For most major pictures, a clear and defined finale to a film is the status quo. However, certain film directors are determined to leave their movies open to interpretation and deliberation or make their audience work out the ending on their own.
Below are 11 explanations for film endings that have confused fans for years, from “Donnie Darko” to “Bladerunner.” Warning: there are major spoilers ahead.
1. “Donnie Darko” confused most viewers from beginning to end.
“Donnie Darko” (2001) is a science-fiction thriller in which Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is haunted by visions of a man in a rabbit suit who convinces him to commit violent crimes. Oddly enough, it’s also a time travel movie. This film has bewildered viewers since its premiere, especially with its ending.
Essentially, almost the entirety of the film takes place in an alternate universe that was accidentally created when Donnie survives a plane engine crashing into his house. In the end, in order to prevent the main timeline from being destroyed, Donnie knowingly stays in his bedroom as a plane engine falls to prevent a paradox. It can be argued that everything outside of the alternate timeline is part of Donnie’s psychosis.
To NME, director Richard Kelly shrugged off questions about whether Donnie had been dead all along and if everything was a hallucination. “I don’t have an answer to that question,” said Kelly. “I think the film argues that life and death can perhaps coexist, that time is not necessarily a purely linear thing.”
2. “Inception” divided audiences with a subjective ending.
“Inception” (2010) is a science-fiction heist film in which Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his team attempt to plant ideas in the head of a target by invading his dreams. In the beginning, the idea of a totem is introduced, which allows the characters to know whether they’re dreaming or not.
Cobb’s totem is a spinning top that never falls as long as he’s dreaming. At the end of the film, Cobb has successfully pulled off the job and is reunited with his family while his totem spins in the foreground. It teeters slightly, but before it can fall the film cuts to the end credits. Audiences have argued whether Cobb was still dreaming or not by the end of the film.
Director Christopher Nolan told The Guardian that he personally doesn’t feel as though it truly matters one way or the other: “The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality. “He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid.”
However, when pressed by actor Michael Caine for clarification while filming, Nolan let Caine know a helpful clue for separating reality from dreams. In an interview with TIME Caine revealed their off-screen conversation.
“When I got the script of Inception, I was a bit puzzled by it,” Caine said. “And [Nolan] said, ‘Well, when you’re in the scene, it’s reality.’ So get that – if I’m in it, it’s reality. If I’m not in it, it’s a dream.”
Because Caine’s character is featured in the final scene, we can say definitively that Cobb is awake and happily reunited with his children.
3. “Looper” ended with questions left unanswered.
Before Rian Johnson directed “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he made a smaller science-fiction drama titled “Looper” (2012) which centered on a hit man sent from the future to kill criminals in the past. At one point Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learns that his employers are sending his future self (Bruce Willis) back to be killed at his own hand.
After a struggle, Joe and Old Joe end up tangled up with Sarah (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon) who himself will grow up to be a criminal. Just as Old Joe attempts to kill Sarah, Joe shoots himself, effectively committing suicide while also killing his future self. However, Sarah still remembers Old Joe, and the bullet wound he inflicted on her son.
Johnson told HuffPost how he crafted the ending: “She would remember him because she had experienced him to up to the point where he turned the gun and shot himself. And whether you think of it as in that moment, where he shot himself, an alternate timeline was created that we now switch to – that, to me, is largely just semantics… What’s important is what the experience of these people are in the events that happened in the movie. And that, you have to experience in a linear fashion.”
4. “Taxi Driver” needed clarification from its creators.
In “Taxi Driver” (1976) Robert De Niro plays Travis, a mentally unstable taxi driver and ex-Marine who allows his anger to boil up to a violent rage as he roams the streets picking up strangers. Through a series of events, Travis becomes determined to save Iris, a 12-year-old girl who is trapped in a life of prostitution.
At the end of the film, Travis goes on a rampage and murders three gangsters involved in prostitution in a sequence filled with blood and terror. Injured, he slips into a coma and wakes up as a hero. The city praises him as a liberator of child prostitution, instead of the mentally unstable man the viewer knows him to be.
