18 April 2020

Downer Endings

As most of you know, we at this blog usually write about (1) mysteries or (2) writing or (3) mystery writing. And when the subject is writing, I've noticed that it's usually about either our own creations or about what it is that makes fiction (stories/novels/movies) effective and interesting and entertaining. (As if we know.)

Today I want to talk about stories that don't have happy endings. Movies, specifically. There are of course many of those, and some have endings that aren't just sad, they're downright depressing. Yes, I know, that might not be a good topic to focus on right now, during these uncertain times, but hey, I needed something to post today. Velma, our secretary and first-sergeant here at SleuthSayers, gets grumpy if I don't turn in my column.

For the record, I've always felt that the end of a story doesn't have to be either happy or sad (or even totally believable--look at The Black Stallion, or The African Queen)--but it does have to be satisfying. Every good story needs a problem for the hero/heroine to solve, and if by the end of the tale he doesn't get what he's been seeking, whether it's love or treasure or freedom or redemption or the world championship or whatever, the audience needs to understand why. Some of my favorite movies have clear, positive, cowboy-in-the-white-hat-wins endings. Everybody likes those. Other favorites of mine--Witness, Casablanca, Rocky, Vertigo, Hombre, Chinatown, Rain Man, and many others--end with the hero not getting what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted. But with those stories there was always a reason for that failure, and usually the outcome was for the greater good, or to teach him (and/or the audience) a life lesson. In Dead Poets Society, to mention just one example, the hero is fired from his job, but because of the way it was done the viewer leaves the theater feeling uplifted.

I once heard there are two words that come to mind when the subject is depressing endings: foreign films. That of course isn't always true, but I had to throw it in.

With regard to downer endings in general, I think they come in several flavors:

1. The death of the hero

Cool Hand Luke
Thelma and Louise
Saving Private Ryan
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Love Story
Bonnie and Clyde
Easy Rider
The Room
The Wild Bunch
Gran Torino

2. A continuation of the disaster/crisis

On the Beach
Night of the Living Dead
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
I Am Legend
The Happening
The Birds
Miracle Mile
The Road

3. An unresolved ending

No Country for Old Men
The French Connection
Blade Runner
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Blair Witch Project
The Wrestler
Taxi Driver
The Florida Project
Barton Fink

4. A surprise ending

Shutter Island
The Mist
Planet of the Apes
Primal Fear
Fight Club
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Departed
Soylent Green

NOTE: In my opinion, some of the above (Shane, No Country for Old Men, Seven, The Wild Bunch, Fail-Safe, etc.) were extremely good movies and some (The Happening, The Room, Love Story) were not. This isn't about good or bad or my idea of good or bad; we're just talking about endings.

Not that it matters, but I think the movie that had the most depressing ending ever was The Mist--probably because it was both tragic and needless. I enjoyed the story, but boy that ending was a punch in the gut. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. The odd thing is, the Stephen King novella from which it was adapted wasn't as bleak at the end. (On the flip side, the movie Cujo ended happy and King's novel Cujo ended sad.) The second most depressing ending I can remember was to one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? But it was also satisfying in that it explained with crystal clarity, in its final thirty seconds, its mysterious title.

One more observation: Some movies with depressing subjects have upbeat endings (The Shawshank Redemption, Deep Impact, Ghost, Oklahoma Crude, Stand By Me); some fairly upbeat movies have depressing endings (Somewhere in Time, Titanic, King Kong, Million Dollar Baby); and let's face it, some depressing movies have depressing endings (Leaving Las Vegas, The Road, They Shoot Horses, The Elephant Man, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream). Something for all tastes.

How do you feel about all this? What are some of your favorite downer endings? Which are the worst? Have you ever seen an otherwise good movie whose ending ruined it? Ever seen an otherwise bad movie whose ending saved it? How about those that started bad and went steadily downhill? Have any of your own stories and novels ended with a letdown?

I suppose, since I have nothing positive to add, that's the way I'm ending this column.

Stay safe!


