Spoilers ahead as Rob Keeling takes a look at that mysterious, sometimes infuriating but always enthralling, film finale: the downbeat ending.
Sometimes, everybody loves a happy ever after. The guy gets the girl, the hero rides off into the sunset, the man realises he wants to live after all and his angel pal gets his wings. You know the kind of stuff I mean. It’s heart-warming and sends you off with a smile on your face. Sometimes however, if you’re anything like me, there’s nothing like a proper downbeat and depressing ending to round off a film. An emotional gut punch that reminds you that not every story can be a fairytale, is often more powerful than even the happiest of happy endings. It can often leave you walking out of the cinema in a shocked stony silence but that’s merely testament to a real emotional impact.
There were plenty of candidates which didn’t quite make my list including horror movies such as Saw and The Descent and classics such as The Elephant Man and The Empire Strikes Back. There were also some movie endings which I am assured are particularly harrowing but which I have unfortunately never seen, Dancer in the Dark and Leaving Las Vegas being prime examples.
After careful consideration however, and with no further ado, here are my top ten downbeat endings:
10. The Godfather Part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1974)
The unflinching reality of Michael Corleone’s ruthless leadership comes to the fore at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal mobster sequel. During a typically haunting montage sequence we first see Hyman Roth meet his comeuppance and immediately after his assassin is gunned down too. Then we cut to Frank Pentangeli dead in a bath tub, his wrists slit and oozing blood. Finally though, we cut to Lake Tahoe and Al Neri and Fredo are out on the lake to do a spot of fishing. Michael always stated that nothing was to happen to his treacherous brother while their mother was still alive. With the Corleone matriarch now passed on, the outlook is bleak for Fredo. As the weedy sibling says a Hail Mary, a trick he believes helps him to catch fish, the camera cuts back to Michael standing alone in his den. A gunshot rings out and Michael bows his head. We then cut back to the boat and only Al Neri left on board. This sequence is Coppola at his very best. The final shot of the film sees Michael once again alone; he has pushed everyone away and has sacrificed happiness and companionship for power. The happy close knit family that we first met in Part 1 suddenly seems a long time ago.
9. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957)
Kubrick’s legendary anti-war film packs a downbeat double whammy at its close which perfectly fits its ‘futility of war’ message. After a failed attack during World War 1’s bloody trench war of attrition, three innocent French troops are charged with cowardice. Idealistic Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) defends against them as best he can but the men are inevitably found guilty. Let down by the callous and foolhardiness of their superiors, the men were sent on a suicide mission and then blamed for its failure. The despicable Brigadier General Mireau was so blinded by his desire for promotion he sent waves of his men to die and then added insult to injury by selecting three men to die as scapegoats. The General who originally ordered Mireau to undertake the doomed attack remains unrepentant and unable to see the ineffective nature of his actions. As the film closes, the remainder of Dax’s men sombrely watch a German folk singer and touched by her mournful song begin to weep and sadly hum along. Dax watches this from outside and upon receiving order to send the men back to the front line for another assault, decides to give them a few more minutes of peace. The futility of the Great War’s trench warfare is laid bare and delivers an incredibly poignant ending.
8. Se7en (David Fincher, USA, 1995)
David Fincher’s neo-noir thriller is a film submerged in a dark and brooding tone. Kevin Spacey’s psychotic John Doe leads cops Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) on a merry chase as he undertakes his macabre killing spree according to the seven deadly sins. Dingy rooms and rain soaked streets accompany the two cops as they become immersed in Doe’s despicable game. The climax of the film ensures the story goes out on a suitably bleak note as the true magnitude of Doe’s actions really hits home. With two sins left to account for, Doe turns himself in and gets Somerset and Mills to drive him out into the desert where he will reveal his final two victims. The knowing smirk on Doe’s face and the increasing frustration on Mills’ tells us that the killer has one final trick up his sleeve. Once they are out in the wilderness, a bewildered delivery man turns up with a mysterious package and an increasingly exacerbated Mills continually asks, “what’s in the box???????” The answer of course is the severed head of Mills’ pregnant young wife, killed out of Doe’s own ‘Envy’. That first time you see Se7en you really don’t see it coming. Distraught and blinded by rage, Mills raises his gun to Doe’s head and at the psycho’s own behest, pulls the trigger and becomes ‘wrath’, completing the horrific cycle. After all Mills and Somerset’s hard work, Doe still has the final laugh.
