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Ambiguous Movie Endings (SPOILERS)

Updated on June 12, 2015

Is a movie better when the ending isn't clear?

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Introduction

For me, a movie doesn’t end after I finish watching it. I like to pick them apart and speculate on the open-ended questions left behind in some plots. This can drive some people crazy. However, the filmmakers must realize that there are many others out there like me who enjoy analyzing these ambiguous endings. There are plenty of stories out there with, “choose your own ending” moments. Whether these are unintentional plot holes or conscious, trusting decisions made by the filmmakers, they make for great discussion topics. At the same time, they don't leave the story feeling empty or unfinished.

Below are several cliffhanger moments that have been raised in some of my favorite movies. Feel free to leave your comments about what you think about them below. However, beware. Each question contains SPOILERS.


1. Titanic: Is Rose dead or just dreaming?

  • The Situation: The film ends with Rose in bed with her eyes closed. The camera then fades back to the sunken ship which suddenly regenerates. Rose is 17-years-old again and meets up with everyone who perished on the ship, including Jack. There, she is able to get her happy ending.
  • Thoughts to Consider: Rose is 100 years old and just had a cathartic moment (throwing overboard the diamond necklace that she had kept for 84 years). When I was younger, I never questioned the ending. I was sure that Rose had died at the end of the movie. However, I later learned that some people believed that the final scene was all a dream brought on by her reminiscing about her time on board the ship. This is why she is younger and also why she has abandoned her dead husband in the afterlife. Otherwise, it’s kind of a slap in the face to the man with whom she spent her life with to be left for a man with whom she only spent a few days before letting him freeze in the Atlantic Ocean. On the DVD commentary, James Cameron says that he prefers to leave this question unanswered so that the viewer can be left with the ending of their choice.

Titanic Ending

2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: In which direction is Jack’s compass pointing during the Kraken attack? Towards the ship or towards the island?

  • The Situation: In a climactic moment, Jack abandons his ship in order to save himself from the Kraken. On his way to land, Jack stops rowing his lifeboat and guilty checks his compass to see what he should do. The direction on the compass is not shown, but the look on Jack’s face is a puzzled one.
  • Thoughts to Consider: Jacks’ mind is constantly changing throughout the movie, making his compass useless. When faced with the decision to save himself or his friends, he whips out the compass looking for an answer. Elizabeth previously preached to Jack about his underlying willingness to do the right thing. Is his puzzled reaction to his compass a confirmation of her faith in him? Is the compass pointing towards the ship, or does he consciously know that he wants to save his friends and is puzzled that the compass is pointing towards land, towards his own salvation? Another possibility is that his compass is spinning around as per usual, and he has no one but himself to decide what to do. Either way, Jack heads back towards the ship where he saves his friends, but things don’t go so well for him.

3. The Village: Does Lucius survive?

  • The Situation: In the final scene of the movie, Ivy returns from the towns with the medicines needed to save her fiancé, Lucius’, life. She kneels at his bedside to tell him that she’s back, and then the credits roll. So what happens next? Do the medicines work, or does Lucius succumb too his injuries?


  • Thoughts to Consider: What is more important: the love story or the preservation of Covington Woods? It would be really discouraging to learn that Ivy endured all that she did only to have her fiancé die from his injuries. Not only would the love story be destroyed, but the townspeople would have been subjected to the exact evil from which the elders had fled. Lucius' death would be considered murder. The elders' attempts to protect the younger villagers from the evils of the world would have been all for nothing. It would confirm not only that one cannot escape from evil and pain, but evil defeats love. From a practical perspective, though, Ivy has been given the knowledge that the elders made up the stories about the creatures to keep the villagers from journeying to the towns. Not only is Ivy in the loop now, but she re-acquires the belief in the creatures during her encounter with Noah who attacks her in one of the creature suits while she is on her way to fetch the medicine. This belief will allow Ivy to lead the townspeople once the elders have all died off while using what she knows to be true about the creatures to keep everyone from leaving. Lucius had spent a good chunk of his scenes begging for permission to visit the towns to acquire medicines. If he does awaken to the knowledge that medicine from the towns saved his life, he will be more willing than ever to return to the towns to acquire more useful items from the towns. This could jeopardize the future of their utopian village. So, perhaps Lucius' death would be in the best interest of the village as a whole.

