Not all filmmakers like their movies to have simple endings. Some leave their last scenes ambiguous to keep audiences thinking. But sometimes that plan backfires, resulting in endings that are just plain confusing. Beware of spoilers…
Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s film left audiences’ minds spinning as much as the top in the final shot. Just when it looks like the top is about to spin out and tumble, the screen cuts to black. The final shot shows Dom Cobb reuniting with his kids. But we never know if it’s really happening or if it’s a dream. Fans debated the scene endlessly for years after Inception came out…but according to Nolan, the non-ending is actually kind of the whole point.

In 2015, the director gave the commencement speech at Princeton University, and told the grads to “chase their reality.” He used the ending of Inception as an example, saying:

“[Cobb] 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. The camera moves over the spinning top just before it appears to be wobbling, it was cut to black.”

In short, the ending of the movie is up to us—and we’re right either way.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Meanwhile, the ending to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy isn’t as vague as Inception. After flying a nuclear bomb out of Gotham City, Batman escapes the blast…off-screen. We know this, because later, while Alfred is in Florence, he sees his former Master Bruce sitting at a table, enjoying a meal with ex-Catwoman Selina Kyle. Some fans have theorized that this is all a dream—that Batman actually died in the explosion, and that Alfred simply imagined seeing his friend taking in the Italian sunshine.

But that’s bat-baloney. Before the movie’s end, we learn along with Lucius Fox that Bruce Wayne fixed the Bat-plane’s autopilot six months before the final showdown in Gotham. That’s all the exposition necessary for viewers to know that Batman jumped out while the plane flies the bomb toward the bay.

And sure, when Alfred sees Wayne in Florence, it’s exactly how Alfred describes it earlier in the film. But that’s not a dream—it’s just the best way for Wayne to show Alfred he’s alive. Moreover, Selina Kyle is there, wearing Wayne’s mother’s necklace, which she steals at the beginning of the movie. Alfred doesn’t know she and Wayne have become an item, and he’d quit before Batman and Catwoman teamed up to save Gotham City.

Finally, Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale, thinks that he’s alive by the end of the movie. He explained during an interview while promoting Exodus: Gods and Kings:

“He was just content with me being alive and left because that was the life he always wanted for him. I find it very interesting and with most films, I tend to say ‘It’s what the audience thinks it is.’ My personal opinion? No, it was not a dream. That was for real and he was just delighted that finally he had freed himself from the privilege, but ultimately the burden of being Bruce Wayne.”

None of this matters anyway. Batfleck is the wave of the future! But let’s shift our gaze toward the ghost of Batman’s past…

Birdman (2014)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film about a washed-up actor trying to make a comeback on Broadway has the kind of weird ending that puts Inception to shame. Throughout the film, Riggan Thomas is shown as having superpowers, only to have them later be explained as being all in his head. In the final scene, Riggan’s daughter Sam enters his hospital room to find his bed empty and the window open. Sirens and talking can be heard coming from the street below. Initially, Sam looks down, but she slowly turns her head to the sky and she smiles. Some might think this means Riggan actually does have powers, and has flown away.

But…probably not. What really seems to have happened is that Riggan has successfully committed suicide, which he failed to do on the previous day. Sam, for her part, seems to start hallucinating just like her dad. The fact that she has bird tattoos on her arm and that her father played a superhero with bird-based powers suggests the strong connection between the two. Sam seems to leave the real world to enter a fantasy where her father lives, soaring above the clouds. The film is subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” after all. Here, Sam chooses to ignore reality.

One of Birdman’s four screenwriters, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., hinted during an interview with HuffPost Live that the key to their understanding of the ending lies within Sam’s relationship with her father:

“I think when we found the relationship with the daughter, we started to understand what Riggan’s story was. Once she got down, Emma’s big monologue, in the basement, we started to understand the relationship and what it was. We’re not going to sit around and explain the ending. I guess my thing is, if you can silence the voice of mediocrity, then what is possible?”

Barton Fink (1991)

At the end of this Coen Brothers flick, Barton Fink wanders onto a beach, where he meets a woman resembling the picture decorating his sparse, depressing hotel room. Shortly after they meet, the movie ends, potentially leaving some viewers scratching their heads. What’s it mean?

The picture represents the idea of Hollywood. It’s a place of fantasy, beaches, and beautiful women. Meanwhile, throughout the entire film, Fink is subjected to the reality of Hollywood. He’s had his script torn apart by an executive; found out his hero, writer W. P. Mayhew is a washed-up alcoholic, and that Mayhew’s wife writes his novels for him; and has fled from both a burning hotel and a shotgun-wielding maniac.

You’d think that finally finding the woman on the beach would mean that Fink is at the end of his trials, having reached his reward and a place where he feels safe. But in fact, he’s learned the truth about the dangerous world in which he now exists.

Joel Coen explained in a 1991 interview:

“Some people have suggested that the whole second part of the film is nothing but a nightmare. But it was never our intention to, in any literal sense, depict some bad dream, and yet it is true that we were aiming for a logic of the irrational. We wanted the film’s atmosphere to reflect the psychological state of the protagonist.”

No Country For Old Men (2007)

At the end of the Coen Brothers’ blood-soaked, neo-Western, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tells his wife about two dreams he has about his father. In the first dream, he loses some money his father gave him. In the second dream, Bell sees his father holding a torch, riding ahead into the darkness of a snowy mountain pass.

Shortly before Bell tells the stories of the dreams, he tells his wife that his father died young, and in a sense, his father will always be a younger man. More importantly, throughout the movie, Bell ponders the violence in the area where he is sheriff and, since he’s close to retirement, wonders whether he’s too old for the world in which he lives. The title of the movie is No Country For Old Men, and Bell is one of those old men. It’s become too violent too quickly for someone of his age, and he can no longer cope. The world needs someone younger, like his father, to light the way in the ever-growing darkness around it—exactly like the second dream Bell describes.

As for the first dream? Maybe Bell just needs a new wallet.

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Confusing Movie Endings Explained