6 Movie Endings No One Understood
These conclusions launched countless Reddit threads filled with theories.
There are few things as frustrating for movie fans who like having every loose end tied up as dedicating two hours of their time to a film only to be left wondering what really happened at the end of it. Luckily, there's the internet, where any confused viewer can look up theories and interpretations as to what was really going on in the Midsommar village or who really died and how in Mulholland Drive. Sometimes, though, a movie's finale is so ambiguous or obtuse that there isn't even a consensus as to what it all means. Read on for six movie endings that almost no one understood. Spoilers ahead!
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I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Charlie Kaufman's 2020 movie I'm Thinking of Ending Things is based on the 2016 novel by Ian Reid and follows Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) as they make a snowy roadtrip to his parents' house for Thanksgiving. Seeing as this movie was written and directed by the screenwriter behind Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, it was a given that things get much, much weirder from there.
Jake's parents, played mostly by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, change ages; his girlfriend is referred to by a handful of different names; and she receives mysterious phone calls from an anonymous person. Throughout the events of their trip and visit, viewers are also shown a high school janitor going through his daily duties, which are seemingly completely separate from the rest of the plot—that is, until their paths cross. When Jake decides to stop at his old school, his girlfriend has a conversation with the janitor, telling him that she isn't even in a relationship with Jake and that he was just a creepy guy who stared at her one night.
Among other strange events, the movie ends with Jake on stage in the school auditorium being applauded as he accepts a Nobel Prize. It seems then that Jake and the janitor are the same person and that Jake's girlfriend is a complete construct of his imagination, based on a pretty woman he once saw. But the movie doesn't exactly spell it out for you.
Kaufman told IndieWire in 2020 that he wanted to play with the idea of the young woman being an extension of Jake and also having some "agency," which is likely why so many fans are confused by the ending. "I'm not really big on explaining what things are," the filmmaker said. "I let people have their experiences, so I don't really have expectations about what people are going to think. I really do support anybody's interpretation."
Donnie Darko (2001)
Set in the late 1980s, Donnie Darko, written and directed by Richard Kelly in 2001, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular teenager. One night when Donnie is out sleepwalking, he encounters an otherworldly being in a bunny costume who tells him that the world is ending in just over 28 days. He also finds when he gets home in the morning that he narrowly escaped death; an engine from an airplane inexplicably crashed into his family's home—right into his bedroom.
As Donnie goes to therapy and gets close to a classmate named Gretchen (Jena Malone), he continues to receive visits by Frank, who encourages him to learn about time travel. He does more of Frank's bidding too, in one memorable instance resulting in a cheesy motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) being exposed as a pedophile. On the 28th day, Gretchen is struck and killed by a car, which turns out to be driven by the boyfriend of Donnie's sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal)—a seemingly normal guy named Frank (James Duval) dressed in a bunny costume because it's Halloween. In the end, Donnie watches the formation of some kind of time vortex over town, which zaps him back to the beginning of the movie—only this time, he's sleeping in his bed and is instantly killed by the falling jet engine.
Not even the movie's star understands what it really means. "What is Donnie Darko about? I have no idea," Gyllenhaal wrote in the introduction to the 2003 release, The Donnie Darko Book, as reported by Digital Spy. But in 2004, the movie was re-released in the form of a Director's Cut, which added 20 minutes and made the concepts in the fictional book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, by the old woman Roberta Sparrow more explicit and their connection to the events of the movie more clear. As explained by Salon, most of the events of Donnie Darko take place in a Tangent Universe that has to be destroyed via Donnie's death so the world as we know it doesn't end.
So…does that mean that Donnie was technically dead the whole time? "I think the film argues that life and death can perhaps coexist, that time is not necessarily a purely linear thing," Kelly told NME in 2016.
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According to many fans of Christopher Nolan's Tenet, you have to watch the sci-fi thriller more than once to even have a hope of getting it. The movie plays with time and reality, as viewers follow the Protagonist (John David Washington), a former CIA agent who is part of a top-secret organization called Tenet. He is tasked with going back in time and using a special algorithm to essentially prevent World War II.
To do that, as GQ explains, he and his team must invert time, which means that there are multiple timelines to follow as he goes about his mission. At the end of the film, the Protagonist un-inverts time and learns that he actually recruited himself to the operation and created the entire Tenet organization in the first place.
Robert Pattinson, who plays the Protagonist's handler Neil, understands why moviegoers might be overwhelmed by the twists and turns of the plot. "A lot of the stuff in this movie is expositional world-building stuff and a dense story. And the script makes that accessible to a layman," he told The Irish Times ahead of Tenet's release. "And that's really difficult to get that balance of making it sound like natural dialogue and trying to get across information that you probably need a PhD to understand properly."