The Village Ending

4. Good Will Hunting: What happens between Will and Skylar?

  • In the last scene, Will ditches his new job, his friends, and his life to follow Skylar to California in his new car. So, when he gets here, does Skylar take him back?


  • It’s safe to say that Skylar would take him back once Will arrived in California. She practically begged him to come along with her, causing the argument which then caused their breakup. She was also heart broken in their last conversation when he wouldn’t tell her that he loved her before she left. So, she should be thrilled when he comes knocking on her door. However, will it last? Is Will cured of his abandonment issues after just one breakthrough in his sessions with Shawn? Will he stick around even when the going gets tough. Maybe the only way to end the movie happily is to end it where they did, with hope.

Good Will Hunting Ending

5. Forrest Gump: Who is right? Mama or Lieutenant Dan?

  • The Situation: At Jenny’s grave, Forrest brings up this question. His whole life, his mother has been saying that he is in control of every decision that he makes whereas Lieutenant Dan preached of having a destiny to fulfill. So, which is it?
  • Thoughts to Consider: Forrest speculates that both of them may be right. We may have the power to choose, but our choices lead to predetermined ends. No matter which philosophy we adopt, we never know if we are right are wrong in what causes our life's choices. Despite your belief system, your life keeps moving forward no matter what, and choice and destiny are merely the ways that you cope with the outcome of every event.

Forrest Gump: Jenny's Grave

6. The Wizard of Oz: Is Dorothy dreaming, or did she really go to Oz?

  • The Situation: The book and the movie end the same way. Dorothy wakes up in bed with a bump on the head, believing her journey to Oz to have been just a dream. However, did we honestly just go through that giant adventure with Dorothy only to find out that it was all made up in her head?


  • Thoughts to Consider: The movie introduces the characters you are going to meet in Oz as real life characters in Dorothy’s life in Kansas. Surely, when they become a scarecrow, a tin man, a lion, a witch and a wizard, it’s just Dorothy’s subconscious playing with her. The thing is, though, why would this little girl’s brain make up a fantasy world which ultimately trumps her desire to get out into the world and explore it? Why would her brain make her freak out with images of flying monkeys and haunted forests just to tell her that she should never leave home?

The Wizard of Oz: Dream Revealed

7. The Dark Knight: If Heath Ledger had lived in real life, would the character of Rachel Dawes be featured in the movie’s sequel?

  • The Situation: This question has been weighing on me ever since I saw this movie in the theater. Halfway through the film, Rachel Dawes is killed by a bomb after being kidnapped by the joker’s men. She dies in mid-sentence while trying to disclose some information to Harvey through an intercom system. We see the explosion go off behind her, and a gust of wind hits her face. Then, we are lead to assume that she is dead. Her death is imperative in this film in order to trigger Harvey’s descent into madness. Surely, she will pop up in the final frame. Then, she doesn’t. So then surely it will be revealed that she is alive in the sequel. Then, she wasn’t. Instead, she stays dead, and her death becomes the main motivation for why Batman takes seven years off from crime fighting between movies.


  • Thoughts to Consider: Something just doesn’t add up here. It is safe to assume that Heath Ledger’s untimely death caused the script for The Dark Knight Rises to be rewritten. In the sequel, The Joker is never even mentioned let alone his crimes. So, the loose ends are never tied up. That means that whatever Rachel was trying to say to Harvey in her final moments died with Heath as did the hope of bringing her back to life. So, if Rachel was supposed to live, how was she to come back? Maybe as a brainwashed Harley Quinn? I'm surprised that I have never come across a theory about this online.

