Once a film’s over, what’s really going to stick in your head is the ending. Those last moments will be what you and your buddies discuss long after the credits have rolled and is why filmmakers put a lot of stock in those last few scenes. It’d be really easy to make an M. Night Shyamalan joke about now, but kicking a man whose career has had the same trajectory as a skydive without a parachute seems a little too far. Besides, it’s more than just twist endings, which are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Hollywood cinema that I’m on about here. Teases for new movies, be it a sly line of dialogue or a post credit sting also work well, but if you really want to get audiences chatting, leave them uncertain. Nothing’s going to make people recommend a film more than when they’re not even sure if there’s a twist at all. After seeing the film whose ending is succinctly solved in the image above, the ending stumped me for months. I saw the film multiple times in cinemas, each time debating with my fellow cinemagoers over the increasingly high number of nuances we were picking up. Me and my friends would even spend nights out in the real world trying to get to the bottom of what we saw. So without any more forced ambiguity, here’s ten films that people constantly say have confusing, cryptic endings, but actually have pretty simple and obvious solutions. Hopefully you’ll come away with feeling a little more certain about some classic films. Warning – MAJOR SPOILERS for every film featured. Only a handful come from the past few years and most form a key role in popular culture, but better safe than sorry.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Ambiguous Ending: Did Bruce Wayne survive?
The Simple Solution: Of course he did.
Clearly some fans were watching the wrong Nolan film because to think Alfred’s imagining Bruce means you’re throwing out the realism of the previous two and a half hours (five if you count The Dark Knight). At no point in TDKR was anything other than it was shown on screen. In fact, the only moment stylised in any way was Bruce waking up groggy in the prison. But even if you think Alfred is imagining it, there’s plenty more information in that final montage; the disappearance of the pearls, repairing of the autopilot and the new bat signal all point to Bruce being alive. I was initially unsure whether to put this entry in, but there’s enough confusion out there for this clarification to be needed.
The Ambiguous Ending: What the hell happened?
The Simple Solution: The ending spells it out for you.
No, wait. If you think about it for a minute it actually all makes sense. Leonard’s chosen a life of vengeance after forgetting the truth of his wife’s death (he accidently killed her with insulin, something he holds onto with the Sammy Jenkis story). He does eventually find his attacker, after which Teddy starts using his friend’s quest to help him deal with various bad people. This is essentially what we’re seeing in the black and white portion of the film. The colour, backwards part then becomes pretty straightforward (if quite misleading). Due to the groundbreaking concept of the film, people failed to see this and instead thought they were missing something. As with all his later films, every clue you need to solve a Nolan film is right there on the screen.
The Ambiguous Ending: Is Teddy insane or not?
The Simple Solution: The clue’s in the film’s closing message.
The big difference between the film and Dennis Lehane’s book of the same name is the ending. In the novel, Teddy’s madness is a lot more clear cut, but the film’s introduction of the closing line “which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” left many confused. Those involved in production were either tight lipped or as confused as the rest of us. It was only when The Guardian’s David Cox asked James Gilligan, the film’s psychiatric adviser, we got a definitive answer; Teddy has indeed been cured, but can’t deal with his violent past. Gilligan felt the film should draw focus to the amount of lobotomies conducted in the fifties and thus didn’t have the same desire to keep quiet as the rest of the film’s crew.
The Ambiguous Ending: Is Quaid asleep or not?
The Simple Solution: The director’s commentary answers it.
We can’t really use the source as an explanation here, as the Dick short story is equally as ambiguous (although it does have the nice reveal that the protagonist’s purity is in fact the sole reason aliens haven’t invaded Earth). A common argument for the entire thing being a dream is that the plot’s so outlandish it couldn’t be real, but as this is an Schwarzenegger movie it’s not really a viable solution. What is a viable solution is what the director thinks. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven states that he believes everything to be a dream. Of course what the director thinks isn’t always how the work will be regarded (just look at the insane theories about The Shining presented in Room 237), but it’s certainly a good answer to take for this film.
The Ambiguous Ending: Is Cobb awake or not?
The Simple Solution: It doesn’t matter. You still care? Fine, then look at the ring.
It’s something that’s travelled around the Internet for long enough now that it’s no longer a shocking discovery. Cobb’s totem wasn’t the iconic spinning top, rather the presence of his wedding ring; it’s only on his finger in the dream (where he’s not fully let go of Mal), but not when awake. In the final scene we clearly see Cobb definitely not wearing it. It took a long time for this to be discovered and even longer for it enter popular knowledge, hence why the ending is still met with an air of ambiguity.
As we all know, in the end it didn’t matter to Cobb if he was awake or not, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t satisfying knowing the truth.
Inception - Ending