10 Movies With the Most Sad and Depressing Endings
Hollywood is best known for its happy endings, but that doesn’t mean that every movie concludes with the heroes riding off into the sunset. Some films manage to buck the trend, providing a downer ending that works for the stories they’re trying to tell.
Case in point? Moving in order from less tragic, to the most tragic, here are 10 movies with sad and depressing endings.
10. The Mist (2007)
The Mist is based on the Stephen King novella of the same name and revolves around a small town that becomes covered in a mist that holds otherworldly creatures. When survivors become trapped in a supermarket, tensions arise as some start to question whether they are experiencing a religious event.
The ending to The Mist has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of how unflinching it is — even if there is sizable debate as to whether it is earned the attention. Branching off from King’s ending, which had the group of five survivors driving off into the mist where their fate was uncertain, director Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) manages to cut out any ambiguity while making the ending even more bleak.
As the group of survivors travel through the mist, their spirits are crushed after they see an impossibly tall creature before running out of gas. Believing they are doomed, the group decides that death by gun is better than getting torn apart by the creatures. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) then takes the gun and shoots all four passengers, including his son, before going outside to die after running out of bullets. But just then, the army rolls through the mist along with survivors from earlier in the film — the group was less than a minute away from being saved.
9. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The satirical, meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods, was a breath of fresh air for the horror genre when it was released in 2012. Written by Joss Whedon (The Avengers), the film found a humorous way to turn the horror genre’s long-running tropes into an overarching structure, in which nearly every horror film that came before it could exist in the same world.
But despite the film’s playful take on the genre, it didn’t exactly conclude in an upbeat way. When the film’s two protagonists escape into an underground facility, they immediately release legions of imprisoned monsters, monsters that promptly slaughter nearly everyone in the facility, including the technicians we have been following throughout the film.
Finally, met with a decision to save all of humanity by continuing the ritual and sacrificing themselves, the pair decide that it might be time to let the Ancient Ones — monstrous, God-like forces — awaken. Just like that, the film ends with a giant hand emerging from the Earth with an impending doomsday. And you also can’t help but feel they were being just a little bit selfish in the grand scheme of things.
8. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back might not be as much of a downer when you consider it’s the middle part of a trilogy, but there’s no doubt that the film stands as one of the greatest examples of a film where the heroes lose at seemingly every turn. That reason alone is why the film is considered to have one of the best cliffhanger endings of all-time.
With Luke Skywalker separated from Han Solo, Leia, and the rest of the gang for the film’s middle act, things start to get exciting when it’s clear the characters are on their way toward a reunion, presumably to triumph over Darth Vader and the Empire. But even before Luke gets there, it’s clear things won’t be that simple.
Han is frozen in carbonate and handed over to Boba Fett, while Luke arrives just in time to fall into Darth Vader’s trap. And just when you think Luke is holding his own with Yoda’s training, his hand is cut off sending his lightsaber spiraling into Cloud City’s air shaft as Darth Vader gives the infamous revelation, “I am your father.”
The Empire Strikes Back‘s ending was best described in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, as Dante Hicks and Randal Graves argue whether Return of the Jedi or Empire Strikes Back is better. “Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader’s his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”
7. Brazil (1985)
Often considered writer Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil is a dystopian sci-fi satire that revolves around a futuristic society that is needlessly convoluted and inefficient. This is due in large part to an over-reliance on poorly-maintained machines and a bureaucratic, totalitarian government. A member of that government, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level government employee who spots an error, and in his attempt to fix it becomes embroiled in a situation that eventually sees him hunted down as a terrorist.
The ending of Brazil sees Gilliam’s satirical themes play out to their logical conclusion. After Sam and Jill (Kim Greist) are captured by the government, they are rescued by resistance members who destroy the Ministry and send the pair off into the sunset as they drive away from the city.
If the studio had its way, this would have been the ending, but Gilliam fought tooth and nail to make sure his original ending remained. In the director’s cut, the film cuts back to the Ministry to reveal that Sam is still strapped to a chair — the happy ending has all been a product of Sam’s imagination.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One of the creepiest films ever made, Rosemary’s Baby is not only a horror classic, but one of the greatest films ever made. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a couple who moves into a Manhattan apartment building where Rosemary (Farrow) begins to suspect that her eccentric neighbors and husband have entered into a occult pact for her unborn child.
At the end of the film, Rosemary finds herself waking up in her apartment and is told that her baby has died during birth. But soon after, she can’t help but notice what sounds like a baby crying and discovers a secret door that leads to her neighbor’s apartment. There she discovers a congregation of people, including her husband and neighbors, gathered around her son. However, this is no ordinary son; it is the spawn of Satan. And after responding in horror, she moves toward her child and begins to rock the cradle slowly, with a smile.
5. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is one of the clearest examples of a modern classic. Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones as three very different characters on a collision course revolving around a missing bag of $2 million. No Country for Old Men is one of the Coen brothers’ most successful films to date, earning a slew of Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Bardem).
But one aspect of the film that was discussed heavily following its release, was the ending. Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), who feels very much like the main protagonist of the film, is killed — off screen no less — with about 20 minutes left of the film. From there, Ed Tom Bell (Jones) takes up the majority of the film’s narrative thrust while antagonist, Anton Chigurh (Bardem) escapes with the $2 million, despite getting into a major car wreck. We are then left with a scene of a retired Ed Tom relating to his wife a dream that echoes the theme of the book: This is no country for old men.
