Spoilers abound below. Just warning you.
Earlier this week, the Imdb.com hit list posted an article called The 10 Most Depressing Movie Endings Ever. And I was certain that I was not the only one who didn’t quite take to the lists reliance on mostly sci-fi and horror movies, but moreover, films that mostly ended up with everyone dying. Cinematical.com did in fact comment on this fact here. But I think the problem with the original list, and even with Cinematical’s rendering, is that part of the definition of depressing is misconstrued. I contend that for a film to be truly depressing, it shouldn’t be about death, or at least in the literal sense.
Kudos to the Cinematical writer who pointed out the ending of the Last American Virgin as a perfect example of a depressing ending – long before there were far too many teen movies (and probably the era where there were just about the right amount), the film takes a surprising and ultimately far-too-realistic turn, in which our hero, who has tried so hard to get the girl he loves, stabs him in the back to go with his best friend. When the credits roll on that one, we see our hero crying in the car. This is a far more apt portrayal of a film that truly displays the human condition. Death, and even suicide, as a way to end a film is often an easy way out. I find that films are far more depressing when they are not about death at all. Therefore, here are 10 films that really hit you in the kishkes without killing off characters for emotional gravitas.
10. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
There is an odd sense of bleak humour towards the end of this film, but as crazy as Norma Desmond becomes, there is definitely some pathos we give to her character. Granted, the film is quite macabre from the beginning (we find Joe Gillis dead in a swimming pool), but Gloria Swanson’s haunting walk down the stairs, coupled with the immortal line “alright Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up” give you this haunting feeling of worry, as you secretly hope you’re never that disillusioned.
9. Little Children (2006)
On the rare occasion that I prefer the film version of the ending to the one written in the book, Todd Field’s suburban drama falls apart as quickly and harshly as it seems to appear; perhaps a solemn indication that there is no escape from the suburbs, but more than anything, a suggestion that you just can’t change who you are. Between castration, confusion, and utter weakness, everything seems to go back from whence it came in a way that makes the audience feel like in this world we’re all doomed to be miserable.
8. All The Real Girls (2003)
Despite an overlong denouement, David Gordon Green’s indie hit paints a sleepy pastoral of a small mining town, and the burgeoning romance between two lovelorn people who strike up a connection that is told through images more than language. The ending takes about 10 minutes longer than it probably should, but all through that time, as the male character tries to figure things out, I was crossing my fingers that their connection would bring them back together again. Green tries to leave the film with some pleasant images, and some feelings of progress, but it does seem like there is a whole lot more lost than gained.
7. Ghost World (2000)
As bad as the life of Seymour (Steve Buscemi) seems at the end, I’m pretty sure Enid is far worse off. The ending is filled with a couple of obvious metaphors – namely, the bus – but what this film teaches you more than anything is that everything might as well eventually fall apart. I always tend to feel worse for Seymour, but his life is more pathetic than depressing. Enid, on the other hand, has this utterly deflated look to her that suggests there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, or bus route.
6. The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) (1948)
Talk about lost hope. Vittorio De Sica’s film manages to cram so many existential ideas into a simple bicycle. It’s quite amazing how De Sica turns two wheels into a symbol for everything ever meant something to a family. In many ways, it is an excruciatingly simple story of a man who needs a bike for his job, and his search to find it when it gets stolen. You can’t help but cringe when out of desperation he tries to steal another man’s bike, but it is the look on the face of his son that really does it; the film takes its final cruel turn and the family are left with nothing.
5. Brazil (1985)
Perhaps my favourite dystopic future movie ever. This film is both darkly comic, and deliciously macabre, especially when you can trace it all back to shoddy paperwork. If you’re familiar with any of the controversy about the film when it came out, you’ll know that the studio executives scrapped Terry Gilliam’s ending in favour of something far more uplifting. However, the film’s intended ending, with Sam Lowry in a cavernous sphere, newly lobotomized, is one of the more haunting images sci-fi on film has given us.
4. Once (2007)
True love is doomed isn’t it? I think we all take a bit of solace in knowing that the two stars of this lovely Irish film got together after filming it. Because between the swells of their music and the revealing final crane shot, the audience is left with a sad and desperate feeling of longing. But I don’t think that we need them to be together even in a romantic sense; it’s more like the band broke up and even all that reunion money won’t get them back together.
3. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Also one of the best film endings of this decade, the film ends right at the exact moment where Walt Berkman realizes his father is not the heroic figure he had once perceived him to be. After spending the entire film repeating the rhetoric and bold opinions of his father, Walt clings on to a fond memory of a childhood experience he had with his mother. Walt is in a state of flux, in a domestic Kafkaesque experience (this film also takes the cake for calling the Metamorphosis Kafkaesque). As much as Walt knows he’s better off at his mother’s place, he has alienated her far too much to go back. Coupled with the strings of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle, there’s something excruciatingly vacant that I feel every time the film’s title flashes on the screen at the end.
2. Casablanca (1942)
Arguably one of the greatest films of all time, and partly because of its legendary ending scene. We’ve all secretly wanted to break up with someone on a landing strip (as Woody Allen lets us know in his homage to the film Play It Again, Sam), but the saddest part about the whole thing is that as Rick does his speech to Ilsa, we know he’s right, and that they can’t be together. The hard truth of his confession is really what makes the film so powerful and so classic. Maybe the problems of three little people do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)
The first time I saw this I didn’t think the ending was so sad. It wasn’t until someone made an offhand comment about how depressing the movie was. And the more I thought about it, and with repeat viewings, I realized that the ending was the clearest depiction of the cruelty of the world. The whole film is up for interpretation, and I am not of the belief that Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray’s characters were in love in the traditional sense, it was more an opportunity to be in love with life in general; both are slowly drowning, and their kiss is a last gasp for air before they both sink into oblivion. Couple that with some shoegazing music, and a Jesus and Mary Chain song through the end credits, and you might just understand why those emo kids are so dour.
And quickly, my top 5 depressing film endings that are about death.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
4. The Elephant Man (1980)
3. Hard Core Logo (1996)
2. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
1. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)