Wait, did that guy die at the end?
August 1, 2011 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Give me examples from literature, film, and popular culture of stories that end without actually telling us what really happened, leaving us unable to resolve multiple plausible versions of events.

I am looking for examples of books, movies, and other popular culture references wherein the reader/viewer is left at the end with significant questions about what happened because of different versions of the story related to them by different characters. Stories about crimes where it's never made clear who the perpetrator is (or even whether a crime took place), stories where we don't know whether someone is now alive or dead, stories where we get multiple plausible explanations but never find out which one is the right one. I know that a lot of writers do this, including Harold Pinter and many of the magical realists, but I'm looking for well-known examples that would likely be familiar to a wide audience of Americans. Thanks!
posted by decathecting to Media & Arts (65 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Last Year at Marienbad is a well known example in film.

Round here even Ferris Bueller is ambiguous of course.
posted by biffa at 3:49 PM on August 1, 2011

Sorry, jumped the gun, Marienbad not desperately well known to the wider audience, but famous for ambuiguity with the artier crowd.
posted by biffa at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2011

Rashomon is the classic example of this. See also: the Rashomon effect.
posted by brozek at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, a lot of the Mind Screw films are like this.
posted by SMPA at 3:51 PM on August 1, 2011

The Sopranos.
Angel. (although the comics continue after the ambiguous series end, making it no longer ambiguous)
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You also have to consider Alternate Character Interpretation. And, like brozek says, Rashomon Style.
posted by SMPA at 3:54 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

we don't know whether someone is now alive or dead

Easy one. Phillip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.


"Many readers have puzzled over the ending of Ubik, when Glen Runciter finds a Joe Chip coin in his pocket. What does it mean? Is Runciter dead? Are Joe Chip and the others alive? Actually, this is meant to tell you that we can't be sure of anything in the world that we call 'reality.' It is possible that they are all dead and in cold pac or that the half-life world can affect the full-life world. It is also possible that they are all alive and dreaming."
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:55 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Question: Do unresolved cliffhanger endings count? There's no question about which is the "true" narrative up until the ending, but the ending leaves us uncertain what will happen next.

For example, the original Italian Job [SPOILER] ends with the gang in a seemingly impossible-to-escape situation, and we never find out whether they actually escape or not. Would that example work for you?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:55 PM on August 1, 2011

From the TV Tropes link, I'd have to most heartily second Synecdoche, NY and Donnie Darko. I would also add Andrzej Zulawsi's Possession to the mix.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:55 PM on August 1, 2011

Inception seems like this. As it ends, the top seems like its maybe wobbling maybe not. Viewers are left with the question of whether the resolution, or even the whole film, is one of those dreams.
posted by jasper411 at 3:56 PM on August 1, 2011

The Usual Suspects? (It seems pretty clear to me what happened.)
posted by kirkaracha at 3:58 PM on August 1, 2011

Oh, oh, oh, how could I forget?? The Unreliable Narrator!!

(also, The Ending Changes Everything, Or Was It A Dream?, and Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane.)
posted by SMPA at 3:59 PM on August 1, 2011

posted by jozxyqk at 4:00 PM on August 1, 2011

And I'm going to stop now with Riddle for the Ages, which is actually what I was looking for when I started trolling the tropes right after this question was posted.
posted by SMPA at 4:00 PM on August 1, 2011

And Total Recall, while I'm at it.
posted by jozxyqk at 4:01 PM on August 1, 2011

I don't know about popularity in America, but when I saw the film Cache at the Toronto Film Fest, I walked out onto the street and there were multiple gatherings of people arguing with one another about what had happened.

Mulholland Drive might also be a good example and has probably been seen by a number of Americans. Many MeFites had different interpretations of the film when it came out--there were a few threads about it. I posted my thoughts here.
posted by dobbs at 4:02 PM on August 1, 2011

No Country For Old Men, the movie. I haven't read the book so I don't know if the ending is so vague in the book.
posted by dgeiser13 at 4:04 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Total Recall based on P. K. Dick
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:06 PM on August 1, 2011

Lost in Translation.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 4:06 PM on August 1, 2011

Broadcast News
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:17 PM on August 1, 2011

Taste of Cherry
Infinite Jest
posted by Menomena at 4:17 PM on August 1, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles has two opposed endings. The author argues that both are plausible and both are "true". Filmed using story-within-a-story a la Day For Night to reflect both endings.
posted by likeso at 4:18 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Innocents based on a story by Henry James called Turn of The Screw
posted by Menomena at 4:18 PM on August 1, 2011

Lost meets every single one of your criteria.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 4:28 PM on August 1, 2011

If unresolved cliffhangers count, then Limbo might fit your bill. I have never sat in an audience where so many people SCREAMED at the screen as at the end of this film.
posted by xingcat at 4:29 PM on August 1, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle! I just finished reading this and there were so many apparent connections between characters and events that were never explained, although seemingly significant.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 4:29 PM on August 1, 2011

The 19th century short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton is at once an example of this device and a meditation on it.

Many of Jorge Luis Borges' short stories also contain metafictional meditations on what it means to wonder "what really happened" at the end of something that's already putatively invented? So does Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

Much of Philip Roth's oevre does this -- My Life As a Man, the Counterlife, Operation Shylock, etc.
posted by patnasty at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's an unanswered question at the end of Pulp Fiction. I think the director may have answered it in an interview, but at the time, it was unknown.
posted by Ragingmelon at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2011

Lois Lowry's The Giver
posted by cider at 4:32 PM on August 1, 2011

Donnie Darko
posted by TedW at 4:36 PM on August 1, 2011

The book Life of Pi.