7. La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995)
This landmark French film revolves around three friends who live in an impoverished Parisian suburb and are caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and hostility which surrounds the inhabitants of the city’s multi-ethnic projects. It’s a raw, powerful and gritty film which lays bare the great anger and frustration which exists among the French poor. In the aftermath of a brutal riot, the three main characters, Vinz, Hubert and Said spend a day aimlessly wasting time and being seemingly drawn to violence, be it clashes with racist skinhead gangs or with brutal policemen. By the film’s end, the once volatile Vinz, who earlier dreamt of killing cops, appear to have mellowed and recognised the foolishness of his ways. Perhaps he will reform and find a way out of the doldrums in which he languishes. Then, out of nowhere, they run into a plain clothes policeman who Vinz insulted earlier in the day. The cop holds a gun to Vinz’s head and after a heated argument the gun accidentally goes off and kills Vinz. Hubert, who was always the most peaceful of the trio up to now, aims his gun at the policeman who reciprocates with his own weapon. The scene then cuts to black and a gunshot is heard. The friends are seemingly unable to escape the futile violence which prevails in their society and La Haine offers little hope for change.
6. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA, 1874)
After learning the horrific truth regarding his client Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) and her abuse at the hands of domineering father Noah Cross (John Huston), P.I.I Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) vows to help her escape. Noah himself has asked Jake to find a young woman called Katherine, the identity of whom we are never fully sure until near the film’s climax. It turns out that Katherine is in fact both Evelyn’s sister and her daughter, conceived by her own father when Evelyn was only 15. Noah is a bullying ogre of a man who has used his considerable wealth and power to cover up both his shady business dealings as well as his personal indiscretions. Just when it looks like Evelyn and Katherine will finally escape his clutches, we realise that Noah already has the police on his side and they arrive to arrest Jake and thwart the escape. Evelyn still tries to escape with Katherine but after speeding off down a crowded street, she is gunned down and killed by the police. Noah clutches Katherine and leads her away as a desperate Jake is held back and told “forget it Jake, its Chinatown.” There’s nothing more that Jake can do as the despicable Noah gets away with everything and remains above the law. Proof that sometimes, crime really does pay.
5. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Mark Herman, USA/UK, 2008)
The horrors of the Holocaust are always hard-hitting and difficult to watch. In Mark Herman’s tragic drama however, an added twist at the film’s end will really leave you reeling. The film sees the family of an SS Officer move to the countryside where he has become commandant of a Nazi Concentration Camp. His 8 year old son Bruno, who is blissfully unaware of the horrors of the death camps, disobeys his parents and investigates the land to the rear of their house where the camp is based. He befriends a young Jewish boy, Shmuel, and the two bond through the wire fence of the camp. Bruno’s sister becomes heavily indoctrinated with Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda but Bruno remains unconvinced. One day when he visits Shmuel, the boy tells Bruno that his father has gone missing in the camp. Thinking he can help Shmuel, Bruno tunnels under the fence and after donning the ‘striped pyjamas’ which the prisoners all wear, the two boys go in search of Shmuel’s father. Inevitably though, they get mixed up with a group of prisoners being sent to the gas chambers. After being stripped and herded towards the showers, the two boys walk in hand in hand. We then see a soldier pouring poisonous gas pellets into the chamber and the terrified prisoners begin to scream and bang on the door. Bruno’s family desperately search for him but arrive at the awful truth too late as they find his abandoned clothes. The film ends on a shot of the gas chamber door, the eerie silence now speaking volumes.