For his part, Nolan believes that not understanding every aspect of Tenet—or of similar films—is sort of the point. "The interesting thing in movies is, you know, looking at the thriller genre in particular, you're not meant to understand every single aspect," he told NPR a few months after the movie came out. "You're meant to go on the journey, pass through the maze, understand the things you need to understand for the stakes of the scene you're in, and then you get to the end of the movie and you've been on a journey and you understand how you got there. That's the key."
The Shining (1980)
Ever since its release in 1980, Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, adapted from Stephen King's classic horror novel, has been terrifying viewers. And it's also prompted many a conversation about the real meaning of the photograph at the end of the movie.
The movie begins with Jack (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), moving to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where Jack will serve as winter caretaker and attempt to break his writer's block. But caretakers haven't fared particularly well in the Overlook, as the family soon learn. As Danny begins to show evidence of "the shining" through telepathy and visions, Jack begins to go violently mad, eventually turning on his wife and son. Wendy and Danny are able to escape Jack by losing him in the hedge maze on the hotel grounds. After the audience sees that Jack has frozen to death, we see him again—alive and smiling in a photo hanging on the wall dated July 4, 1921.
Some take Jack's presence in the photo to mean that the haunted hotel has completely taken possession of him, cursing him to echo throughout its history. But Kubrick had a different intention. In an interview with Michel Ciment for his 1980 book Kubrick, the filmmaker stated that the photo "suggests the reincarnation" of Jack.
A director who has no problem challenging audiences, Christopher Nolan appears again on this list with his 2010 thriller Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a thief who gains access to what he wants by invading people's dreams and "extracting" information. He's poached by one of his marks (Ken Watanabe), who hires Cobb to do a much different job: enter the dreams of the son (Cillian Murphy) of his business rival with the purpose of "inception," i.e. placing an idea that he will accept as one of his own.
Entering dreams is a tricky business, apparently, as it's easy to lose track of reality. Cobb encourages each of his team members to have a totem—an object they can use to check whether they're in the real world or not. He uses his frequently, since he unwisely chooses to visit his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) in his own dreams and is often tempted to stay with her. It's a top, which will only stop spinning (as it would) if he's in reality. At the end of the movie, the mission completed, Cobb returns home safely to his children. Or does he? He takes the top out of his pocket and spins it on a table, but the movie cuts to credits before it can fall.
In a 2010 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan laughed at the idea that he would easily give up an answer as to whether Cobb is still in a dream or not. Further than that, he insisted that the definitive answer can't be found anywhere in the movie, despite all the bread crumbs there are to follow.
"There can't be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake," Nolan explained. "It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it's not a mistake … The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn't looking at the top. He's looking at his kids. He's left it behind. That's the emotional significance of the thing."
The Lobster (2015)
The Lobster is a dark comedy from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) that stars Colin Farrell as David, who is taken to a bizarre hotel after his wife dies. If he doesn't find another suitable mate during his 45-day stay, he will literally be turned, like all other Loners, into an animal and turned out into the forest outside the hotel. His brother has become a dog, and David decides he will be a lobster, should his second chance at love not work out.
After a romance with a character known as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) goes terribly wrong, David escapes into the forest where he meets a Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Being short sighted as well, he finds a kinship with her, and they eventually become part of a plot by the other Loners who've escaped to overthrow the hotel staff. When the Loners' leader (Léa Seydoux) discovers that the Short Sighted Woman and David are planning a life together, she blinds her, taking away the only thing they have in common. The two escape anyway, and the film ends with David standing in the bathroom of a diner, holding a steak knife as if to blind himself.
The entire movie is obviously surreal, but the ending to The Lobster has sparked many interpretations. First, there's the question of whether or not David actually goes through with blinding himself. Then, fans have to wonder, what would it mean if he did? Is he finally seeing clearly by taking away his own sight? Is it some treatise about the sacrifices demanded by love? Audiences remain divided.
Lanthimos told The Los Angeles Times when the movie was released that he truly "doesn't know" what it means and frankly, sort of likes it that way. "I think you do this kind of work because you have some questions. And the films that we made we tried to structure in a way that they are very open and people can experience them in different ways according to who they are. I can give you an answer, but that's going to be as valid as someone else's answer," he said. In the same interview, Farrell explained, "Yorgos' creative process is one born of curiosity and doesn't arrive in any place of clear definition. And it's an incredibly meticulous process for him to give birth to so much uncertainty. He's a very meticulous filmmaker."