Lussier

      Cast Away doesn’t have an ambiguous ending, and The Usual Suspects is one of those films that is ambiguous from beginning until the end arrives, then the ambiguity disappears entirely.

  • the0distance

    Moon?!? Fight Club?!?

    • Brian Lussier

      Fogbt Club’s ending isn’t ambiguous. Read the definition of the word, my friend…

  • Allister Cooper

    Doubt. Thankfully, though I have friends who are Catholic, I am glad I am not one. And that cunt Aloysius can rot in hell. Bitch.

  • Fenil

    can anyone please explain me how can i watch these movies ?
    Above listed only photos and discription.

    • Brian Lussier

      This is not a site to watch movies. It’s a site that offers reviews.

  • Ramachandran Govindaraj

    Its very shame IMDB top 250’s first “The Shawshank Redemption” is not in the list

    • Dave Anderson

      The original novella ended ambiguously, but the film didn’t.

  • juanchosanchez

    The Birds, Big Fish, Fitzcarraldo, Amores Perros, Funny Games, Gone With The Wind, The Holy Mountain, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Dark Knight Rises and maybe Zodiac …room for some more?

  • Rafael Ramz R

    Stupid list.

  • Rex Gambill

    If I had written this, I would have only listed 19 films, leaving readers to wonder what the 20th movie was.

    • Brian Lussier

      Hahaha! Good idea! You give them 20 to 2, and leave #1 open. Although I’m sure almost everyone would have guessed it was 2001.

  • Benas Bačanskas

    Finally! You included The Graduate, my favorite film, amen.

  • Neilanjeev Roy

    Where is Jacob’s Ladder ??…. >:(

    • Klaus Dannick

      Jacob’s Ladder never struck me as ambiguous. The film is in real-time. It begins when the main character is hospitalized for his wounds, a time during which he remembers, dreams, and hallucinates his life and approaching death, up to the momement of his real-time death, not unlike the famous short film, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (based faithfully upon Ambrose Bierce’s short story of the same name).

  • Pavel Dumitrescu

    Mulholland Drive?

    • Brian Lussier

      Meh. I’d say the whole film is indeed ambiguous, but the ending is the one thing that isn’t. She goes crazy and shoots herself, that simple.

  • Mateo Fernandez

    John Carpenter explained in an interview that The Thing doesn’t have an ambiguous ending. In the last scene, when Childs and MacReady are sitting in the snow, if you pay attention, you can see that Macready is breathing heavily because of the snow, and Childs isn’t breathing

    • Brainlock

      except Childs is wearing an earring, which the Thing can’t replicate inorganics like piercings and fillings. even Keith believes he/Childs was human and Mac was the Thing.

      • John W. Thackery

        This explanation is coming from the director who made the frickin’ movie. If he explains it, it’s not ambiguous. The earring that Childs is wearing would be called a goof.


    • Dave Anderson

      How is Thelma & Louise ambiguous?

      • I suppose because we don’t actually get to “see” our heroines’ fate. It’s a stretch I suppose…

        • John W. Thackery

          They drive off a cliff. Unless there was high pile of garbage in the canyon as parodied in The Simpsons, how is there any question whatsoever as to the fates of these women? You don’t have to “see” everything to understand what’s happening. Do you really need to see the car crash and their heads fly off and their bodies burn? Come on now.

          Also how is Psycho ambiguous? The psychiatrist at the end explains everything.

          • This is a fact — in the original screenplay the car goes off the cliff then cuts to Thelma & Louise driving away to freedom below.

          • Picky troll.

  • Noah Garner

    oh man how could you forget L’Avventura and L’Eclisse

  • sirnaber

    shutter island??

  • andre fernandez

    Stalker should be no.1

  • Ignacio Barocchi

    American Psycho is missing

  • Bryan Fibel

    Total Recall

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  • HailTheGeezer

    Trainspotting, Ex Machina?

  • John W. Thackery

    Many of these films’ endings are not ambiguous. Spoilers ahead!

    John Carpenter’s The Thing — Carpenter explained that Childs is the thing as you don’t see him breathing, whereas Kurt Russell clearly is.

    The French Connection — The epilogue explains everything. The French drug smuggler evaded capture and Popeye and Cloudy are transferred out of the narcotics bureau. It’s a downbeat ending like every movie from the 70s.

    Inception — The top begins to wobble, thus he’s not dreaming. I know this is covered in the article but at what part of the film are there indications that it was not Cobb’s top?

    The Graduate — The running theme of the film is that the young generation (boomers) had no direction and were drifting aimlessly though life. Momentarily, Benjamin and Elaine had a goal– to escape the shackles of conventional marriage and suburban life, values that their parents so greatly uplhold. So Benjamin and Elaine are indeed happy when they escape the wedding party. However, once they attain this goal, they sit there melancholy on the bus because again, they still have no direction in their lives (as seen by their facial expressions). They escaped but what do they do next?

    The Shining — Yes, Jack is now a ghost and a spiritiual inhabitant of the Overlook Hotel– like what happened to Delbert Grady, the former caretaker. That’s what the hotel does. It causes its inhabitants to go crazy, die then take their soul.

    The Wrestler — Randy the Ram dies at the end, indicated by cutting to black. In the ending of Black Swan (which is a companion piece to The Wrestler), the screen cuts to white, indicating that she survives her injury.

    No Country For Old Men — Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) was not the protagonist, Sheriff Bell (Jones) was. The movie is an allegory of the changing times and culture. Bell who is an old man had for the most part lived in a world where he always had answers and resolution, and justice was always served. But now the times are changing and the world around him has become more violent, unjust and more nihilistic with less answers and resolutions. And he doesn’t understand it. He can’t comprehend this new world and wants no part of it, hence the title “no country for old men”.

    Doubt — Sister Aloysius loses her sense of security not in herself but in her faith in the Catholic Church– knowing that priests like Father Flynn are being shuffled around from parish to parish and not being reprimanded for their crimes against children.

  • fantail31

    Limbo – John Sayles?

    • Lachlan Mills

      Asolutely. The whole plot of Limbo is absorbing with its gradually revealed mystery – and then the ending – truly – leaves the viewer in limbo!

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    I wouldn’t say that all these movies have ambiguous endings….How come Lost Highway is not on this list? Although I would have said the same about that too

  • Chris Englund

    Monte Hellman’s films come to mind!! I’d put “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “The Shooting” at the top of this list….

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