The British hidden gem Hippopotamus from writer/director Edward A. Palmer is a tense thrill-ride of psychological thrills and perfectly placed bread crumbs that will leave you with a head full of questions. For fans of movies like the sublime Memento, Hippopotamus is a brilliant take on unreliable witnesses and misperceptions. You can never entirely trust what you see.
Ruby, a young woman, has been locked inside a room with only a mattress, a chair, a sink and toilet, and a few drawings. Her captor Thomas claims he wants to heal her. She has bandages on both of her knees and head, and Ruby is repeatedly told that she was injured and should not attempt to escape or even stand up. Through a series of fuzzy memories and strange encounters with Thomas, Ruby, and the viewer realize nothing is as it seems. It all leads to a confusing ending that is even more complex than it seems. Here’s everything you should know about that ambiguous ending and all the hints along the way.
The story is not told linearly.
The first thing to realize about Hippopotamus is it is as chaotic as Ruby’s mind. One of the most confusing things about Hippopotamus is the baffling timeline we are presented with. Ruby and Thomas both exhibit behaviors and appearances that change inexplicably from one scene to the next. Thomas has congestion present at the first of the film but is quickly forgotten and never explained. It would be easy to assume he just got better. After a more in-depth examination, coupled with a complete detailing of the timeline, the picture becomes more apparent. Thomas’s ending scene in scrubs and Ruby confined in the same room fashioned as a hospital after her failed escape is just one of many attempts. Many of the events we see between Thomas and Ruby, including their dinners, her art drawing, and their sexual encounter, came months if not years before the escape at the end.
One of the clues to which timeline of Hippopotamus we are witnessing is the artwork on the walls. At one point in the film, we even see her initial artwork hanging over the sink. That scene takes place before the ones which show the pictures hanging. Ruby and Thomas’s appearance and her jewelry are other clues. In scenes following a recalled memory of an anniversary dinner, she wears a gold necklace, but in others, she does not. Follow the necklace to connect which timeline you are watching.
The same can be said of her bulky brown sweater and his denim shirt. The sweater belonged to him originally, and the denim shirt was part of his uniform as a therapist at the fake clinic. Both the sweater and the necklace are earlier attempts at programming her. Ruby has bloodied bandages on her knees and the head in many scenes, but no bandages in others. Every scene with Ruby without the head bandage is an early attempt at programming her. The scenes with her bandages on her head are after Thomas performed surgery on her. It is likely he only told her her knees were injured, but she never actually was.
We know he has injected her with drugs and had her take oral medications as well. In Hulu’s Run, Sarah Paulsen’s character gives her daughter dog tranquilizers that paralyze her legs. Maybe he is using something similar to convince her of her knee injuries in earlier attempts? Every lie was carefully constructed to control her, so he would have a chance to “fix” her. Later, he removed her hippocampus, resulting in the bloodied bandage at the beginning of the film and scenes showing that timeline. When he couldn’t change her memory with psychotherapy alone, he resorted to more extreme measures like a surgical alteration of her brain and knees. Think of the deliciously brilliant Boxing Helena.
It’s all about the hippocampus.
The location of the bandage, just behind her ear, coincides with the location of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the memory region of our brain. She never can see what is wounded on her head, but the site plus Thomas’ obsessive behavior fit what would be necessary to perform brain surgery on poor Ruby. Thomas is a genius-level sociopath with delusions of grandeur.
Whats with the pictures?
There are several essential takeaways from Ruby’s artwork. The first is the dramatic shift from less accomplished work to more realistic drawings that hang over the sink in most timelines. In several scenes, we watch as Ruby draws with chalk. A montage of her captivity with Thomas and slow panning shots of her work show varying degrees of ability. Ruby’s mind has been altered so often, and for so long, she may be losing her ability to draw. It could also be a genuine symbol of how long Thomas has held her. Any talent can be honed, and if Thomas has held her for years, her drawing may be an example of that.
The specificity of the two pictures that Thomas keeps hanging is also intregal. A tipping chair and a brain are odd choices, to be sure. The images are well-drawn and done in blue and red, just like traditional 3D artwork. Could Ruby be trying to leave herself more clues than the words written in the book? The brain is a reminder that her head is being tampered with, and the tipping chair is straight out of Inception. The “kick” is often portrayed as a falling that wakes the dreamer. Occasionally it is an actual tipping chair that wakes the dreamer. Is this a hint that all of it is in her mind? More on this later.
Thomas is a master manipulator
Neither Ruby nor the viewer can trust anything that Thomas says. He is either skilled in psychoanalysis or a trained psychiatrist. We only have memories experienced through Ruby’s hazy recollections to fill in his backstory. At one point he either pretended to be a doctor caring for her memory loss or was an actual doctor abusing his abilities. We have zero context to confirm or deny any education. Thomas is often seen utilizing brainwashing techniques to condition Ruby.
