Content Warning: The following article contains spoilers.Ideally, there shouldn’t be any “rules” when it comes to art, and people should be able to express themselves freely within a chosen medium. However, the reality is that movie-going audiences, particularly Western cultures, have certain expectations when they see a film. One of these is a satisfying or “happy” ending to proceedings.
Of course, to challenge, play with and defy this convention is a way of making your work stand out from others. From some stellar and shocking final-act twists that recontextualize what you’ve just seen in the last two hours to endings that don’t tie everything up in a neat little package, sometimes this subversion of our expectations (and movie rules) can be thrilling and leave its mark on us.
Updated on March 8, 2023 by Hannah Saab:
Recent Oscar-nominated movies like TÁR (October 7) and All Quiet on the Western Front (September 29) continue the exciting trend of leaving audiences shocked, confused, and generally deeply affected by a powerful ending that breaks the rules. Films continue to subvert expectations by giving viewers genuinely unexpected endings that make or break their movies.
1 ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
While he had some success through his early career, one of the defining films from Martin Scorsese is this lurid, blood-soaked look into the world of a pathological loner and Vietnam vet as he struggles to adjust back to civilian life — and in 1970s Manhattan with crime and drugs running rampant, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) begins to question if it was worth coming back to.
For years, the Taxi Driver‘s end has been the topic of debate among film fans. The film’s last scene depicts Travis going into a brothel where he unloads on the patrons and pimps both, manifesting his frustrations in a hail of bullets. After taking a few shots himself, the police arrive only to find him still alive… or is he? Some argue that the entire sequence was a dream cooked up by Travis’ dying mind.
2 ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ (1967)
Despite their status as bank robbers, the duo of Bonnie & Clyde and their legend had become a staple of the storytelling around the American great depression and is an enduring classic. Seen as a sort of modern-day heroic outlaw duo, like Robin Hood and Maid Marion, their public appeal was solidified by this seminal film from the late 60s.
However, the ending shocked audiences as it depicts their last stand against a posse of law enforcement officers, as they’re mercilessly gunned down by multiple men wielding Tommy guns. By today’s standards, it’s not especially gruesome, but for the time, it was one of the most violent scenes ever put to film – and caused its fair share of controversy in the press.
3 ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ (1979)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian caused considerable controversy even before a single frame was projected in theaters. After skewering the Arthurian legend for their first film, the Python boys took on a decidedly more provocative subject for their sophomore effort — the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Well, the story of the bloke who was born next barn over, anyway.
Obviously, any sort of lampooning of a religious figure is problematic, but in the 1970s, Christianity was a lot more practiced in the Western world. When the final scene involved the main character dying a painful death from crucifixion — even going so far as to present him on a hill flanked by two others — it’s pretty easy to see why Christians at the time were offended and demanded the film be pulled from cinemas. This probably wasn’t helped by said character singing a comedy song while facing his mortality.
4 ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Of course, the mileage on this varies depending on which cut of the film we’re discussing, but generally speaking, Blade Runner‘s Director’s Cut is considered definitive by most fans. It is also in this cut where Ridley Scott cuts the ending of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) riding off into the sunset together and adds the unicorn dream, as well as the scene with Edward James Olmos saying “it’s too bad she won’t live…then again who does?”
All of this heavily implies Deckard is a Replicant without expressly stating so. This ambiguity makes Blade Runner‘s ending so controversial, as most audiences expect a film to give them a definitive answer — but we had to wait until 2017’s excellent follow-up, Blade Runner 2049, to get a distinct solution. Even then, some fans are still unsure.
5 ‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)
Set against the backdrop of an intense heatwave, Spike Lee‘s enduring classic, Do the Right Thing, examines the nature of racial tensions in urban centers in the 1980s (although it still holds weight today). It centers around Sal’s Pizzeria and the contentious relationship between the owner and two African-American patrons.
The film boils over to a violent conclusion, where the men break the windows of the Pizzeria and set a fire. While Lee’s message was designed to engender empathy for both sides, critics at the time wrote that they were worried the film would result in real-life riots, to which Lee said that critics never said: “people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”
6 ‘Titanic’ (1997)
Looking back on it now, it’s easy to forget that for 20th Century Fox, Titanic was a massive gamble. A 3-hour romantic epic from the Terminator guy? Where the audience would already know the ending of the film going in? On paper, it’s a wonder that it ended up as much of a success as it did.
Part of that was neatly sidestepping the ending problem by mixing the grand scale of the ship going down itself with the intimate and personal, as Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) struggle to survive. Of course, this leads to the infamous incident that fans still debate, which is whether Jack could have fit on the door – a concept that even got its own Mythbusters episode. Jack dying flew in the face of convention as many expected the couple to have a happy ending, and when that didn’t happen, fans were left disappointed.
7 ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
Talk about a rug pull. After spending nearly two hours with the distinct personalities of the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) and the volatile Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) teaming up in Fight Club, we learn they are one and the same. This completely changes the context of the rest of the film, as we are taken back through the significant events only to discover Tyler was never there.
Fincher’s masterpiece blew people’s minds in 1999 and has stood the test of time as one of the best twists in cinema history. Coupled with the ending of the film where Tyler’s plan of domestic terrorism works — there was no way to stop it — and this is far from a conventional “feel good” Hollywood ending, and the smart inclusion of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” completes the strange portrait.