  1. Great list, John. And I'm glad you included Miracle Mile, an interesting little gem, imo. As for my favorite with a downer ending, or at least not the ending one might have wished for in the best of all possible worlds: Casablanca. My favorite film, period. And it's on TCM today for anyone who wants to catch it.

  2. Cool posting. you might add DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB to your 'A continuation of the disaster/crisis' list.

  3. Paul and O'Neil -- Thanks for the early-morning (for O'Neil and me, at least) comments.

    Paul, I bet I've watched Casablanca a dozen times. And, yes, if not for that ending it wouldn't have been the movie it was. Glad he didn't get on the plane. And I suspect not many folks have seen Miracle Mile. Their loss, right?

    O'Neil, I just plain forgot Dr. Strangelove. MY loss, there. It remains one of the oddest and still most enjoyable movies ever. I once won a radio trivia call-in contest (prize: a free lunch at a fast-food place here in Jackson) for being able to correctly name the subtitle to that movie. Which really does, I guess, qualify as trivia. Thanks for the addition to my sadly incomplete list. Take care!

  4. Great post and list, John.

    Can I add two more, both films made from Dennis Lehane novels (as was Shutter Island)?

    In both cases, I liked the films but felt they had to simplify the very complex novels, which diluted the impact a little.

    Mystic River is a punch in the gut with one of those "oops" revelations. I started reading Lehane's books after seeing that movie, and he brought me into the 21st century of crime, along with Don Winslow.

    Gone, Baby, Gone has one of the most heart-wrenching endings of any mystery I can recall, and it's set up beautifully and logically. Affleck's film is good, but had to cut a great deal, and I have issues with some of the casting, even though I understand his choices.

    I need to go back and look at some of these films again.

  5. I know you said this wasn't about films that were good or bad, and I agree that there are some films here I don't care for... but overall, I found myself scanning through and realizing: Apparently I really like films with downer endings!

    ...however, I'll agree on The Mist. I get Tara a new horror film for Halloween each year (it's her birthday), and that was the film one year. When it was over, we swore to not even keep the DVD in our house! And I did indeed get rid of it. I thought that movie was so interesting for the first half or so, but that ending....

  6. Hey Steve. Yep, I actually almost included Mystic River in one of the lists--I read that novel before seeing the movie, and boy did that book have a great and surprising (and logical) ending. It's the book that got me started on Lehane--I'd met him once, at a booksigning--and I've now read all his novels, and have them here at home. And yes, Gone Baby Gone was wonderful as well, with another of those powerful endings.

    Thanks for mentioning Lehane. He came to mind for this column mainly because of the huge surprise at the end of Shutter Island. For me, that ending WAS a bit of a downer, maybe because it came out of NOwhere.

  7. Art--I only just saw your note. I agree with you and Tara: The Mist left me with a bad feeling, and it was all because of that ending. It truly was unnecessary--as I said, the novella didn't end that same way. Steve mentioned the word heart-wrenching, and the movie version of this one was.

    I also agree that yes, downer endings can be truly good and satisfying. When Witness ended I was sorry the two leads didn't get together, but I also realized that made perfect sense. The culture gap was, in that case, just too wide, and the romance wouldn't have worked. But both of them (and we as an audience) learned a lot about life in the process. Same thing, in a different way, with Casablanca.

    Thanks, Art, for the thoughts.

  8. Interesting food for thought. While I prefer HEA endings, because escapism, I can appreciate a downer ending IF the MC has a satisfying character arc.

  9. Great post.
    Here's two more: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Johnny Got His Gun" (which gave me nightmares after I saw it).

  10. You forgot the most referenced and remade of all downer and dark endings: Shakespeare tragedies. Consider the adaptation: West Side Story- the ending was only half as dark as the original, but still dark.

    Tons of war movies fall into the bleak, nearly every one dies category, where they might have won the battle but at great cost.

    As for bleak endings in books-- I had to stop reading Elizabeth George because of her endings. The devastation she wrought on her characters was too much for me, left me feeling too depressed, even sick to my stomach.

    Note: I distinctly remember Shane riding away, not dead, at the end of the movie. His future is bleak, but he's not dead yet.