4. The Mist (Frank Darabont, USA, 2007)
This 2007 adaptation of the Stephen King novella is by no means a vintage Sci-Fi horror movie but it’s unremittingly bleak ending certainly elevates it out of mediocrity. It’s one of those endings that, if you’re anything like me, you just sit back afterwards and swear loudly. After the titular mist has engulfed an American town and the various beasties that reside within it have caused several unpleasant deaths, the terrified townspeople who take shelter in a supermarket argue and fight over how best to cope. The film ratchets up the tension as people begin to turn on one another and solidarity is tested to the limit. Our central hero David (Thomas Jane) and his son ultimately try to escape in a car with three fellow survivors. Driving out into the mist they eventually run out of gas and after seeing no other survivors and plenty of terrifying creatures, the group decides there is no hope and they should use the remaining 4 bullets in their gun to end their misery. After shooting dead his son and the other 3 passengers, a distraught David exits the vehicle and wanders into the mist to meet his fate. Then, from the gloom, a squadron of soldiers and trucks full of survivors begin to appear and the mist starts to dissipate. The group were painstakingly close to safety and they didn’t even know it. David sinks to his knees and lets out a gut wrenching scream at the realisation of what he has done. Bleak. Incredibly bleak.
3. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, South Korea, 2003)
Where to begin with this one. Oldboy is truly a film that stays with you for days after you have seen it, if not weeks. The shocking revelation at the film’s climax is not only unexpected, but a deeply unsettling event which gives the entire film a particularly grim mood. Our main character Dae-Su has been kidnapped and held prisoner in a room for 15 years leaving behind a life which included a young daughter. Once released back into the world he soon meets a pretty young waitress called Mi-Do who takes pity on the dishevelled creature and invites him back to her home. The two grow very close and their blossoming romance soon becomes a physical one. After meeting his captor it is revealed to Dae-Su that the reason he was imprisoned was that as a schoolboy he spread a rumour regarding a classmate and a girl, only he did not realise that the girl was the classmate’s sister. Years later, the boy took his revenge for the humiliation caused. There was one twist left in the tale though as Dae-Su is shown a scrapbook which chronicles his baby daughter’s growth into adulthood during his time in confinement. The awful truth soon dawns on our hero that Mi-Do is actually his daughter. Dae-Su cuts out his own tongue out as a plea for forgiveness and begs his captor never to tell Mi-Do the truth. He then visits a hypnotist and pleads with them to help him forget the truth. When Dae-Su next awakens and stumbles into Mi-Do, the two embrace and we are unsure whether he remembers the sickening truth. The closing shot of his face however, contorted in anguish, suggests perhaps not. It’s a real shocker of a twist and the misery that is drawn all over Dae-Su’s face is plain to see. His life is in ruins and the misery of his 15 years imprisoned now pales in significance to the torment which awaits him.
2. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2000)
Just in case you were in any doubt that drugs are bad (mmmmkay), Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing drama hammers home the point with disturbing power. After their lives slowly spin out of control, the film leaves all four central characters to a fairly grim fate. Harry lies in a hospital bed, his arm amputated due to infection. Tyrone faces hard labour and racist guards in a Southern prison. Marion is forced to undertake despicable sex acts in order to feed her habit. Sara is involuntarily committed to a mental hospital where she appears to have completely lost her marbles. All four characters curl up into the foetal position and try to momentarily forget the awful predicament they find themselves in. A future filled with pain and misery awaits these characters who were once full of life and happiness. Just say no kids.
1. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988)
If you haven’t seen this Studio Ghibli animated war film before, let me make it explicitly clear from the off, it is truly unrelentingly bleak. It is engulfed in despair and misery throughout its run time and just when you think it can’t get any more depressing….it does. The film is set towards the end of World War 2 in the Japanese city of Kobe. The city comes under attack from American bomber planes and amidst the vast firestorms which accompany the attack, two children are left orphaned. Seita and Setsuko, aged 14 and 4 respectively, temporarily live with a distant aunt but after a fairly miserable time there, they move into an abandoned bomb shelter. The two children live in awful conditions, received no help from those around them and are forced to loot and steal just to survive. One day, after learning of Japan’s unconditional surrender, Seita races home to cook for his critically malnourished sister. He is unfortunately too late and Setsuko tragically dies. Seita cremates his sister and carries her around in an old fruit tin along with a photograph of his father who we assume was killed in battle. Seita himself then dies of malnutrition in a vast train station just weeks later. The horror of war is brought right into focus here as two innocent children suffer terrible hardships and pay the ultimate price. It’s a truly harrowing experience to watch and a millions miles away from the fairytale feel good factor of various other animated movies. The final shot of the two kids’ spirits sat side by side looking down on modern day Kobe reminds us how easily the hardships and degradation they suffered are forgotten by modern society.
Written and compiled by Robert Keeling.
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