16 Movie Characters Who Had To Make Gut-Wrenching Life-Or-Death Decisions

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Vote up the gut-wrenching dilemmas that have no perfect solution.

"The trolley problem" is a thought experiment often used in psychology as an ethical dilemma, asking the subject to choose between doing nothing and allowing five people to die or pulling a lever to be actively responsible for the death of one person. While surveys have shown that a large majority of people would make the active choice of killing the one person to save the other five, the gut-wrenching decision becomes more difficult when the solitary victim is a loved one. Each of the characters below are forced into similar life-or-death decisions, and in each case the choice is complicated by the specifics of the personal relationships between those involved. While the thought experiment is abstract, these dilemmas are fully fleshed out within the plot, complicating a difficult decision with specific details and context.

Life-or-death decisions like these are common across genres. There's the action hero forced to decide between saving two innocent parties, with only enough time to choose one. There's the horror victim forced to decide between self-preservation and doing harm, a choice occasionally complicated by requiring self-harm to achieve the latter. And there are the dramatic narratives offering dilemmas grounded in real-life and historical scenarios. What makes these sequences narratively distinct is the fact that either option could be defended as the just or right choice. On the other hand, each un-chosen option often comes with a loss or sacrifice equally likely to create feelings of regret, doubt, or possible survivor’s remorse. As we watch these films, each audience member is asked to consider the dilemma alongside the characters in the narrative.

Which cinematic decisions do you think are the most gut-wrenching? Vote up the films with choices you feel would be impossible to make. Warning: Most of the entries on this list contain spoilers of varying degrees!


  • The Dilemma: The Mist is based on Stephen King's 1980 novella, but filmmaker Frank Darabont altered the ending of the original text by adding a gut-wrenching life-or-death decision to the climax. When a storm hits the small town of Bridgton, ME, artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) takes his 8-year-old son Billy to the grocery store for supplies. As they are shopping, a mist containing horrifying creatures begins to envelop the town, trapping Drayton and his son in the store with a group of panicked locals. Although Drayton is eventually able to escape the store in a car with Billy and a handful of survivors, they eventually run out of gas. With the sound of monsters closing in, Drayton must choose between waiting for them to arrive and destroy the survivors in a horrifying manner, or ending their lives quickly with the remaining bullets.

    The Decision: Drayton chooses to shoot all the remaining survivors, including his son Billy, but runs out of bullets before he can end his own life. This decision is made even more tragic when the sound believed to be incoming monsters is revealed to be the vanguard of a US Army force sent to restore order. Not only does Drayton make an impossible choice, but he is also forced to live with the knowledge that it was an unnecessary one.

  • The Dilemma: Sophie’s Choice is the title of William Styron’s 1979 novel and subsequent 1982 film adaptation, but it has since been adopted as an idiomatic expression understood even by those who have never read the book or seen the movie. The turn of phrase is synonymous with an impossible choice, as depicted through a life-altering decision made in the life of Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowska (Meryl Streep) during WWII. Upon being sent to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, Sophie is asked to choose between her two children. The chosen child is promised a chance for survival in a labor camp, while the other will be sent to their death in the gas chamber.

    The Decision: Knowing that refusing to choose will result in both being slain, Sophie makes the impossible decision to save her son Jan (Adrian Kalitka), which is essentially a death sentence for her daughter Eva (Jennifer Lawn). Even though Sophie is able to make this decision, the psychological trauma of the choice is too much, and she is ultimately unable to live with the guilt.

  • The Dilemma: Come and See follows a young Belarusian boy named Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) during WWII, and all he witnesses in his efforts to join the Soviet resistance movement against the Germans. As Flyora comes to the village of Perekhody, the generous villagers take him in, only to be surrounded by an occupying SS unit joined by Ukrainian collaborators. The SS unit orders the villagers into the wooden church to be burned. In response to a plea to spare the children, the occupiers offer the adults the option to escape through the window unharmed, if they are willing to leave their children behind.

    The Decision: Whether this offer is sincere or not is never discovered, because the parents choose to stay with their children. Flyora is forced to watch as the entire village is burned alive in the church, and is only spared because the soldiers see him as insignificant.

  • The Dilemma: Serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has a carefully constructed a plan to display the destructive force of each of the seven cardinal sins. The final two sins remaining once he has turned himself in to detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are envy and wrath. John Doe promises to show Mills and Somerset where the bodies representing these sins are, leading them to a remote location where a package is delivered. As John Doe reveals himself as the embodiment of envy, he confesses to having slain Mills's wife. As Somerset, some distance away, opens the package to find official confirmation, he realizes John Doe has planned Mills as the representation of wrath. Mills must choose whether to give in to the temptation to avenge his wife or resist in order to ruin John Doe's carefully laid-out plans.

    The Decision: The loss is too much for Mills to bear, and he completes John Doe’s master plan, shooting him in the head. With the worldviews of a psychopath confirmed by this choice, only the mildly optimistic narration of Somerset can offer some hope to this resolution.

  • The Dilemma: Based on Aron Ralston's memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours depicts a real-life gut-wrenching decision made by the hiker when he gets trapped by a boulder in an isolated area of Utah's Canyonlands National Park. For five days, Ralston remains pinned by the boulder in a slot canyon, realizing he doesn’t have much longer before dehydration and extreme hunger results in his demise. On the sixth day, Ralston is faced with the choice between cutting off his trapped arm or remaining to slowly, inevitably die.

    The Decision: In the ultimate act of sacrifice to survive, Ralston breaks his own arm and uses a pocketknife to amputate it. Once free, he is able to flag down a hiking family for help, ultimately saving himself by making the difficult decision.

  • The Dilemma: Based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick, this 1964 Cold War thriller depicts the fictionalized tale of an imagined nuclear crisis when a technical malfunction leads to a group of American bombers being sent to Moscow for a thermonuclear strike. It is up to the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) to convince the Soviet leader that the strikes were accidental, and he agrees to target New York City with American bombs to compensate for the ones being dropped on Moscow. The decision to sacrifice American lives to prevent a nuclear holocaust would be difficult enough, but is made even more impossible when it is revealed that the first lady is visiting New York and will be killed by the nuke.

    The Decision: The president ultimately chooses to give the order for the bomb to be dropped on New York City, essentially killing his wife along with the unaware citizens going about their daily lives. The choice between spouse and country is mirrored in the actions of General Black (Dan O'Herlihy), the man responsible for releasing the bombs over the Empire State Building, whose wife and children live in the city.