TDK: Rachel's Death

8.The Dark Knight Rises: How does Batman survive the explosion made by the bomb?

  • The Situation: After flying a ticking nuclear bomb out of the city, Batman is presumed dead by the people of Gotham as the bomb explodes in the distance. However, the audience is surprised to find in the final frames that Batman is not only alive but survived unharmed. So, how did he do it? Did he eject well before the explosion? Did he have some kind of protective suit? Did Superman save him?


  • Thoughts to Consider: This ending has really irked people according to comments fans have made online. Normally, this would not be an issue in a superhero movie, but Christopher Nolan’s universe is so concretely based in reality that an explanation for this fantastic feat of survival is practically demanded from its audience. You can often forget that you are watching a superhero movie in The Dark Knight franchise so it is funny to see everyone explode when the boundaries of that universe are called into question by a classic movie moment.

TDKR Ending

9. Zodiac: Who is The Zodiac Killer?

  • The Situation: It must have been challenging for the filmmakers to come with an ending to a story about a real life, unsolved serial killing spree. One can only speculate on who was committing these murders. Luckily, they had Robert Graysmith’s book to guide them along with his own theory about The Zodiac Killer’s identity. However, do you buy it? Was it Arthur Leigh Allen committing those murders?


  • Thoughts to Consider: So many pieces of evidence point to this man, and you’ve watched Robert Graysmith’s process in coming up with his suspect so you trust his judgment and research. However, if he was right, why was an arrest never made? Why were other suspects pursued? What did the film leave out that might sway you toward another suspect? The creepiest thing about this movie is that the real killer got away with these crimes, and the police either let him slip right on by or were so off track that their suspects were accused of murders they did not commit.

Zodiac Ending

10. Inception: What’s going on with the spinning top in the final scene?

  • The Situation: In the movie, the dream thieves use objects called “totems” to help confirm that they really have woken up from a dream. Cobb spins his wife’s top, and if it continues to spin without stopping, it means that he is still dreaming. In the final sequence of the movie, the characters all wake up from their dream/mission. Cobb specifically awakens from limbo, a state of consciousness from which it is almost impossible to escape. When he finally makes it home to see his children, the first thing he does is spin the top to make sure that he is not dreaming. Distracted by the sight of his children, however, he abandons the top to greet them. The top keeps spinning however with a possible slight wobble before the credits roll.


  • Thoughts to Consider: There are so many theories about this movie’s ending that reading them all will make your head want to explode. Some say that Cobb never woke up from his first trip to limbo (before the events of the movie even begin). Some say that he is still trapped in his second trip to limbo. Others say that the top was about to stop before the credits rolled. Does it even matter as long as he is with his kids, and he is happy? He only really seems to be happy when he is dreaming anyway. Is reality more important than happiness?

Inception Ending

11. Doubt: Is Father Flynn guilty?

  • The Situation: After much speculation between two nuns and the refusal of a confession from the man himself, Father Flynn is transferred to another parish on the assumption that he is spending too much personal time with one of his students. However, the audience never finds out whether or not he did anything wrong.


  • Thoughts to Consider: The point of the movie is its title. While in real life situations it is most important to find out if a crime of this nature has been committed, in this film, the alleged crime itself is immaterial. What is really questioned is whether or not Sister Beauvier was in the right to take action against a priest without evidence. The cryptic conversations and minimal cold hard evidence presented throughout the film keep pushing and pulling the audience from one side to the other with no actual conclusion except that Sister Beauvier and Sister James do not feel any better about themselves or the situation after Father Flynn has gone. Without facts, there is no certainty or catharsis to a situation. There is only unjustified guilt. Still, it would be nice for the audience to know whose side you should have been on this whole time so that you don't have to feel as unsettled as the characters.

