Hollywood loves definite endings where good clearly triumphs over evil, or in rare cases such as tragedies, where the hero clearly loses. What Hollywood often avoids are ambiguous endings where the ending is left up to the audience’s imagination.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the ending is fairly clear and tragic. The heroes drive off the edge of the cliff, but the ending is a triumph of a sort because the heroes refuse to let the male-dominated society crush them. Compare this ending to “Terminator 2” or “Avatar” where you clearly see the hero winning in the end.
Ambiguous endings rarely work for action thrillers. Imagine how disappointing “Terminator 2” would have felt if it ended without letting us see the evil Terminator finally defeated. However, ambiguous endings can work in dramas as long as they make us think about a bigger issue while providing a strong emotional feeling at the end.
In “Memento,” the hero is someone trying to kill a man, but he can’t trust his memory so he writes everything down. However, his memory is faulty and as the hero slowly approaches his goal, we slowly learn how unreliable his memory and his notes really are. By the time the hero achieves his goal, we’ve gone from complete rooting for him to doubting whether he’s really doing the right thing or not. This ambiguous ending works because it supports the whole theme of the movie, which is to make us question our own memories.
In “Broken Flowers,” the hero is trying to find an old girlfriend who anonymous wrote a letter, telling him that she had his baby twenty years ago. By the time we get to the end, neither the hero nor the audience knows what’s the truth, but the emotional journey it took us on makes us question our own relationships with others.
In “About Schmidt,” the hero gets to the end of his journey and feels his life has been wasted. The ending doesn’t end with a definite conclusion, but does leave us hope in a sense that still leaves us with an ambiguous ending.
In the original “Halloween,” the ending is ambiguous as well. We initially think the villain is dead, but when we look again, he’s gone and the hero tearfully cries out the theme of the story about the boogeyman. Any time a story has an ambiguous ending, it’s to make us think about its bigger theme.
Look at an action film and there’s often a theme, but an ambiguous ending would leave us unsatisfied. With a drama or even a horror film like “Halloween,” an ambiguous ending works when the story promotes a strong theme from beginning to end and the ambiguous ending makes us think about that theme.
Of course, every story should have a theme to keep it focused, but a story especially needs a strong theme when you have an ambiguous ending because an ambiguous ending makes people think, and you can’t make people think if they’re disappointed because they felt cheated that the movie didn’t end the way they expected.
Ambiguous endings are tricky, but effective when they work. Just be careful using them because Hollywood prefers a clear cut ending instead. Ambiguous endings often appear in low-cost dramas rather than high-budget blockbuster. Would”Iron Man 3″ or “The Avengers” have felt satisfying with an ambiguous ending? No, but a story that focuses more on drama will, so decide if your story’s appeal is about action or about the theme. You need both action and a theme, but you need a strong theme to pull off an ambiguous ending with a satisfying conclusion.