A story typically has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’re introduced to the characters and setting in the beginning, the central problem picks up in the middle, and the solution is discovered by the end. That is generally how a book, TV show, or movie is made. It follows the guidelines of the three-act structure, which divides the narrative into three parts.
The first act, also known as the opening narration, establishes the main characters and the setting in which they live. Viewers or readers are given background information about the characters’ daily lives and personalities to set up the rest of the story. Toward the end of the first act, the catalyst, also referred to as the inciting incident, is presented to the protagonist.
This is the central conflict that our protagonist or protagonists will spend the rest of the story trying to solve. The second act takes place in the middle of the narrative, and it is where the rising action occurs. The protagonist attempts to find a solution for the problem introduced during the first act, only for the problem to worsen. Usually, this is because the main character does not yet have the skills necessary to come up with a solution yet.
Finally, the third act occurs when the protagonist finds the resolution for the main conflict. The climax happens during this act, where the main tensions are brought to their peak and the central question is answered.
The three-act structure is the standard formula for most movies. An introduction, a main conflict, and the answer to that main conflict are generally how most movies play out. However, not all movies follow this structure. Some filmmakers will alter the order of the structure, or abandon it completely. Some movies never resolve that main conflict, and instead, leave you with more unanswered questions. Therefore, here are nine movies that just end without any resolution:
9 Drive (2011)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 crime thriller Drive follows a skilled stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. Simply referred to as Driver, he presents a stone-faced persona, but he warms up to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio. When Irene’s husband is released from jail, he enlists Driver’s help in a million-dollar heist that ends up going horribly wrong, forcing him to go to extreme lengths to protect Irene and Benicio from the vengeful people behind the botched robbery.
The lack of dialogue from Gosling’s Driver creates an ominous atmosphere that builds as he encounters more dangerous, malicious characters throughout the film. His nighttime identity starts to creep into his life in the daylight and threatens to tear down the boundary he has created between his two lives. His life becomes bloody and violent, and the only thing he ends up caring about is Irene and her son, even though he hardly speaks to them either.
Drive ends with more bloody, fatal violence. The men after Irene and her son are eliminated, although so is Driver’s mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston). One would think that this would mean that Driver, Irene, and Benicio get to be a family, but that’s not how this story ends. The two of them are assumedly safe, but Driver just drives away. We don’t know if they ever see each other again, or if Driver ever gets caught. We don’t know if he continues his getaway driving or if the experience was enough to make him quit for good. Nothing is really explicitly explained, it’s left up to the audience’s interpretation.
8 Funny Games (1997)
Directed by Austrian/German director Michael Haneke, Funny Games is a twisted film that will leave anyone feeling uncomfortable after watching. A family of three is taken hostage in their vacation house by two vicious young men who force the family to play sadistic games with one another for their own enjoyment.
Slasher movies are quite popular in America and have been for close to 50 years now. Haneke attempted to satirize the subgenre of horror by taking the fascination with violence and exposing it in a harsh way. The viewer is forced to watch this poor family be tortured endlessly for seemingly no reason other than the boys can do it. The audience is almost complicit in these heinous crimes because even though they are forced to watch it happen, they also willingly sat down to watch a movie where an innocent family is brutally tortured.
The film breaks the fourth wall frequently, but it reaches a new height at the end. The mother grabs a shotgun and forcefully shoots one of the men in the chest. At that moment, he pauses his TV on Funny Games itself, and effectively removes the shotgun from her reach. Both men then calmly take her on a boat and push her into the water, committing the final murder. As they’re doing this, they talk about seeing a movie. This leaves the audience wondering what actually happened. Did they become part of the audience? Or were they always the audience?
7 We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin explores mental illness, an unhappy family, and the aftermath of tragedy. Once a successful travel writer, Eva (Tilda Swinton) gives up her exciting life to raise a family when she becomes pregnant. She struggles to form an emotional connection with her cruel son Kevin (Ezra Miller) as his tendencies and personality become increasingly alarming. Her husband (John C. Reilly) ignores her concerns and moves them to the suburbs.
Kevin’s antics become increasingly violent as he gets older, only furthering the divide between his parents. His final act of violence is a chaotic school massacre in addition to murdering his father and little sister at home. The film goes back and forth between the past before Kevin committed his final horrible crime and the present where Eva is picking up the pieces of her broken life after the senseless tragedy caused by her son. Once a successful writer with a husband and kids, she is left with no family and no choice but to take whatever job comes her way.
The last scene of the movie shows Eva visiting Kevin on the two-year anniversary of his act of violence right before he is to be transferred to an adult prison. She finally asks him why he did it, and he responds by saying he thought he once knew, but now he’s not so sure. That’s how the movie ends. There is no explanation or sense of closure for the characters or for the audience. Everyone is left wondering why Kevin did what he did, and what exactly was the cause of his childhood of violent tendencies.
6 Climax (2018)
There are not many movies that send you on an experimental trip the way Gaspar Noé’s Climax does. On a winter night in France, dancers gather in an empty school building to rehearse. The all-night party turns into a hallucinatory nightmare when they learn that the sangria is laced with LSD.
The film is a trip from start to finish that makes the viewer feel as though they are hallucinating as well. Before the story even starts, we are shown videos of the dancers interviewing to be part of the dance troupe and the credits happen in the middle of the movie. After the big dance number in the beginning, and they learn about the LSD in the sangria, chaos immediately ensues. They one by one start accusing each other of spiking the sangria which causes a domino effect of violence, sex, and paranoia. As the LSD really settles into everyone’s systems, what was supposed to be a fun evening among friends turns into absolute anarchy that ultimately leads to numerous deaths.
