It’s been said that there are only so many stories to be told. Even if that’s true, the best filmmakers can craft and tweak a story to shock, surprise or astound an audience. Sometimes those twists happen at the very end and cause audiences to question everything they’ve seen or assumed. Sometimes, the twists are so unexpected or jarring that they leave viewers puzzled and uncertain, wondering what they really just saw. Here are some explanations for those confusing endings and plot twists. Fair warning: spoilers abound.
Barton Fink is a psychological thriller produced by the Coen brothers. John Turturro played a New York playwright hired to write scripts for a film studio. After everything goes wrong, Fink finds himself in a surreal scene with a beautiful woman on a beach. It’s normal enough — except that the scene is a living version of a painting in Fink’s apartment.
Was Fink dreaming? Not according to Joel Coen. Rather, the increasing weirdness in the film parallels the deterioration of Fink’s mental state. Encountering a real-life version of the painting indicates that Fink’s illusions about the world had finally been shattered.
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood starred in The Wrestler. Rourke plays an aging pro wrestler who keeps wrestling, despite his dwindling glory and fame and his failing health. He’s desperate to cling to the good old days. Rourke won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Tomei won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
The movie ends with a cut to black while Randy Robinson (Rourke) leaps into the wrestling ring. This is meant to suggest that Robinson knows wrestling will kill him — immediately or eventually — but is determined to die doing what he loves most.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange in this 1971 dystopian crime film. The anti-social, delinquent main character, Alex, is played by Malcolm McDowell. He’s an odd antihero, one who’s interested in rape, theft and “ultra-violence.”
Alex is conditioned and brainwashed to be cured of his violent tendencies, but was he actually cured? Alex seems to return to his former ways of ultra-violence. The novel ends more hopefully. Alex started turning his life around in the final chapter. But that final chapter wasn’t published until 15 years after the movie was made.
Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt starred in 2012’s Looper in which the titular Loopers are contract killers hired by bad guys from the future to kill off victims sent back through time. This movie opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012.
Looper ends when hitman Joe kills himself so that his future self can’t accidentally set off a chain of events that will give birth to the baddest bad guy, The Rainmaker. A dead Joe can’t grow up to kill The Rainmaker’s mom in front of him. And if that doesn’t happen, The Rainmaker may not turn bad. That makes sense…right?
Arrival is an adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. The movie stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Adams plays a linguist who needs to find out how to communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth.
Adams’ character develops precognitive abilities while interacting with the extraterrestrials. We thought she was having flashbacks of her daughter’s death; they’re actually glimpses of the future. Her daughter’s father will leave her when he finds out that she knew their future child would die all along. Future Amy is helping present Amy solve the mystery in the past (or is it the present?).
This movie based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name stars Christian Bale as a murderous investment banker — maybe. Is Bale actually just playing a banker fantasizing of being a murderer? Or both? As the film ends, Bale’s character Patrick Bateman confesses his crimes in a voicemail message for his lawyer. What doesn’t happen next is odd.
There’s no manhunt. There’s no arrest. Bateman’s confession is laughed off. Was Bateman an “innocent” engaged in fantasy or hallucination? Or is American Psycho commenting on culture’s insulation of a privileged few against accountability? While the ending isn’t definitive, it heavily implies the violent events took place in Bateman’s head.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Michael Keaton plays faded actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman. Thomson is famous for playing the superhero Birdman and is tormented by its mocking voice. Thomson also visualizes (imagines?) himself levitating and performing telekinesis.
The washed-up actor begins behaving much more erratically and is hospitalized, only to leave the hospital through a window. Did he jump to his death? Or fly? Thomson’s daughter gazes skyward out the window, leaving the audience to believe her father flew away. It’s an oddly hopeful ending given the darkness of the film. But what’s more likely is that Thomson plummeted to his death, and his daughter lost her own grip on reality.
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels. Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient from an asylum — or so it seems. In fact, Daniels is a patient engaged in an elaborate roleplay exercise with the goal of curing his own delusions and criminal insanity.
It seems to work, but not for long. Daniels’ symptoms return — faked or not — when he’s confronted by the horror of his own crime. He had murdered his wife, who had murdered their children. Daniels’ next treatment? A lobotomy that leaves him half brain-dead but unaware of his crimes.
At the end of The Shining, the audience is shown a photograph of the Overlook Hotel’s staff. In that photograph — taken 60 years earlier — appears Jack Torrance. In the 60-year-old picture, the now-dead Torrance seems to be exactly the same age as he was throughout the rest of the film.
Was Jack’s soul transported into the photograph upon his death? Maybe not. In an interview, director Stanley Kubrick said, “The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.” Jack was the reincarnation of a past staff person. This isn’t the only film that Kubrick closes with a twist which may — or may not — be important.
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in the science fiction-action film Edge of Tomorrow. Every time Cruise’s character Cage dies on the battlefield, he wakes up again 24 hours earlier only to repeat the same 24-hour period a la Groundhog Day. After many loops, Cage recruits Emily Blunt’s Rita to help defeat the alien Mimics.