Because of his untrustworthy position as the protagonist, many argued over whether the ending was real or just a delusion that Travis’ mind had formed. Director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader intended for the ending to be received as real and wanted to clear things up by placing a disclaimer in front of the version that later aired on television. The disclaimer stated: “In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. Taxi Driver suggests that tragic errors can be made.”
5. “American Psycho” made viewers question what was real.
Christian Bale starred in “American Psycho” (2000) as Patrick Bateman, a New York investment banker who hides a murderous alter ego. After killing many characters on-screen and becoming more and more unhinged, Bateman is told by his lawyer that one of his victims Paul Allen (Jared Leto) is still very much alive.
At this point the audience begins to re-examine everything that happened in the film. Bateman clearly has psychotic thoughts, but is he really a murderer? Or has every scene been a fantasy?
Many viewers have different theories as to whether he never killed or only killed a few, but writer and director Mary Harron told Charlie Rose in an interview that most of the scenes are actually suppose to have transpired.
“All I wanted was to be ambiguous in the way that the book was,” said Harron. “I think it’s a failure of mine in the final scene because I just got the emphasis wrong. I should have left it more open-ended. It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.”
6. “Birdman” was meant to be surreal.
In “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014) Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a washed-up actor who tries to reignite his acting career by starring in a Broadway production. In addition to hints that Riggan is not entirely tapped into reality, the movie itself is filmed in a surrealistic way, from long, artful scenes filmed in a single take to footpath drummers following along to the film’s score.
Like “American Psycho” and “Taxi Driver,” the audience is given an unreliable narrator and can never be sure what is real and what’s not. At the end of the film, Riggan shoots himself onstage and miraculously survives. In the hospital room, he jumps from his window and flies away as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) looks after him in wonder.
It can be argued that Keaton never survived the bullet onstage and that everything beyond that scene isn’t reality. Perhaps he makes it to the hospital but jumps from the window to his death, with his final thought of Sam believing in him and his extraordinary abilities. Maybe Sam is just as unbalanced as he is, and makes herself believe that he truly flew away.
Director Alejandro Inarritu never explained the ending, leaving it up to audience interpretation. But he did emphasise to Indiewire that the film itself is a reflection on fantasy, reality, and the blending of the two. When talking about crafting theatrical performances in the film, Inarritu said, “We were rehearsing a scene that was about rehearsing a scene that will be presented in a live performance. When we were shooting that, we were mirroring the mirror of the reality of reality. There was a labyrinthine nature that we all enjoyed.”
7. “Shutter Island” has a twisty climax.
Leonardo Dicaprio is featured on this list again for his leading role in the mysterious drama “Shutter Island” (2010). Set in 1954, Dicaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal who attempts to solve the disappearance of a murderer that has escaped from an island’s mental hospital. In the final act of the film, Teddy discovers that he himself is a mental patient on Shutter Island, and his real name is Andrew Laeddis. His physician Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) played his fictional case partner “Chuck” while trying to help him understand the reality of his past.
It is revealed that Laeddis himself was the murderer all along and that he killed his wife and three children. Unable to cope with the truth, Laeddis created an alter ego in Teddy Daniels, so that he would not have to accept the crimes he committed.
Upon his doctor’s revelation, it seems as though Laeddis has accepted reality, but the next day he acts as though he’s Teddy again. Sheehan has him prepped for lobotomy surgery, marking him down as a lost cause. Right before his whisked away, Laeddis turns back to ask his doctor: “Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
It is left to interpretation whether the question was asked by Teddy or a mentally stable Laeddis who welcomes a release from his nightmarish crimes.
8. “Edge of Tomorrow” might take a second watch to understand.
“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) is a science-fiction action film starring Tom Cruise (as Cage) and Emily Blunt (as Rita). Amidst a chaotic war against alien creatures (Mimics), Cage dies on the battlefield and wakes to repeat the same 24 hours. Over, and over, and over again.