Antonioni's Blowup.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:01 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" might fit the bill.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:13 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Shutter Island.
posted by misozaki at 5:27 PM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Stephen King's The Colorado Kid.

Tarkovsky's Solaris might suit you, though I suspect Soderbergh's remake would suit you less.

In documentaries, consider Capturing the Friedmans.
posted by johnofjack at 5:34 PM on August 1, 2011

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens's final, unfinished novel.

Inception, I suppose.
posted by litnerd at 5:44 PM on August 1, 2011

The Wrestler [SPOILER] fits the criteria of a film where it is left ambiguous whether or not the main character lives or dies at the end.
posted by The Gooch at 5:44 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:44 PM on August 1, 2011

The end of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is ambiguous as to whether [spoiler!] Hermione has been squirreled away for 16 years or is a miraculous statue come to life. It's striking that it's the only one of his plays (that I can think of) that ends so inconclusively.
posted by MsMacbeth at 5:48 PM on August 1, 2011

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Merridian
posted by bob bisquick at 5:51 PM on August 1, 2011

Picnic at Hanging Rock
posted by gudrun at 5:55 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The play/film Doubt, which never tells us whether or not the priest is guilty. (Apparently, there is an answer to this question, but it's only shared with the actor playing the priest.)

George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Did a murder happen, or not?
posted by thomas j wise at 5:57 PM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. The ending suggests that those who survived are immune to the virus and their quest for the immunity vaccine has been for naught. Or not.
posted by effluvia at 5:59 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The ending of Pan's Labyrinth leaves the story open to multiple interpretations.

Also, Rashomon (mentioned upthread) is based on Akutagawa's short story In a Grove.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:19 PM on August 1, 2011

Ian McEwan's Atonement
posted by marsha56 at 6:59 PM on August 1, 2011

Every film by François Ozon. (One of my favorite filmmakers.)
posted by desuetude at 7:03 PM on August 1, 2011

Atonement? I think it is actually very clear, but you have to watch until the very end.

Lots of Stephen King stories do this: The Mist and Cell come to mind.
posted by misha at 8:19 PM on August 1, 2011

Rashomon is the classic example of this.

[ambiguous spoiler ahead]

I thought the final witness -- the only one with zero involvement -- gave the "what actually happened" version. Or did I misinterpret this? Still well worth watching, in any case.

Also: Run Lola Run.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:22 PM on August 1, 2011

Also, IMDB's "ambiguous ending" list (although I don't agree with some of them, like The Prestige)
posted by pmurray63 at 9:29 PM on August 1, 2011

Let the Right One In, though I've heard since that the subtitles were botched and it's not as ambiguous without them. I remember talking to my husband after we saw it together and having a total "literal or metaphorical viking" head scratching type disbelief over how he could've interpreted it so differently. The director in interviews has acknowledged the ambiguity (though he also admits to falling personally on the side I was on, not that I'm keeping score or anything...).
posted by ifjuly at 9:47 PM on August 1, 2011

25th Hour (spoilers in Wikipedia page). I've never read the book so I'm not sure if that ends the same.
posted by bietz at 11:37 PM on August 1, 2011

The short play The Shawl by David Mamet.
posted by meadowlark lime at 12:07 AM on August 2, 2011

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Well, it's probably not that well-known a book, but he's well-known enough to have made it onto the Simpsons; that's got to count for something!
posted by monkeymonkey at 12:58 AM on August 2, 2011

Charlotte Bronte's Villette. Although there are certain clues in the text which suggest what really happened, the fate of one of the main characters is still doubtful when the novel finishes.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:22 AM on August 2, 2011

If anyone can explain to me what the hell happens at the end of Infinite Jest (especially the bit with the jar), I would be forever grateful.

Not quite what you're asking for, but the unheard whisper that means everything at the end of Lost in Translation is a lovely example of ambiguity for me.
posted by Mchelly at 4:34 AM on August 2, 2011

You never find out what happened to Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by dfan at 6:44 AM on August 2, 2011

Blood Meridain. Weird, awesome, and puzzling.
posted by shimmer at 6:48 AM on August 2, 2011

Ghost World. The ending could be taken literally (a character is still alive) or metaphorically (a character is now dead)
posted by halseyaa at 6:49 AM on August 2, 2011

Meridian. surry.
posted by shimmer at 6:49 AM on August 2, 2011

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You can't tell if the last scene is a memory from good times or the close future because they decided to try to go for it, again.
posted by like_neon at 8:33 AM on August 2, 2011

Just saw it last night: Barton Fink.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on August 2, 2011

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (starring Clive Owens)
posted by Busoni at 10:58 AM on August 2, 2011

Before the Rain is an excellent, highly original film which with a Möbius strip style structure.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:33 PM on August 2, 2011

Just finished one last night, though I feel like you can guess the end using emotional logic--Anita Brookner's Misalliance.
posted by ifjuly at 6:01 AM on August 3, 2011

Lost Highway by David Lynch

The White Ribbon and Hidden by Michael Haneke
posted by slimepuppy at 5:06 AM on August 5, 2011

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