Often it’s the most bleak and depressing movies that leave the deepest impression upon an audience, and films that use their gripping storylines to make important statements and inspire interesting discussions can be very rewarding. Not every film can have a happy ending, and even dark films that end on a positive note can be considered to be somewhat uplifting.
It’s the dark films that end on a somber note with no hope for the world or its characters that can truly be shocking, and a provocative ending can lead to a greater appreciation of the themes a film is depicting. Even if some films weaponize their own misery for the sake of manipulating the audience’s emotions, a grim closing chapter can be rewarding if it is well executed. Here are ten examples of dark movies with endings more bleak than you expected.
10. The Deer Hunter
At over three hours long, The Deer Hunter is a film that lets its characters sink in and show their vulnerabilities. Starting off with a prolonged wedding sequence that shows a brighter time for the blue collar workers of a small town, The Deer Hunter quickly divulges in serious territory when steelworkers Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), and Steven Pushkov (John Savage) are deployed to Vietnam, forever shattering their seemingly perfect working class life. After a grueling near death experience at war, all three men are touched by their proximity to fatality, causing them to spiral out of control. Nick continues to leave his own life up to chance by playing the same twisted game of Russian roulette that he was forced to partake in while in Vietnam.
In the devastating final act, Nick’s game of chance ultimately dooms him, leaving Mike helpless to save his oldest friend. De Niro and Walken excellently establish the pair’s friendship in an earlier scene in which Mike promises to get Nick home safely, and Mike’s eventual failure to do so is all the more devastating given this context.
Walken gives the best performance of his entire career, and is able to sell Nick’s transition from jovial companion to traumatized veteran with the nuance necessary to depict such an experience. The gang of friends sing a somber rendition of “God Bless America” in the final scene, making for a powerful anti-war statement as they reflect on the empty hole in their lives left by Nick’s death.
9. Blue Valentine
The juxtaposition of happiness and hardship within Blue Valentine is what makes it so heartbreaking; even though it’s clear early on that Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) will never be truly happy as a couple, the inclusion of flashbacks to more tender moments between the two in the early stages of their relationship is enough to fool the viewer into thinking that their love could prevail.
Dean’s boyish charms turn into the aggressive rage of a petulant emotional abuser, but the nonlinear structure depicts his early hints of humility and dangerous later actions with poignant balance. Cindy stresses that she doesn’t want their daughter Frankie to see her parents be hateful to one another, but their feelings remain transparent as the two square off and argue.
After an almost unbearably tense scene in which Dean wreaks havoc on Cindy at her new job, he seems to apologize and seek forgiveness for the first time in their relationship. When it’s clear that this will just be another empty apology, Cindy finally breaks off their relationship, prompting Dean to bid farewell to their child despite her cries for her father.
The realization that the most mature and productive thing for Dean to do is leave is heartbreaking, especially with Frankie as a witness to it all. Once again the film tricks the viewer into wishing that the two could work it out, and the wistfulness for the impossible make Blue Valentine an agonizing watch, particularly at the end.
8. Gone Baby Gone
Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a masterful mystery thriller in which the characters are forced to question whether the ends justify the means at every moment during their investigation. Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is a Boston detective whose tasked with investigating the disappearance of a three-year-old girl whose drug-addicted mother Helen (Amy Ryan) has neglected and ignored her.
Kenzie is desperate to find the missing child, but he questions whether the entire investigation will be worth it if Amanda is returned to her incompetent mother, and as he looks deeper into web of corruption within law enforcement, Kenzie learns that all of the men he respected have their secrets. The initial mystery only sets off Kenzie’s awareness of the lack of decency within the entire operation.
When Amanda is finally found, Kenzie realizes that the girl is being held by none other than his former Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who utilized the kidnapping to lock a local drug dealer away and potentially give Amanda a better life. Kenzie is left with an ultimatum; he can turn Doyle in and send Amanda back to her mother, or he can let Doyle’s plan be latent and reject his lawful duty.
Kenzie’s choice to follow the law ends up isolating him from his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) and puts Amanda in the same cycle of neglect in which she started off. The tragic irony of the final moments, in which an uncaring Helen once again leaves Amanda alone, is that despite all the blood shed of Kenzie’s operation, nothing has really changed.
7. Starship Troopers
Vastly misunderstood upon its initial release, Starship Troopers is a satire so frighteningly well realized that many mistook its pro-fascist, imperialist propaganda themes as a genuine summer action vehicle. The generic love triangle, kitschy teen protagonists, and sci-fi creatures mold the fascist themes into a story that’s directly lifted from propaganda films, except wrapped within American iconography and teen movie tropes.
It’s clear from the beginning that these character’s gleeful excitement to head into war and their blind acceptance of fascist group thinking is misplaced, a point that is proven true as they’re exposed to the banality of war and its horrific impact on human life.
By the time Starship Troopers ends, main characters Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) have been fully radicalized from innocent 90210 teen heroes into mindless warriors capable of inflicting any atrocity in the name of military victory, ending as they celebrate their ability to make the villainous alien race “the Bugs” afraid.
The film ends with a joyous propaganda newsreel meant to encourage a new generation of young people to enlist blindly in an oppressive regime, framing the characters’ complete radicalization as an inspiring win. The irony is that despite all they’ve seen, Rico and his friends never become self-aware and break out of this cycle of control and destruction, leaving room for many more wars to be waged by equally impressionable youths.
6. Mystic River
While Mystic River initially feels like a straightforward whodunit, it becomes a Shakespearean drama in which friends and families of a Boston community fall victim to their unkempt jealousy and inability to cope with tragedy. James (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) were childhood friends whose lives were shattered by a shocking act of violence, but the three are united again when James’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. While this loving community seems to rally around James’s broken family, he’s not willing to let the crime go unpunished and makes it clear he will deal with the culprit by whatever means necessary.
While the eventual killer is revealed to be another player who himself feels victimized by James’s secret criminal history, James can’t let go of his suspicions of Dave, who beat a child molester to death on the same night of Katie’s murder and thus has been a consistent suspect in the investigation.
The confrontation between James and Dave is carried out in horrifying detail; James is so desperate for closure that he demands that Dave admit to the murder with the promise to spare his life, and it’s sickeningly clear that Dave will lie to save himself and James will not hold up his end of the deal. As the actual facts of the case are revealed, Dave’s death becomes just another dark secret that James hides, and the final sequence set around a town parade suggests that all those that covered for him are equally culpable.