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Ten Movies That Make You Think

Do you love brain-teasing films that leave plot details open-ended and task viewers with figuring things out? Today, we're looking at ten of the most mind-bending ambiguous endings in film history.
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If you’re a fan of brain-teasing films that leave things open to interpretation, you might be looking for more mind-bending movies that leave some questions unanswered. While some people prefer straightforward answers and linear narratives, others enjoy the more realistic viewpoint that reality is hard to objectively quantify, and the truth often lies between competing explanations.

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Today, we’re looking at ten masterful movies from numerous genres that all share one narrative thread: they all ask the viewer to figure things out. Each of these films handles deep themes revolving around the human condition, and all tease out some fundamental truth about society. 

Have you seen all of these thought-provoking movies? If you have, did your theories about their ambiguous endings match the critical consensus, or do you have a unique take on their open-ended conclusions? Let’s dive in and check out ten movies that make viewers figure it out.

Total Recall

The 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger-led Total Recall is a movie about memories. Like many great sci-fi films of the 20th Century, it’s based on a Philip K. Dick short story–in this case, Dick’s excellent 1966 yarn We Can Remember it for You Wholesale. In the world of Total Recall, neuroscience has advanced to the point where scientists can implant memories in a patient’s mind, allowing them to remember events that never happened.

The film questions human perception and reality. After all, if you can’t trust your own senses and memories, what can you trust? Who’s to say what’s real when you can remember lifetimes that were created by a computer program? 

In the film, viewers are left to wonder whether Douglas Quaid is really a secret agent on a mission to stop the tyrannical Vilos Cohaagen, or if he’s just experiencing another implanted memory. In the end, the film even questions whether the distinction between “real” and “imaginary” matters if the two are indistinguishable.

American Psycho

Is Patrick Bateman really a psychopathic killer on a crime spree through New York City, or is he just a stressed-out worker who imagined it all? The 2000 horror film American Psycho sets up Christian Bale’s eccentric investment banker character, Bateman, as an unreliable narrator early in the runtime, focusing on his neurotic obsession with business cards and his professional appearance.

The narrative takes bizarre twists, with Bateman seeing cryptic messages in ATM displays and going on unbelievable killing sprees without arousing suspicion from the police. Characters question his confessions of murders, saying the people he claims to have killed are alive and well. 

Bateman doubts himself, wondering if he’s imagined all of his crimes or if he’s somehow managed to cover them all up without arousing suspicion from the police. Either way, he never gets the punishment he thinks he deserves. 

Birdman

Birdman is a bizarre movie that follows aging star Riggan Thomson, played by an inimitable Michael Keaton. Thomson portrayed a superhero named Birdman in the 1990s, but his fame has faded since then. He is haunted by an inner voice that he sees as the fictional superhero he once portrayed on the big screen, which taunts him over his aspirations to direct and star in a stage adaptation of a short story.

The film plays with perspective and reality in interesting ways. Riggan seems to believe that he possesses real superpowers, including the powers of flight and telekinesis. However, he holds serious angst regarding these powers and views drawing upon them as tantamount to selling out as an actor. After all, Riggan figures, he needs to leave Birdman behind to grow as a “serious” actor.

The film’s ambiguous ending leaves it open to interpretation. Riggan apparently survives a suicide attempt on stage during the opening of his play, only to wake up in a hospital bed and leap from the window. When his daughter Sam looks out the window after him, she scans the ground, then looks up, and smiles. 

Rashomon

Rashomon is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, one of the finest works of director Akira Kurasawa. The movie explores themes regarding memory, bias, perspective, and truth. Its narrative involves multiple characters describing their recollections of witnessing a samurai they saw murdered in a forest.

Each of the speakers offers a different version of events, and Kurasawa’s direction sees each tale presented in a different manner on-screen. The bandit accused of the murder, the wife of the slain samurai, and the samurai himself (through a psychic medium) all present their tales of the crime. Finally, a woodcutter who witnessed the event explains his (supposedly unbiased) version of events.

The film leaves the interpretation of events up to the audience. Who do you believe? Which of the characters was telling the truth? Or, were they all altering the facts to cover for their personal failings?