Rita is killed, and Cage loses his reset-and-rewind ability — but kills the Omega Mimic. The Omega Mimic’s blood finds its way into Cage’s wounds. With that, his reset-and-rewind ability returns. Cage resets time again to find Rita, but earlier than usual. Maybe the much-awaited sequel will clarify this someday.
The Matrix Revolutions
The Matrix Revolutions ends when hero Neo is killed by Smith. For reasons that are unclear, this results in the destruction of an evil computer virus. Then, peace emerges. Neo may or may not have survived. How did this work?
Remember algebra class when you had to remove something from one side of an equation if you removed it from the other side? In the matrix, Neo and Smith represent the two sides of the fundamental equation that needs to be balanced out. Removing one allows for the removal of the other. With Neo gone, the machines scanned for and removed all traces of Smith.
Interstellar is a classic black holes-and-time travel puzzle. Long story short: Astronauts looking for a new home for humanity have two choices. They make the wrong one. But is this the end of humanity? No.
Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper manages to communicate with his daughter Murphy on Earth, using a giant tesseract that may have been constructed by future humans. Cooper sees Murphy and uses Morse code on an old wristwatch he’d given her to send quantum data. Murphy uses the data to solve a propulsion problem so that the astronauts can make the right choice, and so humanity can escape Earth and survive.
Life of Pi
Life of Pi is a fantastical tale of a shipwreck leaving Pi Patel in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Until the end, when everything changes and a wholly new version of the story emerges. The alternative? The animals were a sailor, a cook and Pi’s mother. This version ends with Pi killing and eating the cook. Pi tells both stories to investigators who are looking into the shipwreck.
But which is true? It’s up to you. The more important question is the one presented by the investigators from Japan: Which story would you prefer to believe? Because the choice is yours.
Is there an explanation for Mulholland Drive’s ending that makes sense? Director David Lynch insists there is. That explanation may lie in just what the story is (amongst what it appears to be). Here’s one explanation.
Mulholland Drive is about actress Diane arranging to have her girlfriend killed. Everything else is a fantasy Diane created to make herself and her circumstances seem much better than they really were. As is so often the case with fantasies, Diane can’t sustain hers. By the end, guilt drives her to suicide.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with Astronaut Bowman aging rapidly and becoming an old man at a Jupiter “zoo.” At the foot of his bed in an otherworldly bedroom stands the monolith with which the movie began. Bowman is transformed by the monolith into an interplanetary fetus.
Humanity evolved from apes to interstellar travelers. Bowman’s arrival at the monolith in Jupiter marks his transcendence and humanity’s evolution. With it, he is transformed into a new kind of life. Kubrick put it this way: “[Bowman] is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman…”
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Synthetic human replicants that were bioengineered to work on colonies on other planets escaped to Earth, where they were hunted down by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
The key to understanding the ending of Blade Runner? Deckard is potentially a replicant. The clue comes in the final moments of the movie when Deckard and Rachael run away, knocking over an origami unicorn. Eduardo Gaff left the unicorn there. Gaff likely could only know its significance to Deckard if he had seen dreams that had been implanted into cyborg Deckard’s memory.
No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men ends with Tommy Lee Jones’ Tom Bell recounting two dreams. First, Bell loses money that his father had given to him. Second, an old Bell is walking with his much younger father, who lights a fire.
They represent themes through the whole movie. Money’s unimportance to Bell meant he could survive things that greedier folks couldn’t. Bell feels guilty for his inability to hold back the violence. As for the fire? It symbolizes that old men like Bell are out of their depth; the young must light the fires to push back the dark. Hence, the title.
What many people consider to be the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane ends with a single word that has caused much puzzlement: “Rosebud.” Why would publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane utter “rosebud” as he lay dying? Reporter Jerry Thompson never found out.
The answer is in the very last scene as Kane’s belongings are being sorted. One of them is Kane’s own childhood sled, named “Rosebud.” For all his moguldom, Kane died treasuring a childhood memory and, with it, some regret. Like Thompson said, you can’t sum up an entire life with just one word.
Sci-fi psychological thriller Donnie Darko starred Jake Gyllenhall. Categorizing and summarizing Donnie Darko — a trip from beginning to end — isn’t easy as Donnie tries to explain his visions of doomsday. Director Richard Kelly dropped a few more pieces of the puzzle when he released the director’s cut of Donnie Darko.
Prophetic rabbits aside, Donnie Darko is a big player in the time travel-loop genre. In the film, future humans who are unseen in the present left a time loop open. It had to be closed to preserve the time-space continuum. But closing it meant erasing the film’s events from history.
Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes ends with Leo Davidson back on Earth at the appropriate moment in history. It may be the right time, but everything else is out of whack. At the very end, we see the simian warlord General Thade sitting in Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. What happened?
It’s easily chalked up to a tainted timeline, but that begs the question of how General Thade managed to taint the timeline and get the apes in power on Earth without a spacecraft. Maybe the answer will appear in a future sequel.
