Tragedy is easy to spot: Juliet dies, the unsinkable boat sinks, Heath Ledger hugs a jacket. Not all depressing movie endings, however, are so transparent in their darkness. The following misunderstood movies with bleak endings perform sleight of hand, proving "happily ever after" might actually be "happy until a few minutes later."
THIS LIST IS ONE BIG SPOILER ALERT, SO PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
Ever wonder if maybe the ending of some movies isn't quite what it seems? Do you find yourself up late at night, reaching into the fridge for a snack, suddenly realizing not everything adds up the way you thought it did in that movie you just saw? Movie endings you didn't realize are super dark pop up in nearly every genre, from superhero tentpoles to horror, sci fi, drama, comedy, and children's pictures. Scratch the surface of these movies, you'll realize not all is well and good in the world of ET or 50 First Dates. The same goes for Hugh Jackman's final outing as Wolverine as the Logan ending explained proves.
Crafting an ending that's far more bleak than it seems is the perfect solution for meeting audience expectations while realizing artistic vision. Very few people go to the movies to have their souls destroyed by a brutal reminder of how savage the world is. But for many films, that's the only logical conclusion. So how do you have your cake and eat it to? This list reveals all.
At the end of John Carpenter's horror masterpiece The Thing, the titular alien is blown up and the world is (seemingly) saved, while Kurt Russell and Keith David (literally) chill in sub-zero temperatures, waiting to die. It's a bleak ending for the two of them, but they saved the world from a potentially apocalyptic threat posed by an alien.
Or did they? As revealed in commentary on blu-ray release of The Thing in 2016 by cinematographer Dean Cudney, the ending is a lot more bleak than you might think. The Thing still lives, which means it may well escape Antarctica, and have a cataclysmic effect on human society.
Actors: Kurt Russell, Keith David, John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau, Wilford Brimley, + more
Initial Release: 1982
Directed by: John Carpenter
Ben (Dustin Hoffman) drives up and down PCH in order to stop Elaine (Katharine Ross) from marrying the worst guy ever in The Graduate. He gets to the chapel moments too late and bangs on the windows, screaming "Elaine!" One of the more indelible images in cinema.
The moment after the young lovers run off together harshes the mellow. Elaine and a very disheveled Ben race to a bus, laughing at leaving her Ken doll fiancée at the altar.
Slowly, the laughs and smiles dissipate, as reality sinks in. "What have we done?" The Sounds of Silence indeed. These rich kids might be disowned by one, or both, of their parents, which will leave them each one trust fund short of success. The Vietnam War is under way, Richard Nixon's presidency looms, and both characters are so wrapped up in their own problems they probably don't have the time of day to care about one another.
Who wants to bet they did the Baby Boomer classic? A few years a rebellion followed by kids, corporate jobs, nice houses, fat retirement packages, a bitter divorce, and a lot of complaining about how much groovier life was in the '60s.
Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Richard Dreyfuss, Katharine Ross, Norman Fell, + more
Initial Release: 1967
Directed by: Mike Nichols
You probably have some friends who think those scene tacked on the end of Taxi Driver ruin the movie. That it should've ended with Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) pointing his hand at his head like a gun, covered in blood. But that wouldn't be nearly bleak enough.
So what really happens at the end? Travis Bickle heals, is deemed a hero by society for rescuing a young girl (Jodie Foster) from prostitution, and goes back to driving his cab. The fact that he's lauded as a hero is a cynical comment on America's obsession with violence, vigilantism, and cowboys. This man isn't better, he isn't healed, he isn't more well integrated into society. He's still violent psychopath out driving taxis, only now everything thinks he's a hero.
Actors: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, + more
Initial Release: 1976
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
#34 on The Best Movies of All Time
Looking back, the bleakest part of Prometheus's ending is that it begat Alien: Legacy.
But at the time, the ending seemed on the up and up. Any Alien film (or sort-of-Alien film) in which the lead survives, along with the head of a cyborg, qualifies as having a happy ending. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) lives, like Ripley in Alien. Not so bad. You kind of knew everyone else would die going into it, right?
However, in a film filled with characters making idiotic choices, Shaw takes the gold, silver, and bronze medals. See, Shaw has a ship, and could fly it back to Earth. Instead, she opts to track down the home planet of the Powder-esque aliens that gave birth to the human race. Which sounds like a one-way ticket to an excruciating death. If she runs into a bunch of god-aliens, they'll murder her. If there aren't any of them at her destination, she's alone in the middle of nowhere, light years from earth. Great. A real lose-lose situation there, Dr. Shaw.
Actors: Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Peter O'Toole, Noomi Rapace, + more
Initial Release: 2012
Directed by: Ridley Scott