After living the same day countless times, Cage recruits Rita to help him defeat the aliens by convincing her that he’s been stuck in a time loop. The blood of the Mimics allows them to time travel up to 24 hours before their deaths, with the knowledge of what led to their defeat. This blood has aided Cage in finding the head of the Mimic force, and together he and Rita attempt to kill it off once and for all.
At the end of the movie, Rita dies and Cage has lost his ability to reset time, but he still manages to kill the brain of the alien force, the Omega Mimic. Once it, and the connected Mimics, are killed its blood seeps into Cage’s wounds and he regains the ability to reset time. With the aliens defeated Cage finds Rita once more.
In the inevitable sequel to “Edge of Tomorrow,” the screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie has promised that the ending for the first movie will be more clearly explained. However, the sequel has been held in production limbo for several years, while Blunt and Cruise work on respective projects.
9. “Life of Pi” stayed true to its source material.
Based on the novel by Yann Martel “Life of Pi” (2012) follows young Pi as he survives a shipwreck from a cargo ship that was transporting his family and their zoo animals across the ocean. Pi finds a lifeboat crowded with a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The animals quickly kill each other, and Pi is left with Richard Parker as he trains him to co-exist with him on the boat.
After months of starvation at sea, Pi finds an island filled with vegetation, meerkats, and carnivorous algae. He and Richard Parker set sail once more and make their way to the Mexican coastline, where Pi collapses on the beach and Richard Parker disappears into the jungle.
Found by Japanese officials, Pi recounts his story to their disbelief. He decides to tell an alternate version of his story. A ship cook (hyena) killed a wounded sailor (zebra) before killing Pi’s mother (orangutan). Traumatized, Pi then killed the cook in revenge. Pi was the tiger all along.
Pi, as the protagonist, offers these two stories to the audience and leaves it to our interpretation. Is the human story true, and so painful, that he had to make up the animal one? Or was the animal story too fantastical for the adults to believe? The author Martel, and the director Ang Lee, both wanted viewers to decide the truth on their own.
10. “The Shining” ending still sends chills down viewers’ spines.
“The Shining” (1980) stands as one of the most iconic horror films of all time, with blood-filled elevators, scary twins, and Jack Nicholson tearing a door down with an axe. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a mild-mannered man who uproots his family and takes them to a hotel for the winter.
While their song is plagued with horrific visions, Jack slowly warps into an angrier, more violent version of himself as he’s overcome by an evil spirit. In the end, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny escape from the hotel as Jack is left to die, freezing in the snow. The film ends with a close-up on a photograph taken in the Overlook hotel on July 4, 1921, where Jack Torrance is shown front and center, grinning ear to ear.
Director Stanley Kubrick explained the ending in an interview with Michel Ciment and stated: “I hope the audience has had a good fright, has believed the film while they were watching it, and retains some sense of it. The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.”
11. The “Blade Runner” ending caused division behind the scenes.
“Blade Runner” (1982) has been a cult hit with science-fiction fans for years. Starring Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, the film revolves around a man who tracks down replicants in pursuit of their creator.
In a neo-noir stylization, the movie often feels like a detective story set in the future, as Deckard closes in on the replicants. At the end of the movie Deckard finds an origami unicorn in his apartment, left there by one of the replicants. The figure harkens back to a dream Deckard had at the beginning of the film of a unicorn running through a forest. Deckard knows that replicants have implanted memories and the origami figure indicates that someone placed his dream there artificially.
Despite this moment in the film, Harrison Ford has maintained for years that Deckard is a human being while director Ridley Scott insists that he is an android. The Telegraph highlighted a BBC interview Ford did in 2001 in which he spoke out about their division: “That was the main area of contention between Ridley and myself at the time. I thought the audience deserved one human being on the screen that they could establish an emotional relationship with. I thought I had won Ridley’s agreement to that, but… I think he really wanted to have it both ways.”
In addition to Ford and Scott’s argument, there is also the fact that the film has seven versions of final cuts in existence. In the end, it seems as though the real meaning to “Blade Runner” is up to viewer preference.
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