The final scenes of the film show the police arriving the next morning to find multiple dancers dead. Noé does not tell his audience who spiked the sangria but instead leaves just a few clues, such as one dancer having a book about the psychology of LSD and another dancer who is completely sober. You’re left wondering what just happened among these dancers and why.
5 Enemy (2013)
After he made Incendies and Polytechnique, but before he made Sicario and Arrival, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made Enemy. A mild-mannered college professor, Adam, (Jake Gyllenhaal) at the University of Toronto discovers his doppelganger in a movie and interferes with the man’s private life.
Every scene in this film suggests that danger and malicious intent are around every corner. From the yellow-tone coloring to the way Adam moves through life like he’s watching his back to the way the camera moves, everything suggests malice. Adam and the actor who is literally his twin, Anthony, basically switch places because Anthony blackmails Adam into it.
Anthony takes Adam’s girlfriend on a romantic getaway, but she soon realizes it’s not Adam, so she demands they go home. However, they never make it back because they die in a horrible car crash. Adam is home with Anthony’s wife, who knows it is not her husband but goes along with it anyway. The film ends with Adam walking into the bathroom only to find that Anthony’s wife has turned into a giant, hideous spider. Spiders appear a few times during the course of the film, most notably over the city skyline of Toronto, but it’s not clear whether the spiders are a metaphor, a dream, or a combination of both.
4 You Were Never Really Here (2017)
A traumatized veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) with no concerns about violence tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job goes awry, Joe’s nightmares consume him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what could be his death or his awakening in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here.
Joe gets caught up in a government trafficking scheme when he decides to save the life of a teenage girl named Nina, the daughter of State Senator Albert Votto. Joe discovers that he actually sold his daughter to Governor Williams in order to advance his political rankings. Williams runs a brothel, and he happens to take a liking to Nina. When it is discovered that Joe is aware of their criminal activity, Williams goes after Joe’s loved ones, including his mother. Joe still saves Nina, and when they escape, he has a detailed daydream about killing himself right there in the diner, but Nina snaps him out of it, and then they leave. The viewer has no idea where they go from there or what will happen to Nina since her father literally sold her off and Joe has no family himself now. We never know what will become of the other government officials involved in Votto’s and Williams’ criminal activities.
3 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
After his wife’s admission of unfulfilled longing, a Manhattan doctor embarks on an all-night bizarre odyssey throughout the city in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. Dr. William Hartford (Tom Cruise) encounters all different types of people on his night-long journey through a very different side of New York from what he is used to as he searches for his own adulterous experience. It’s a hypnotic journey that leads him to a mansion outside the city where a secret society meets for masked sexual encounters.
The entire movie has a dream-like quality to it, and the Christmas-time setting adds to the dreamy, mysterious feel with the twinkling lights throughout the city. Bill wanders through the city in an almost drunken stupor as he contemplates the fact that his docile wife has desires of her own that differ from his. In the final scene of the film, Alice and Bill take their daughter shopping for Christmas toys. Alice gives Bill a serious speech about being grateful that they have survived their adventures, whether they were real or only a dream, and that no dream is ever just a dream. She then tells Bill that there is something they must immediately do, which is to have sex. There really isn’t a resolution there, and you’re not sure if they have dreamed their fantasies or actually lived them out.
2 First Reformed (2017)
In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a minister of a historic church in upstate New York grapples with feelings of despair and desperation brought on by local tragedy, environmental concerns, and an upsetting past. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) helps local woman Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) work through the suicide of her husband but slowly starts to come undone himself as her husband’s concerns for the fate of the planet eventually become his own concerns.
By the end of the movie, Reverend Toller is convinced that the planet is doomed and there is nothing that can be done to save it. His solution is to blow up not only himself, but the entire congregation of people at his church to celebrate its birthday. His plan doesn’t go accordingly when he notices that Mary, who is pregnant, came back to the church even though he specifically told her not to. She finds him in his apartment with explosives attached to him. They run to each other and share a long kiss, and then the credits roll. There is no indication that Reverend Toller won’t go through with his plan, or if Mary even cared that he was planning to kill himself along with all the church’s members. We have not one hint as to what happens after that.
1 Lost Highway (1997)
David Lynch’s entire filmography could be considered dreamlike. He is a master of creating dreamy, mysterious atmospheres within the world of his films. They make you wonder what is reality and what is fiction. He has a distinctly non-linear approach to filmmaking that it’s almost frustrating. It’s nearly impossible to watch one of his films and not question everything you just witnessed.
Lost Highway follows a tormented jazz musician who finds himself lost in a bewildering story involving murder, home surveillance, gangsters, doppelgängers, and a bizarre transformation inside a jail cell. It is a blend of horror, surrealism, and noir that leaves you utterly puzzled by completely intrigued. It is at times unintelligible and often disturbing. The protagonist is replaced with another protagonist the audience has never seen before who somehow relates to the first protagonist. Despite this, it is impossible to stop watching.
The final moments of the film show the first protagonist, Fred (Bill Pullman), escaping a cabin in the desert after he was just moments ago the other protagonist, Pete (Balthazar Getty). He finds his girlfriend, Renee (Patricia Arquette) who is also another woman named Alice, having sex with Alice’s gangster boyfriend Dick Laurent at the Lost Highway Hotel. Renee/Alice flees, leaving Fred to confront Dick. The final shots show Fred screaming behind the wheel of his car as he speeds down a dark highway with police car in pursuit. If everything about this paragraph confused you, try watching the actual movie.