  11. Kristin -- Yep, I prefer the escapism too. Make me feel good--don't make me think TOO much about the lessons life offers. And I too love it when a character changes his/her attitudes in the course of the story, whether the ending's an upper or a downer.

    Eve, I actually put Cuckoo's Nest in the list and took it out again for some reason. And I had completely forgotten Johnny Got His Gun.

    Anon, you are right on all counts. As for Shane, I've only watched that movie a hundred times, and in my mind Shane was riding off to die, having made the ultimate sacrifice--he's certainly slumping in the saddle in that final scene. An open ending, I guess.

    Thanks, folks, for the comments!

  12. I've just finished teaching a three hour class this morning (moved to online) and it is SO fresh in my mind that you must satisfy the reader. Very few people want to read or watch for 2-4 hours to find that their beloved protagonist has kicked the bucket and it was all for naught...and therefore a waste of that 3-4 hours. Yes, maybe HEA isn't realistic, but I try to give my readers a happy-for-now, and a chance for my characters to celebrate and reflect. I may hint to more trouble to come, but satisfying my promise to the reader is paramount.

  13. Well said, Melodie. I find myself remembering the times I've closed a novel or finished a story or left a theater and felt cheated--and I never, ever want to commit that sin with my own writing. I bet your students are enjoying that class!!!!

    Be safe, and keep in touch!

  14. The movie that left me most depressed was “A Simple Plan.” Just thinking of it now depresses me.

  15. Whoa -- a good one, Larry. Another one of those stories that I'd already read in novel form before seeing the movie. And one of those "if it CAN go wrong it WILL go wrong" tales. Thanks for pointing that one out.

    Hope you and family are doing well, during all this. Take care!

  16. Mary Ann Joyce18 April, 2020 17:28

    Some of my favorite movies have sad/depressing endings, and then you're right, sometimes it's just not really necessary. There are some that came to my mind that you didn't mention. Of course, the classic, "Old Yeller." Why we watched it as kids is beyond me. I guess we all looked forward to "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights, and Netflix didn't exist, so that's what we watched.

    I also thought about "Pay it Forward" which has a terrific young Haley Joel Osment, and (sorry) Kevin Spacey, and is a really touching, (sorry again) sweet movie until Osment is tragically murdered at the end. (Also sorry if I ruined it for you.) I would literally tell people who were going to see it to walk away when there was 10 minutes left or else risk crying your eyes out. Other than the ending, it was good!

    And what about "The Parralax View?" I bet it's been a long time since you've seen that one? All I can say is, "Poor Warren Beatty."

    And the last one I'll mention, though there are many I could, is "Slingblade." You really want a new life for Carl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) and he seems to have finally made a life with his surrogate family, but alas, it's not to be...

  17. Hey Mary Ann! Yes, those are all good. I started to mention not only Old Yeller but King Kong, etc. And Sling Blade in particular is a downer. (Though certain folks certainly got what they deserved, in the end. One, at least.)

    I bet not many of us can recall The Parallax View. Good memories. And yes, I remember Pay It Forward too, but never thought about it for these lists.

    Thanks for mentioning these! And, for those of you who don't know, Mary Ann's daughter is in the movie business--what a great job!

  18. Mary Ann Joyce18 April, 2020 18:01

    Thanks, John! I always love to read your column here! Gets my mind in the mood to write something! Also, I would never really tell someone to leave or turn off a movie before the ending, but gosh, sometimes you just want to because you know what's coming!

    Have a good rest of your weekend there! Hope you and your family are all well and safe!

  19. M.A., I'm afraid I am one of those who will quickly and happily leave a movie without finishing it. I do the same with novels and even short stories. There are too many good ones out there for me to waste my time with one that isn't keeping my interest. And yes, I realize I probably wind up missing out on some good movies/novels/stories that way (because sometimes the ending redeems it). But that attitude does serve as a reminder to me, to try to make what I write compelling enough to keep the reader turning pages. The attention span (and the tolerance) of the reading/viewing audience isn't what it used to be.

    Thanks again for dropping in, here.


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