Ex Machina

Ex Machina, a 2014 science fiction film, explores themes regarding what it means to be human and how artificial intelligence would interact with human morality. The film is centered around the android, Ava, and a human scientist named Caleb who is brought in to test her capabilities.

Caleb becomes attracted to Ava despite her robotic body and begins crafting a plan to help her escape the facility she’s confined within. Caleb tricks Ava’s inventor, Nathan, and reprograms the facility to open the doors during a power outage. 

When Nathan confronts Caleb over this betrayal, he notes that the real test for Ava was to see if she was intelligent enough to outsmart a human and manipulate them into helping her escape. The final shot sees Ava locking Caleb in a room and leaving the facility behind as he begs her to let him out.

Blade Runner

One question has bothered Blade Runner fans for forty years. Is the protagonist, Deckard, a human being, or is he a replicant? This seemingly simple question has been teased and toyed with throughout the film’s various director’s cuts and special edition rereleases, though director Ridley Scott has remained adamant that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant. Some fans disagree, arguing the movie doesn’t present a compelling case for the director’s assertion.

Blade Runner is also based on a Philip K. Dick story–this time, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a neo-noir film that follows Rick Deckard, a “Blade Runner” who hunts down rogue androids and deactivates them.

The movie questions whether artificial life forms should be treated with the same respect as humans if they possess sufficient intellect. In the end, the replicant characters are the only ones who show true humanity–unless, of course, Deckard is just a human who pursues his job with the intensity of a machine. 

The Thing

Which of the survivors at the end of The Thing is human, and which is the shape-shifting monster? The 1982 horror classic ends on a chilling and bleak cliffhanger, with survivors MacReady and Childs eyeing one another suspiciously. After all, neither of them has any way to know the other isn’t the monster.

The film is a horror masterpiece, delving into themes of paranoia and the erosion of trust in a small community. When monsters look just like us, how can you know who to trust? The film’s bleak ending underscores the nihilistic conclusion: you can never know.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s jaw-dropping 2001: A Space Odyssey takes viewers on a journey through space and time. By the end of its narrative, protagonist Dr. David Bowman has discovered another monolith, identical to the one that taught early hominids to use primitive tools in the film’s opening sequence.

Bowman is transformed into a post-human identified as the Star Child, an obscure process that supposedly escalates him to a higher form of consciousness. The film leaves many questions unanswered, though: what are the monoliths? Is the Star Child the next phase of human evolution, or will it destroy humanity? 

Reviewers have alternatively described 2001 as an optimistic view of the future of space exploration, or as an apocalyptic vision of the limits of our short life spans. 

No Country for Old Men

The soul-crushing nihilism of the Coen Brothers’ 2007 opus No Country for Old Men threatens to overtake and drown the proceedings. In its penultimate scene, notorious assassin Anton Chigurh finds Carla Jean Moss, his former nemesis’s wife. He tells her to call the result of a coin flip, echoing an earlier scene in which he spared a gas station attendant’s life for calling it correctly. 

Carla Jean refuses to play this brutal game with Chigurh, forcing him to own his decisions. The two characters represent diametrically opposed views regarding god and fate, and the scene ambiguously leaves viewers with the image of Chigurh checking the bottom of his shoes for blood.

While it’s easy to surmise that the unhinged hitman has taken Carla Jean’s life, the film’s refusal to show the violence speaks volumes. It’s especially jarring after the movie spends most of its runtime expounding on Chigurh’s astonishing lethality–why would it suddenly cut away from the violence now?

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s visionary action film Inception is renowned for its mind-bending cinematography and unusual story about a heist that takes place in a dream, aided by technology that can allow groups to share dreams. Throughout the journey, the protagonist, Cobb (Leo DiCaprio), is haunted by visions of his late wife, Mal.

Cobb reveals that he and Mal once spent fifty years together in a single night due to the dream-sharing device’s time dilation. While Cobb insists on waking from the dream, Mal refuses. Cobb dives into her subconscious and performs an “inception,” planting an idea that she should awaken from the dream.

While awake in reality, Mal believes that she’s still dreaming. She takes her own life in an attempt to “wake up,” and Cobb is overcome with guilt. In the film’s final moments, he’s made peace with her death and spins her top on a table as his children play outside. The top will spin indefinitely in a dream, but Cobb doesn’t stop to observe it. The camera cuts away just as it begins to wobble.