Travis Bickle, the cabbie in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, goes on a shooting rampage. His goal? To rescue Iris from her pimp. It makes Bickle something of a complicated hero. Later, Bickle and his beloved Betsy reconcile, and Bickle drives off in his cab.
As Robert De Niro’s Bickle drives off, he takes a glance in the rear-view mirror at the sound of a clashing cymbal, played in reverse. It’s not, according to Scorsese, Bickle dreaming or hallucinating. Rather, Bickle’s jumpiness and the thrashing cymbal suggest Bickle may be en route to another bloody spree.
Was “dream-heist-caper” a genre before Christopher Nolan’s Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Remember this: A spinning top means Cobb is in a dream. By the end of the movie, Cobb is exonerated of murder charges and happily reunited with his children.
But as the film goes dark, the top keeps spinning. Did Cobb just dream of his happy ending? There are clues that the happy ending was real. But Nolan himself has suggested it doesn’t matter: “[Cobb] was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: Perhaps all levels of reality are valid.”
Post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, directed by Susanne Bier, was based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name. Sandra Bullock’s character is determined to protect herself and her two kids from whatever it is — supernatural entities? — that are driving people insane when those people look at them. And those people are driven insane to the point of committing suicide.
Bullock and her children finally reach sanctuary — a school for the blind. Blind people who couldn’t see the evil supernatural entities couldn’t be driven to insanity or suicide. The scene is symbolic of weakness turned to strength, and of the blind faith that drove Bullock’s Mallory to save her children entirely blindfolded.
The psychological horror movie mother! starred Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. But is it just about a mysterious couple disrupting a young woman’s quiet country life? The film was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, so that’s one big clue that nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
What should we make of the burning house at the end? In an interview with Variety, Aronofsky offered some insight. Javier Bardem plays God. Jennifer Lawrence is Nature. The house is Earth. Nature (Lawrence) is tortured and used, as we have abused nature and our planet. The fire is the apocalypse that results.
The premise of Christopher Nolan’s debut film Memento is itself a twist. Memento works in reverse. Leonard’s attempts to figure out who Sammy Jankis is pushes us back in time. Leonard is determined to discover the identity of Jankis because Jankis murdered his wife by forcing her into an insulin overdose.
The explanation here? Leonard is Sammy Jankis, meaning Leonard killed his own wife. The mystery is a construct built out of guilt. Every time Leonard solves the mystery of his wife’s murder — by discovering that he was her killer — he loses his memory. Then, in another Groundhog Day-like twist, he begins the quest again.
The Dark Knight Rises
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, hero Bruce Wayne attempts to save Gotham from the destruction of a nuclear blast. He does this by getting the bomb on a plane and crashing it into the ocean. Gotham is plunged into mourning.
At the end of the film, Alfred goes to Venice and finds Bruce Wayne sitting with Selina (Catwoman). Surprise! Bruce Wayne wasn’t in the plane. He wasn’t killed. Alfred wasn’t dreaming! Selina is wearing a necklace belonging to Mrs. Wayne.
Ah, another Darren Aronofsky offering. Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina and Mila Kunis as Lily. Nina, playing the innocent White Swan and sensual Black Swan in “Swan Lake,” is overwhelmed with the pressure of competing with Lily.
As the film ends, Nina falls while performing and then changes for the next act. She sees Lily, ready to replace her. Nina and Lily get into a fight that ends in Lily’s death. Nina stabs Lily before hiding her body. Nina completes the second act, then finds Lily alive in her dressing room. Nina hadn’t stabbed Lily, but herself, and had been hallucinating.
Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam war veteran in 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder. Robbins’ character, Jacob Singer, experiences visions and hallucinations attributed to the military’s use of psychedelic drugs to make killing machines out of soldiers. The visions are horrific and disturbing, but then they begin to shift. As the film goes on, they become more peaceful.
The explanation is provided by Singer’s chiropractor, Louis. When we resist death, devils tear our lives away. Once we’ve “made our peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.” Jacob had made his peace.
There are echoes of Memento here. In The Machinist, Christian Bale plays an insomniac machinist whose lack of sleep and psychological problems cause a workplace accident. Bale’s Trevor is fired before descending into paranoia. In his paranoia, Trevor believes he is being persecuted by a man named Ivan, whom no one has ever seen — or so they think.
Trevor is Ivan. Or, at least, Ivan is a version of Trevor when Trevor was well and happy. Trevor created Ivan out of his guilt over a hit-and-run accident in which a child was killed.
The Australian film The Babadook, released in 2014, is the tale of a mother (Amelia) and child (Samuel) haunted by a supernatural monster. So far, so ordinary. In The Babadook, though, the monster leapt from the pages of a children’s book.
Samuel banished the monster that plagued his mother, Amelia. It seems that it was banished into the basement, but what else was down there? Amelia’s memories of her dead husband. As the movie ends, Amelia is seen taking a bowl of worms into the basement so she can feed the monster. Amelia had nurtured that monster — her pent-up grief — all along.