You’ll be at a loss to find any winners here
When you start watching a movie, you can be reasonably confident things will end well for the heroes. After all, a surefire way to end a story on a satisfying note is by having things turn out well for the characters we like. Plenty of good stories have their characters overcoming obstacles and making sacrifices, yet ultimately being better off at a movie's conclusion than they were at its beginning.
Occasionally, a movie might throw you for a loop and have things end on a bittersweet note. Sometimes, things go further, and the story's villains are victorious. However, some films manage to go further still, and have endings where no one really wins; not the heroes, nor the villains, and nor those in between. Such movies are rare, but not impossible to come by, as the following 10 films – and their bleak, downbeat endings – will demonstrate.
This article will contain spoilers for the films discussed
Martin Scorsese released two movies in 2019, and The Irishman was certainly the bleaker one. In fact, it might well be the most downbeat movie of his filmography so far, as it deconstructs the gangster genre through a tragic story about betrayal, regret, and alienation, with old age shown to be something that makes all of those worse.
It's a film where many side characters (based on real people) are introduced with a title card that specifies when and how they died. By the film's end, the protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is elderly, and the only one of his old gang left alive. His family members have distanced themselves from him, and it's clear he's going to die alone, sad, and filled with regret in an elderly home. It's almost a more brutal scene than any mob murder Scorsese's shown in his directing career.
Given Apocalypse Now is based on a novella with a title as ominous as Heart of Darkness, it's not too surprising that it ends up being a downer of a movie. And, in all honestly, Apocalypse Now is similarly ominous, which is appropriate, given this is a war film that ends up being about the horror and needless death that comes with combat, and how being in a war can destroy a person's soul.
Willard achieves his goal of tracking down and killing the rogue Colonel Kurtz by the film's end, but his journey through Vietnam saw many of his crew die. Those who didn't die throughout the film are shown to be traumatized and shaken by their experiences. And, with their lives ruined, the war seems like it's going to go on raging around them. It all goes to show that in war, there are no real winners.
Avengers: Infinity War flips the standard MCU formula on its head. There are countless characters, which means no one hero really shines as a protagonist, leaving Thanos as the closest thing the movie has to a main character. He sets out to retrieve all the Infinity Stones, and wants to use them to eradicate half of all life in the universe.
In his goal, he's ultimately successful. His win, naturally, is a loss for the whole universe, as even the 50% lucky enough not to be turned to dust have to deal with a world where half the population has vanished. Even his win came at a heavy price (he claims it cost him "Everything"), and within the opening minutes of Infinity War's sequel, the Avengers track down him down and kill him. Pretty bleak stuff for the most popular movie franchise on the planet.
In the tense and disturbing crime-thriller, Se7en, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play two detectives who are on the case of a particularly sadistic serial killer. His entire goal seems to be to stage a series of murders based on the seven deadly sins, and he's shown early on to be someone who'll go to great lengths to achieve his twisted objective.
Ultimately, his complex plan comes to fruition. His murders go to plan, with him orchestrating himself to be the final victim, and Pitt's character, David Mills, committing it, representing the sin of "wrath." All those still alive are distraught by the events of the film, with Mills himself likely to spend many years in jail for the murder. And even if the villain "wins," he still had to lose his life to do so, meaning his time enjoying his "victory" was brief.
Bicycle Thieves is a simple but powerful movie about life in Rome in the years following World War 2's conclusion. It follows a father and his young son who search for a stolen bicycle that the father needs for his job, which he uses to support his family.
Things become increasingly desperate as the film goes on, with the father resorting to stealing a bicycle by the film's conclusion. He's arrested, putting his job – and his family's well-being – in jeopardy. It's a film that aims to show how tough life was for many in the years following WW2, achieving that by having a bleak outcome where there are no winners or characters that are well off.
When it comes to the conflict between a film's main hero and its main villain, Spider-Man: Far From Home is the rare superhero movie where neither emerges victorious. The film becomes a battle of wits and physical strength between Spider-Man and Mysterio, with the final showdown making it seem as though things went swimmingly for Peter Parker/Spider-Man.
However, Mysterio hatched a plan that comes to fruition after his demise. Though he can't enjoy the chaos he unleashes on the world, he does it anyway, making Spider-Man's real identity known to the world, upending Peter Parker's life as he knew it. Things are sorted out by the next film, of course, but it's an interesting no-win way to end the second of the Tom HollandSpider-Man movies.
The Great Escape is unsurprisingly about a large-scale prison escape, and is easily one of the best movies to cinematically depict a jailbreak. It takes place during World War 2, and the escape, at first, seems to be going pretty great. Many make it out, and various characters get a fair distance away from their prisoner-of-war camp.
However, for most, their luck runs dry. Many are killed trying to make it out of Germany, and others are rounded up and put back in the prison camp. The prison break is hardly a success for more than just a few select escapees. It's a sad ending, but true to the real-life story that inspired the film.
The Cabin in the Woods is a film that satirizes horror movies while also criticizing viewers who blindly watch them. While it's set up as a movie about a group of young people who go to an isolated cabin in the woods, it ends up being so much more.
Essentially, the young people are actually part of a strange ritual sacrifice that needs to be done, to ensure malevolent gods don't destroy the Earth. As the sacrifice is thwarted by its would-be victims, the gods end up destroying the world. Everyone on the planet dies. No one wins.
Opening with a bank heist that shows how precise and controlling The Joker is, and ending with Gotham City in chaos, as he planned, The Dark Knight is a movie that ends with little optimism or victory for anyone involved.
Yes, The Joker may have won, but he admits he's not a man with a plan. He's unlikely to see outside a prison cell for the rest of his life, and as for everyone else? Many are dead, others are traumatized, and Batman himself has been vilified and is on the run, making this a downer ending for all involved.
Hereditary is a shocking and bleak movie, even if you're prepared for what it's going to throw at you. After all, one of its main characters (its youngest) dies before the end of the first act, and the rest of the film sees her family struggling to cope with the loss.
Things continue to get worse and worse, and by the end, most of the family is dead. Its one survivor, Peter, finds himself about to be possessed by a murderous cult in its final scene. It's debatable if the cult members even win, especially if they're made up of once-unwilling participants, like Peter. It truly is a sad and despairing ending to a sad and despairing movie.
NEXT: 'Banshees of Inisherin' & Other Comedies That Are Also Really Sad
Jeremy is an omnivore when it comes to movies. He'll gladly watch and write about almost anything, from old Godzilla films to gangster flicks to samurai movies to classic musicals to the French New Wave to the MCU. When he's not writing lists for Collider, he also likes to upload film reviews to his Letterboxd profile (username: Jeremy Urquhart) and Instagram account.