5 Movie Endings People Think Are Ambiguous (But Aren't)
In a perfect universe, every movie would end with the main characters jumping into the air to give each other a thunderous freeze-frame high five. Sadly, the world's screenwriters and directors have crafted various conventions whereby this kind of ending is seen as "out of place," for some bizarre reason. In its stead, we get things like sad endings, ambiguous endings, and worst of all, non-ambiguous endings that some people really like to believe are ambiguous.
Ambiguous endings can be nice, but trying to force-feed ambiguity into a story is like ending your Taco Bell order with "And I'd like a five-layer beef and cheese burrito. OR WOULD I?" At best, it's unnecessarily complicating things, and at worse, it's annoying every person but you. And in the case of these five movies, it's mostly the latter.
No, Bruce Wayne Definitely Survives At The End Of The Dark Knight Rises
In The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham finds itself threatened with its annual giant bomb. Batman, being a generally good guy, decides to fly the bomb out into the bay, where it won't hurt anyone, probably. Everyone thinks Batman is dead, including Alfred, who sobs into the camera about it. But wait! Alfred is at a cafe in Italy, and he sees Bruce there. They give each other a knowing "Ayyy. Remember the Scarecrow? That was some shit, riiiiight?" glances, and the movie ends.
That seems like a pretty conclusive stamp on things. Bruce Wayne retired to travel around the world, presumably filling his Instagram account with photos of Selina Kyle at various European beaches. And the only ones who know that he's finally living up to his trust fund kid image are Lucius Fox and Alfred, who goes on to be a guy with an accent. But this wasn't conclusive enough for some people, and the mystery of what really happened when Batman blew up his big dumb bat-themed helicopter over the ocean eventually reached actor Christian Bale, who basically responded with "It's up to you, but duh."
But how we got to the point where we had to have a Batman actor explain a goddamn Batman movie to us baffles me. And it's not because of what's in the dialogue or in the plot, but because of what it implies if you believe that Gotham Harbor is currently filled with charred Bat chunks. If Batman died, it means that Christopher Nolan ended his epic trilogy with an old British man experiencing a total mental breakdown.
Christopher Nolan doesn't always provide a definitive answer at the end of his movies. Both Inception and Interstellar were constructed to keep you arguing with your dorm mates for the rest of the year. But for there to be a question at the end of The Dark Knight Rises entertains the possibility that the last glance that we get of our beloved Alfred is one in which he is battling with the growing specter of senility. He's seeing visions of the adopted son whom he "failed" to save. Joseph Gordon-Levitt rises into the Batcave triumphantly, but just before that, the heart and soul of the greatest Batman adventure in modern cinema spirals headlong into dementia.
That's more "gritty and dark" than anything Zack Snyder put into Batman v. Superman. If you're cool with Batman eating it at the end of Rises, you're also cool with Michael Caine rounding out his story arc with a sprint into his own crumbling psyche.
Nobody Is The Thing At The End Of The Thing
Out of any of the films on this list, The Thing is the one that deserves the most speculation. As soon as a group of dogs transform into a screeching, tentacled bladder monster, the film quickly centers around the question of "Who is the Thing?" And as we soon find out, the answer to that is "Most people." Various cast members explode into a parade of alien appendages, and by the end, only two men are left. Sadly, they're both too paranoid to let the other out of their sight, so they're likely going to freeze to death. Fun fact: This movie came out two weeks after E.T., as if to say "Bull and shit, Spielberg. E.T. should've been popping out of that little boy's head by now."
So I can see why we'd approach the ending with "Well, one of them is probably the Thing, because 80 percent of this cast has been the Thing." It's the safe choice. But it also kind of removes any sense of tragedy. See, the best part of The Thing -- better than that time the dude's head pulled itself off his body, and better than the time the other dude's head turned into a giant set of jaws, and better than the time that the dude's chest opened up to eat the arms off someone -- is the intense dread of watching the dudes slowly lose their shit on each other as they become more and more unsure of who to trust.
The Thing is a delightful protest against boredom and attached limbs. But it's held together by some of the best atmosphere that the horror genre has to offer. And yes, a lot of that atmosphere comes from the fact that you're constantly waiting for someone in the group to sprout tendrils and begin snacking on his friends, but it also comes from the idea that even if you're not the Thing, your former bros don't give a shit. They're gonna shoot you regardless because you might be the Thing.
The ending is much more satisfying and sad when it goes from being a jump scare that you just kind of have to imagine happens at some point during the credits to two guys that get a super-fatal case of frostbite because neither was the Thing, but neither was ever really certain of that. They'd rather turn into copiously mustached icicles than let some melty nightmare bandit get the drop on them again.
Mickey Rourke Is Quite Dead At The End Of The Wrestler
In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler who has seen better days. He used to wrestle in Madison Square Garden. Now he wrestles in the back room of a community center on nights when seniors Bingo isn't packing the place out. He used to have great stamina. Now his heart is all like "Wrestling? Heh. Good one, dude." He also partly lives in his van, and I assume that in the years prior, he had enough money to live in a lot of vans. Any van he wanted.