The death of Llewelyn aside, the ending is incredibly somber in that it shows a man who no longer feels capable of fighting back against evil — a man who essentially gives up. This is made evident by a scene in which Ed Tom becomes aware he has cornered Chigurh in a motel, but decides against confronting him. From that moment, what follows is basically a story where our hero has decided to give up against the villain, considering himself “outmatched” against what the future is bringing. It’s an ending that you don’t see very often, but fits perfectly within the themes outlined in the film.
4. Se7en (1995)
A modern classic of the psychological-thriller genre, Se7en inspired an entire genre of dark, sinister crime-thrillers. But nothing has matched the grim world portrayed in Se7en, where crime and urban decay has enveloped an entire city in grime.
While the film is often remembered for its gruesome murder scenes related to the seven deadly sins, it has gained much more notoriety for its unbelievably bleak ending. After the serial killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) turns himself in, his defense lawyer tells Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) that Doe will either lead them to the last two bodies and confess to the crimes or plead insanity. Believing that there’s no harm in going along with it now that the killer is in custody, they escort him to the desert.
With the three of them alone in the desert (with police backup of course), the detectives’ nerves are rattled when a delivery truck drops off a box — and inside the box, Somerset discovers the head of Mills’ wife, Tracy. As Doe attempts to get Somerset to shoot him for the sin of envy, then becoming the deadly sin of wrath, Somerset tries his best to talk Mills down. But it’s no good.
“What’s in the box? What’s in the box?” Mills says over and over again. Finally, once Doe reveals that Tracy was pregnant, something Mills wasn’t aware of, it’s simply too much — he shoots Doe, completing the murderer’s design.
3. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo notably received mixed reviews upon release, before becoming widely considered the greatest film of his career in the decades following. Based on the novel, D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, Vertigo tells the story of a former police detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), who is forced into retirement following the onset of acrophobia. He is then hired as a private investigator to investigate Madeleine — a woman who appears to be possessed by the spirit of a dead relative.
The ending of Vertigo is maddeningly tragic, which may be the reason the film took several decades to be considered one of Hitchcock’s best. After Scottie witnesses what he believes is Madeleine’s suicide, he is sent into a mental tailspin and eventually becomes obsessed with a woman named Judy Barton, who seems to strongly resemble Madeleine. After a flashback reveals that Judy and Madeleine are one and the same, Scottie soon realizes that he has been had when he notices Judy wearing a necklace related to the deception.
The revelation pushes Scottie to bring Judy to the Mission San Juan Bautista, the location of the supposed suicide. As Scottie walks her to the top of the bell tower, overcoming his acrophobia in the process, Judy finally confesses that it was part of a plot, but that she truly loves him and is sorry. As they embrace, a ghostly figure appears from the stairs causing Judy to stumble backward and fall to her death — the exact same way as was set up earlier. The ghostly figure, now revealed to be a nun, begins ringing the mission bell as Scottie looks down in horror. If he thought the death of Madeleine was rough, the death of Judy is bound to be that much worse.
2. Oldboy (2003)
Forget the 2013 Spike Lee version of Oldboy — the original 2003 Korean version directed by Park Chan-wook is a masterpiece in auteur filmmaking. Based on the manga of the same name, Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su and his 15 year imprisonment and subsequent release. Once he’s set free, Oh Dae-su goes on a manic, bloodthirsty quest for vengeance to discover why he was imprisoned and who’s responsible.
The ending of Oldboy is the stuff of legends, and is not for the faint of heart. After tracking down his captor and discovering what it was that landed him in a private prison for 15 years, Oh Dae-su quickly finds that he is still the victim of his games. In the ensuing confrontation, his captor reveals that the woman Oh Dae-su has entered into a sexual relationship with, Mi-do, is actually his daughter. Worse yet, the information is also revealed to Mi-do.
Oh Dae-su’s sense of control is thoroughly shattered and he begs his captor to not reveal the information, going as far as to cut out his own tongue. Later, Oh Dae-su hypnotizes himself in order to forget the information, and when he embraces Mi-do it’s not entirely clear whether it has worked. And even if it has, ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss in this case.
1. Chinatown (1974)
One of the greatest films ever made, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a neo-noir starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was inspired by the California Water Wars at the beginning of the 20th century. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is a private investigator who gets roped into a case that eventually snowballs into something far beyond his control. He finds out the hard way that he’s incapable of standing up to the evil that Noah Cross (John Huston) represents.
After Gittes makes plans for Evelyn (Dunaway) and her daughter, Katherine’s, escape to Mexico, he then confronts Cross who quickly forces him to lead them to the pair in Chinatown. Once they arrive, the police are already waiting and detain Gittes as Cross approaches Katherine — his daughter of incest with Evelyn. But Evelyn shoots Cross in the arm and takes off down the road in her car as the police open fire, killing her. Then, Cross takes Katherine and leads her away as Gittes looks on helplessly. “Forget it, Jake,” they tell him. “It’s Chinatown.”
One of the most tragic endings in all of cinema, Gittes’s attempts at fulfilling the usual role of the victorious private eye are dashed in all respects. The police are unwilling to hear out the conspiracy he has discovered, his love interest has been killed, and the villain has succeeded in retrieving Katherine and fulfilling his plans. Instead, Gittes is left knowing that not only has he lost every battle waged, but he is powerless to fight back against the enormous evil that exists in the world.
Additional reporting by Michelle Regalado.
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