Doubt Ending

12. A League of Their Own: Does Dottie let Kit win?

  • The Situation: In the final out of The World Series, Kit, as weak a batter as she is strong a pitcher, manages to knock a high fastball pitch into the outfield and decides to win the game herself by going for an inside the park home run. Her sister Dottie, arguably the best player in the league, is catching for the opposing team. As the ball is thrown to home plate, Dottie blocks her sister’s path. There is a collision resulting in Kit sliding into home plate and Dottie dropping the ball. Little sister Kit is then able to emerge victorious from her older sister’s shadow and obtain the glory that she had been striving for her whole life. Did she earn that glory, or did Dottie gift it to her?


  • Thoughts to Consider: The speculation begins during the opening of the movie when Dottie tells her older grandon to let the younger one win a round of their basketball game. She then tells the younger grandson to give it his all. Kit is a weak batter who relies on her pitching to get her into the league. Dottie is an all around great ballplayer who hides her competitive nature because she thinks that it is more important to be a good wife and wait for her husband to return from war. She is constantly struggling between her love of the game and her devotion to her marriage, despite the fact that she has no wifely duties while her husband is off at war. Kit, on the other hand, is desperate for the freedom and respect that playing ball gives her. Ultimately, she wants to win even more than Dottie because she needs it for her own well being. However, Dottie can’t help but return to play in the final game of The World Series after quitting when her injured husband returns from war. When Kit comes up to bat in that pivotal moment, she makes a point of filling in to her own pitcher that Kit can’t lay off the high, fastballs. It seems that she has come to play, but perhaps while Kit was rounding third base, she had a change of heart and gave up the win for her sister. Dottie’s skills just seem too good to mess up when she does. On the other hand, maybe Kit did get over on her for once.



A League of their Own: The World Series Ending

Conclusion

What are your answers to these 12 questions? No idea can be right or wrong so leave your answers in the comments below!

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    • Laura335 profile image
      Author

      Laura Smith 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, it's a really effective storytelling technique but not if you're totally lost when the credits roll.

    • Breanne Ginsburg profile image

      Breanne Ginsburg 2 years ago

      Laura,

      You make some excellent points! I don't mind slightly ambiguous movie endings but I do hate when you have no idea what happened at the end and you're just wondering what in the world just happened!

      Also, while I think the film makers did mean for Dorothy to be dreaming in Wizard of Oz, I've always hated that. I just think it would be so much better if she was still in Oz, she could still wish to go home. Really, there is no reason for the whole thing to have been a dream. I think that's one of the reasons I love the idea of the book and play Wicked so much.

      As for A League of Their Own, I do think Dotty lets Kit win the game. I like how you added videos in case someone didn't see the movie or didn't remember it perfectly. Great job!

    • Laura335 profile image
      Author

      Laura Smith 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks for your comments! Yeah, the Zodiac movie ending is unsatisfyingly satisfying in that way.

    • amandajoyshapiro profile image

      amandajoyshapiro 3 years ago

      Hi, your choices for open-endings are interesting! I honestly believe that in Titanic, Rose has passed away; holding onto her story for all of those years and finally let it go allowed her go peacefully. That she chose Jack Dawson over her anonymous husband is because of how important he was to her for those few days and how traumatic the event was that tore them apart. I agree with you about Inception, that it doesn't matter as long as he is with his children. But of course the most interesting is the Zodiac killer. It needed some kind of "knowing" ending but since that suspect was not arrested, they couldn't fake or plant it.

    • Laura335 profile image
      Author

      Laura Smith 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      That's true. Very true.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      You've profiled some great movies here. With Titanic, I did not see the other possibility. I'm bound to imagine that even though she spent her life with another man, the poor guy was her second choice because her first choice had died.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Great food for thought! Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

    • Laura335 profile image
      Author

      Laura Smith 3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Thanks for reading!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Clever article, an approach I haven't seen before. Well done!