A doctor has made it very clear to Randy that he shouldn't be wrestling if he likes breathing. But at the end, when he's been dumped by Marisa Tomei too many times and his daughter loathes him, he retreats to the ring for one last match. And as he goes to the top rope, he starts to have heart problems. But he jumps off anyway and the screen fades to black. And you're left to wonder if he died, or if he just had some heart pangs and went back to his awful, Marisa-Tomei-less life.
Except he died. He totally, totally died. Because his whole character arc is him letting wrestling devour him alive. He's got nothing else. He works at a deli, but his boss is a dick, and he's constantly afraid that someone is going to recognize him from his more piledrive-oriented hobbies. He desperately wants to connect with people, but he's got too many issues to consistently hang out with anyone but other wrestlers. Also, a doctor literally told him that wrestling again would kill him. And at no point does he approach that advice with "But what if I ate a lot of yogurt and greens?" He approached it with "Cocaine, you say?"
But most of all, he has to die at the end because his story isn't meant to conclude with "He woke up in the hospital and lived disappointingly ever after." Him not dying means that there's some kind of future for Randy in which he's Kohl's Employee of the Month, or that he beat the odds by never tag-teaming with a heart attack. Randy dies because dying is all he's got left. Going on without elbow drops ain't a life worth living.
No Country For Old Men Ends With An Old Man Talking, Not With A Question
You should be prepared for No Country For Old Men when it comes. Josh Brolin, the closest thing that the movie has to a hero, dies offscreen. Anton Chigurh, a terrifying psychopath with the best cut to ever come out of a Great Clips, limps away after being hit by a car. And Woody Harrelson is introduced as a bounty hunter, only to die 20 minutes later after a quiet conversation. No arc in the movie ends with a typical Hollywood "We did it thanks to you, Wolverine!" Instead, all we get is a slight murmur of "Umm, alright."
And then, as if this movie was solely constructed to piss off the people I brought with me to see it (who thought we were going to Saw IV), the film closes with a Tommy Lee Jones monologue about a dream he had about his dad. And this isn't just a regular monologue about masculinity and aging and time; this is a Tommy Lee Jones RUMINATION on masculinity and aging and time, which means that it's twice as important as any regular rumination that you or I could take part in. And that might be why people decided that there was some lingering question that the movie had left unanswered. Tommy Lee Jones was talking, and then the movie ended. There HAS to be something there.
But -- and this is no diss on Tommy Lee Jones, as he could make a prolapsed rectum seem dignified yet colloquial -- No Country For Old Men ends with an old dude talking his wife's ear off over breakfast. It's a story that relates to the plot of the movie, and that's all. Every character arc in the thing has come to a close. If the camera suddenly cut to Anton Chigurh pulling up to Jones' house and winking at the camera, I would throw every bag of popcorn that ever existed at the screen, because that would be an actual ambiguous ending.
However, because, as I mentioned, none of the character arcs really get anything in the way of a standard climax, the whole thing seems to ride the flaming wagon of ambiguity off the cliff. But one of the major themes of the story is the idea that destiny isn't really something that you can rely on. And in that case, concluding the movie with Tommy Lee Jones pouting over an increasingly cold cup of coffee is perfectly straightforward.
American Psycho Is About A Weird Dude, Not A Murderer
I felt the same way about American Psycho that a lot of my friends felt about Fight Club. Both films came out in the late '90s, and both films asked you questions about what you just saw. You went from being a middle-schooler who ingested Roland Emmerich films like M&M's to being a bona fide seventh-grade film scholar. You sipped Mountain Dew out of fine china and said things like "Have you seen Donnie Darko?" or "I liked Blade 2, but I also liked Blade. And that's just me."
I'd later go on to read the book American Psycho, which was a decent experience that I never want to have again. But I rewatched the film over and over again, and each time, I rode the line between "Was Patrick Bateman a killer?" and "Was he just a terrible, terrible Wall Street bro?" And then I realized why I was indecisive: I was still kind of hoping that American Psycho was a slasher flick.
I don't care as much about it now as I used to, but for a long time, I desperately desired validation when it came to my interests. And one of my interests has always been slasher films -- which, in the public's eye, tend to hold steady on the scale of Cinematic Greatness somewhere between softcore porn and The Phantom Menace. So when a "slasher" film like American Psycho gets a positive response and a real thinker of an ending, you latch onto it. "SEE?" you scream atop of a throne of Friday The 13th box sets. "DO YOU SEE NOW?"
Slasher films are full of mayhem and blood and guts, and so is American Psycho. But in a slasher film, the killings are rarely the product of someone's imagination. They're usually very, very real and very, very hard for the next year's staff of camp counselors to clean up. But the minute you remove American Psycho from the idea that it might be a slasher movie, or even a slasher movie disguised as a hoity-toity art thing, it becomes painfully obvious that none of the murders are real.
They constantly drop hints that they never occurred -- the bodies being missing and no one knowing what Patrick Bateman is talking about and the guy at the end who's like "Please, Christian Bale. You're embarrassing me in this fine Ronald-Reagan-approved cocktail place with all of your sweat." And then, like Bateman at the end of the film, you're forced to sit down and consider what is real. And then you think "Maybe I'll watch American Psycho II for more answers. That can only help me." And you shouldn't.
Don't do it. Don't fuckin' do it.
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