Ambiguity is a tool used to make audiences think for themselves. Considering how blockbusters can treat audiences like mindless morons, it can be refreshing to see a film designed to inspire intellectualism, as opposed to intellectual apathy. So, let's take a look at some of the very best ambiguous movie endings.
5. Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)
This classic British black comedy is one of the best comedies ever made. With its ridiculous death scenes and wonderful, multiple roles from Alec Guinness, it is as funny and sharp today as it was over half a century ago. This is a seamless film, with a fitting and captivating ending.
The film follows our protagonist, Louis Mazzini, a man wrongfully removed from his rich family due to his mother's marriage to a non-wealthy man. After her death is unrecognized by the D'Ascoyne family, he sets out to avenge her death. The film essentially shows Louis murdering the family in several inventive and ridiculous ways, whether this is shooting a suffragette down from an air balloon with a bow and arrow or exploding a shed, it's consistently hilarious. After he is arrested as a suspect in the murders, he writes a diary telling all about his murders. However, when Mazzini is unexpectedly released, he forgets to retrieve his diary, leaving it in the hands of the law.
This ending, while frustrating due to Louis' stupidity, is a genius way to end a riveting film. Will he merely retrieve the diary, or will he get his comeuppance for his murderous ways? Either way, the amusement lies in the possibilities. This use of ambiguity inspires the imagination and was a suitably bleak end to a dark comedy.
4. Nightcrawler (2014)
Nightcrawler was deservedly praised by critics and audiences alike for its dark and gripping narrative, complex characters and fantastic performances. It's ending perfectly complimented the dreary feel of the film and matched the enigmatic character of our lead, Louis.
Louis is a scavenger, surviving on scraps. When he sees an intense accident he is sucked into the mysterious world of news, in which he must be ruthless and extreme in his actions to compete. As Louis continues to make a name for himself through his uncompromising and brutal coverage, he makes a bold and disturbing decision:
In order to get a game-changing news story, he sacrifices the life of his apprentice, Rick, to add to the sensationalization.
Louis is a fundamentally selfish, evil person who will do anything to further his own gains while disregarding the needs and welfare of others.
Whereas in a conventional film you would expect to see the antihero get his or her comeuppance, this is not the case in Nightcrawler. Louis's dreams come true, as he has his own news team and is supported by a major company. This is rather realistic — never has weakness won anyone a prosperous life. By leaving Louis's future and fate ambiguous, we are never shown any kind of karma.
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick's dystopian controversial classic, A Clockwork Orange, is one of the most harrowing and disturbing movies ever made. Centring on a society that seeks to suppress the free will of rebellious characters, the haunting climax of this film hints at a society free of suppression but high on crime.
The film follows our protagonist, Alex, who embarks on a life of ultra-violence alongside his disloyal droogs. After his arrest following a particularly heinous crime, Alex is betrayed and convicted. After being subjected to a mind-altering experiment in which any images of evil will result in physical repulsion, Alex becomes the victim of society. He is beaten, cast out and used for political gain. Society is forced to reverse the experimentation and to respect the free will of its people.
Posing the same questions as classics like A Brave New World and 1984, it asks whether or not it's better to allow freedom, and therefore allow crime, or to subject people to the will of the state. Whereas the book shows a maturing Alex, the film instead opts for a more Kubrickian ending, in which he ominously grins at the camera and hints at a return to his villainous ways. The ending to the film is more ambiguous than that of the book and is superior due to its haunting and contemplative nature.
2. Whiplash (2014)
This intense tale of an aspiring, uncompromising young musician is one of the most riveting films to come out in recent years. It's an adrenaline-fueled ride from start to finish, and has one of the best ever endings. It knows when to stop, something many films fail to do.
The film follows protagonist Andrew Neiman, a drummer driven to the edge of insanity by his brutal mentor. As he pushes himself further and further in order to succeed, he alienates those he cares about and is pushed to his breaking point. After being forced out of his college — and seemingly losing his dream — he is offered a chance at redemption. However, his mentor effectively ends his career by giving him the wrong music. He is made to look amateurish in front of some of the best musicians in the game. However, what follows is one of the most epic conclusions to a film.
Andrew, instead of abandoning his opportunity, freestyles, and takes over the concert. Instead of leaving disgraced like he was supposed to, he takes his fate into his own hands and displays his incredible talent.
This cathartic ending is one of the most immersive I've ever seen. It's impossible not to get swept up in this moment. It ends when Andrew is done playing, leaving us to ponder what will become of his career. The film ends at just the right moment when it has reached its emotional crescendo. This ambiguous ending is a thrill ride.
1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Yet another film on this list by the king of ambiguity: Kubrick. Ambiguity could rarely be more terrifying than being forced to consider a nuclear holocaust. While a black comedy, Dr. Strangelove poses serious, hair-raising global issues, and is as sharp, cutting and relevant as it was in the 1960s.
The film displays an alternate Cold War in which a crazed American general disobeys orders, seeing nuclear conflict as a means to end the war. Russia also forgets to announce their new nuclear deterrent, missing the point of the word. Kubrick critiques powerful megalomaniacs, hell-bent on power and destruction. His caricatured characters highlight the idiocy of war-centric fools. As the world is on the brink of destruction following this nuclear combat, humanity is teetering on the verge of extinction. With the nuclear problem forever relevant in a world consistently balancing on a knife's edge, Kubrick understands the need for disarmament if we want to live in a calm, safe and sustainable world.
Kubrick ends the film without any resolution. Why would he? If a nuclear weapon was to be used, then the world would be forever changed. We are left to ponder the total destruction such a war would bring about and the total helplessness that would ensue. This is, for me, the greatest anti-war film. While comedic at parts, it's a harrowing tale displaying the need for a change in our priorities.
What were your favorite uses of narrative ambiguity? Let us know in the comments.