We open the movie with a long panning shot of a huge castle mansion with a big fence around it. Then for some reason, we see two monkeys hanging out at the top of the fence, which makes us wonder where this castle is located. A quick shot inside the house shows us the mouth of an old man who whispers "rosebud"...before dropping a snow globe and dying.
Yes—this is one of the most enigmatic and confusing openings to a movie ever.
A newsreel flashes across the screen and tells us all about the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, the dude we just saw die. Apparently, Kane was a super rich dude who used to own a newspaper empire that spanned the entire United States. But now he's dead and the news reporters want to find out what he meant by saying "rosebud" as his last word.
The news boss tells a reporter named Thompson to investigate the issue so they'll have something unique to put into their newsreel.
Thompson sets out to interview the people who were closest to Charles Foster Kane. First up? A library where he can read the diary of Walter Parks Thatcher, the man who was Kane's legal guardian until he reached legal maturity. In the diary, Thatcher tells the story of how Kane's mother sent him away from home when he was just a boy. She had come into a lot of money and didn't want Kane's upbringing to be spoiled by her abusive husband.
Thatcher's diary then tells the story of how Kane grew up to be a rebellious fool who just wanted to use his fortune to attack the wealthy class of America. Thatcher saw this as class warfare from a young communist. Ah, politics.
When he's done reading Thatcher's diary, Thompson visits Mr. Bernstein, a guy who served as Kane's right hand man when he took over his first newspaper, the New York Inquirer. Unlike Thatcher, Bernstein is sympathetic toward Kane and says that he was once one of the greatest men in America. But (yeah, there's always a but), he also admits that Kane let his pride get the best of him, especially when he ran for governor and ended up destroying his public reputation by having an affair with a woman named Susan Alexander.
After talking to Bernstein, Thompson goes to visit Kane's ex-best friend, Jedediah Leland. Leland tells the story of how Kane went from a young idealist to a bitter old egomaniac that tried to use his fortune to force people to love him. Over the years, Leland tried to point out Kane's faults, but Kane eventually fired him for disloyalty.
After marrying Susan Alexander, Kane decided to put all his energy and money into making her a famous singer. But the plot doesn't work—do plots ever work?—because Susan just doesn't have the talent. Eventually, she gets him to give upon the scheme and they move together to Kane's giant castle mansion in Florida called Xanadu.
Guess where Thompson goes next. Yep: to visit Susan Alexander and ask her about the time she spent with Kane living at Xanadu. Susan dishes, saying it was a life of total isolation and boredom. In fact, she got so fed up with Kane that she left him. He threw a total fit and whispered the word "rosebud" after she had gone.
What. Does. This. Word. Mean. It. Is. Killing. Us.
At the end of the movie, Thompson visits Xanadu to speak with Kane's butler Raymond. Like every other stinkin' person in the movie, he has no clue what Kane meant by saying the word "rosebud" at his death. Thompson finally gives up and decides that he'll never find out. Plus, he figures that even if he found out, it probably wouldn't bring the closure everyone wanted.
In the movie's final shot, we get a look at a room full of Kane's old possessions. Among these is "Rosebud," the sled that Kane owned as a child. A little anti-climactic? Maybe. But it at least closes the loop, letting us in on the fact that Kane was thinking of his lost childhood when he died.
But...he's dead now.
And as the movie ends, a mover picks up the sled and tosses it into an incinerator.
So yeah: now we're good and depressed.