8 ‘The Mist’ (2007)
One of Frank Darabont‘s less well-regarded Stephen King adaptations, The Mist follows a group of survivors through a dystopic near-future America as they try to outrun the titular weather event. Of course, this is more than mere fog, as the mist brings with it a host of unknown, vicious monsters.
The last scene of The Mist sees four characters cornered by the creatures, including the main character and his son – but only enough bullets for the rest of his party and not him. After performing the heart-rending act of mercy killing the people he’d been with, he goes into the mist to face his fate – only to be greeted by the military sweeping the area and killing the monsters. This is probably the most emotionally draining entry on this list, as the sheer trauma of the act coupled with the next scene shows how unnecessary it was made it a real gut-punch.
9 ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)
Working from American author Cormac McCarthy‘s stellar novel, the Coen brothers — who usually write their own material — were determined to stick as close as possible to the source material. No Country for Old Men remains to this day one of the most faithful book-to-screen adaptations in Hollywood history.
However, this caused a lot of confusion in movie-going audiences when it came time for the ending. As mentioned earlier, audiences have expectations, and in this instance, the showdown between protagonist Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and antagonist/force of nature Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) never comes to pass. Instead, a third party kills Moss off-screen, and Chigurh slinks off to fight another day. This anticlimactic and decidedly uncinematic ending left a lot of audience members dissatisfied.
10 ‘The Grey’ (2012)
Coming at the height of the post-Taken Liam Neeson action hero phase, The Grey advertises itself with a simple concept: what if Neeson was lost in the Arctic and forced to confront a pack of vicious wolves? Audiences responded to the idea, and many went to the cinema expecting a bloody spectacle.
However, after nearly two hours of build-up to the final confrontation, the screen cuts to black just as Neeson is about to clash with the pack’s alpha. Despite director Joe Carnahan claiming that the film’s purpose was to explore Neeson’s character regaining the will to live after his suicidal mindset at the film’s outset, the fact remains this film lured audiences in with a concept and never delivered on it.
11 ‘Once’ (2007)
Director John Carney‘s Once is an underrated rom-com that follows a street musician simply called Guy (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant who sells flowers called Girl (Markéta Irglová). After a sweet meet-cute, the two learn that they are both aspiring singers and agree to collaborate to make their dreams come true.
The build up and the romantic tension is obvious throughout the film, and it’s far too easy to get invested in their endearing love story. This is why viewers are left heartbroken when Girl decides to stay with her husband, and Guy calls up his ex-girlfriend to reconcile. It’s a harsh dose of reality nobody saw coming in an otherwise by-the-book romantic storyline, which makes it especially unforgettable.
12 ‘Enemy’ (2013)
Enemy is an underrated psychological drama directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in dual roles as the college lecturer Adam Bell and the struggling actor Anthony Claire, the film follows Bell’s actions after discovering a movie character who looks exactly like him. As the two men’s worlds collide, some disturbing events begin to simmer right beneath the surface.
In a notoriously abrupt film ending, Adam further adopts aspects of his doppelganger’s life, and informs Anthony’s girlfriend that he’s heading out. When he doesn’t get a response, he peeks inside the bedroom, only to see that she has become a giant tarantula. It’s a mind-boggling conclusion that leaves a lot of questions about Adam and Anthony’s lives unanswered.
13 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
Director Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi classic that needs no introduction. The award-winning masterpiece is centered on a crew’s voyage through space to investigate the appearance of an alien artifact. Along the way, the sentient computer HAL 9000 begins to act in increasingly unsettling ways.
The film’s legendary ending sees the protagonist, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) reaching the mysterious monolith only to enter a neoclassical bedroom where he sees himself (and simultaneously ages) rapidly. In the end, he is transformed into a fetus surrounded by an orb of light, which is seen floating over the earth. A subject of debate and discussion even today, the movie’s perplexing ending has been linked to rebirth, transformation, and even the dangers of technology. It’s among the most iconic film endings in cinematic history from a movie that has gone on to be among the most influential entries in the genre.
14 ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (2022)
Based on the eponymous 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war film set three years into the First World War. Directed by Edward Berger, it primarily follows Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), a young man who enlists in the German Army with his friends.
The harrowing film doesn’t pull any punches when depicting the horrors of war. By the end of it, Paul has lost all of his friends and is the sole survivor from the original group – his closest friend even dies right before the end of the war is declared. Just as he’s almost free to go home thanks to the end of WWI, it’s revealed he’s under an unreasonable general who sends his group out for one last battle. Paul was supposed to survive, but, as the movie emphasizes, every soldier loses in one way or another in any war.
15 ‘TÁR’ (2022)
Written and produced by Todd Field, TÁR is a remarkably unique movie that chronicles the fall of renowned composer-conductor, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett). The fascinating world of classical music is depicted beautifully in the film, which contrasts the setting with Lydia’s dark secrets.
Subtle, elegant, and wholly original, audiences could have never predicted Lydia would fall so spectacularly. Watching the riveting last few minutes is like being along for a ride that viewers didn’t know would end up in the Philippines, where the once beloved figure conducts an orchestra for a video game’s event – something she obviously despises. It’s a divisive ending that reveals a lot about the viewer’s own beliefs on cancel culture and the abuse of power.