The use of repeated unconscious thought implantation, color theory, and drug are used to warp everything Ruby knows, feels, and believes. Curiously the use of red lights is used to decrease stress and aid in memory restoration. If Thomas has implanted all of her memories, why would he try to bring her real memories to the surface? That is the lone piece of evidence that Thomas may be trying to help Ruby, even if he has a very sick way of doing it.
He uses triggers to bring her memories to the surface, but those aren’t necessarily factual memories and might be inceptions. When she remembers things because of triggers like her hot tea and her favorite book, we have no context to prove they were ever real. One telling comment he makes to Ruby when he gives her tea puts everything in question. He tells her he has done his research. That is quite possibly one of the only factual statements he makes to her.
Additionally, every memory Ruby has of Thomas is likely false. She may have only known him peripherally as a child. Thomas tells her a story in the third act about meeting her when she is much younger. That could very likely be the beginning of his obsession with her. She has memories of prom with him, including a picture, but Photoshop is a tool even those with basic skills can use. She also has a memory of an anniversary dinner that is also likely false. After the memory, she is seen wearing the same gold necklace he gave her as a gift at the dinner. The necklace is one more manipulation designed to convince her of a relationship that never happened.
It is possible, Ruby’s name isn’t even Ruby. The only evidence we have that they knew each other was Thomas’s story to her about their childhood and prom. Each of those could be contrived memories meant to evoke a feeling. Thomas’s friend Rob makes a joke that if she didn’t let him into her apartment again, he would spoon with him. At first blush, that would seem to prove they know each other; however, this is Thomas’s story spottily remembered by Ruby. It’s more than plausible that Thomas told Rob he had a relationship with Ruby when he never did.
Ruby probably wasn’t raped by her roommate Nick. Thomas tells her he found her and saved her, killing Nick in the process. This is the story he tells Rob as well. Two possibilities exist regarding her rape. The first is Ruby had a consensual relationship with Nick, who was her boyfriend, not her roommate, and Thomas killed him in a fit of rage. The second is, Thomas was the one who raped her and killed Nick when he tried to intervene. He becomes furious when Ruby accuses him of raping and kidnapping herself and others. He may have convinced himself he is the hero in this scenario, but her accusations threaten his world view.
That crazy ending.
So much of Hippopotamus’ ending is confusing because Ruby doesn’t act as we think she should after seeing the film play out and assuming it is linear in progression. She reads notes from herself to play along and not trust him, and yet she appears to fall in love and eventually has sex with him. When Ruby stabs Thomas with her shard of the mirror, she crawls out of the room, having seemingly forgotten she could walk despite previous scenes of her walking, running, and exercising.
All of that is explained by acknowledging the forward and backward lurching of time and realizing she was programmed to believe and behave a specific way. Thomas’s watch alarm triggered her to reset and forget she was healthy, and he was her lover. This is why she crawls instead of runs up the stairs. She collapses in the water because that is yet another trigger implanted to safeguard she would never escape. She tells Thomas about a drowning dream during one of the dinner scenes. In this dream, she is peacefully falling through black water until someone rescues her. This is yet another implanted behavior Thomas uses to ensure she would not ever escape the island. The minute she gets to the shoreline, she would fall asleep.
It’s a Soul Survivor situation.
It is entirely possible the final escape attempt happened exactly as we saw it but the scene at the end was not the aftermath. That was the result of another earlier escape. This is why she looked at Thomas’s neck, and we see bleed from his neck in the flight at the end. We don’t see Thomas die, but he certainly looks dead. He is holding his side in the fake hospital scene and limping as if he was stabbed there instead of his neck. Knowing that Ruby has been trying to escape for a long time judging by the number of matchsticks she finds and Thomas’s recounting of his trials, it’s not ridiculous to think she may have hurt him before.
With that in mind, the opening scene of Hippopotamus results from the escape that came just before the final escape at the end. We never see that effort. We see the result: Thomas with an injured side and Ruby in a fake hospital. Following the events of the escape we saw happen at the end, both Thomas and Ruby are dead. He is dead from stabbing, and she is dead by drowning since he was unable to rescue her.
Hell, at this point, anything is possible. He could have survived the stabbing, rescued her, and now is trying a new scenario where he is both doctor and boyfriend in different costumes. Thomas has no shortage of patience or time and more than his fair share of determination. She could also be in a coma from an assault or accident, and all of this is her brain trying desperately to heal. Similar to Soul Survivor, this is a nightmare of her own creation. Rob’s voice after the credits begging her to wake up is a nod to that reality. That’s the thing with unreliable witnesses. Their perception skews the viewer’s own. What we do know for sure is this was one wild ride. You can stream Hippopotamus on Amazon Prime now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.