Donnie Darko (2001)
The Unhappy Ending: After finally deciphering the nature of the time-loop within which he is trapped, Donnie opts to sacrifice himself in order to smooth out a kink in the space-time continuum.
Bleak Implications: Not only does poor Donnie meet an untimely end, but Patrick Swayze’s paedophile presumably remains under the radar!
Reasons To Be Cheerful: The universe is saved from collapsing in on itself. And Mad World is rather beautiful, isn’t it?
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Unhappy Ending: Having already chased Josh Brolin to a bloody death off-screen, Javier Bardem proceeds to kill his wife, who has just returned from her mother’s funeral. Bemused and frightened by the trail of violence he has witnessed, poor Tommy Lee Jones is left a broken man, his worldview shattered alongside his faith in humanity.
Bleak Implications: The world has always been a violent, nihilistic place and what’s more, it always will be.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least Bardem refrains from killing the two young boys who assist him after his car crash.
The Unhappy Ending: After the seemingly triumphant ending which sees Cinque and his fellow captives returning to Africa as free men, a passage of text appears on the screen revealing that Cinque returned home to discover his entire tribe had been captured by slavers.
Bleak Implications: He may have his freedom, but everyone dear to Cinque has long vanished. Not only that, but they have vanished into a life of slavery. Not much of a “welcome home” is it?
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least Matthew McConaughey’s character scored a career-boosting courtroom victory.
The Unhappy Ending: As the film comes to its jarring close, it is revealed that both Robbie and Cecilia died during WW2, their reunion never coming to pass. The narrative is revealed to be the contents of a book written by a guilt-stricken Briony, who finally realises the consequences of her earlier lie.
Bleak Implications: Not only did Robbie and Cecilia both die before their romance could be fully realised, but Briony has spent a miserable life beating herself up about it. Bleak doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least Briony realises the gravity of her error. Not that its much use to Robbie or Cecilia.
The Vanishing (1988)
The Unhappy Ending: Consumed by a desire to know what happened to his missing wife, Rex takes the drugged coffee offered by the man who has revealed himself to be her kidnapper. When he wakes, he finds he has been buried alive. D’oh!
Bleak Implications: Not only will Rex suffer one of the most horrific deaths conceivable, he will do so in the knowledge that his wife went the same way. Truly horrific.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least he has closure.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The Unhappy Ending: As Joe and Ratso sit on the bus headed towards a new life in Florida, the former realises the latter has died. Informing the driver of the news, Joe is told that the bus cannot stop, forcing the stricken man to sit next to his friend’s corpse for the remainder of the journey.
Bleak Implications: There’s no surer way of making God laugh than by telling him your plans.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Joe isn’t as naïve as he was at the outset, although that may prove to be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.
The Unhappy Ending: Denzel Washington’s hard-bitten cop taunts the demon Azazel whilst smoking a poisoned-laced cigarette he believes will render him useless as a host. However, as he dies, Azazel possesses a nearby cat and runs off into the night.
Bleak Implications: Denzel’s efforts were all in vain, and it will only be a matter of time before Azazel finds himself a new human to possess. Balls.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least Denzel’s spell under Azazel’s thrall was mercifully brief.
Miracle Mile (1988)
The Unhappy Ending: Amid the onset of nuclear war, Harry and Julie are rescued by a helicopter, only for said helicopter to crash-land in the La Brea Tar Pits. The screen fades to black as water steadily floods the compartment…
Bleak Implications: The love-struck couple are left to a watery grave, whilst LA is steadily blown to smithereens behind them. With nuclear war underway, humanity’s prospects don’t look the best…
Reasons To Be Cheerful: The final explosion that greets the end credits suggests a direct hit has put the pair out of their misery.
The Fly (1986)
The Unhappy Ending: Having endured yet another hideous transformation (this time fusing chunks of metal to its horrific visage) the Brundlefly finally gives up the ghost and begs former lover Veronica to put it out of its misery. She does, before collapsing in a heap of anguished sobs.
Bleak Implications: The whole sorry saga began as a result of Brundle’s misplaced paranoia which is depressing enough on its own merits. His eventual demise is simply the bitter icing on a particularly unpalatable cake.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: His research will likely make Brundle a household name…
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Unhappy Ending: Poor Sergeant Howie only got involved with the film’s pagan wackos because he wanted to save a little girl. As it turns out, he ends up burned alive, safe in the knowledge that she was in on it all along. Bastards!
Bleak Implications: Despite waiting the whole film for these rural hicks to get their comeuppance, it eventually becomes clear that there will be no such pay-off. Instead we are treated to the grisly demise of the man we’ve spent ninety minutes rooting for. Cheers.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: You can put on the Nic Cage version immediately afterwards and treat yourself to a good old chuckle.
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
The Unhappy Ending: The primary cast all succumb to the overpowering misery of their lives by collapsing into the fetal position. Not so much of a sucker punch as some on this list, but rather the naturally bleak continuation of all that has gone before.
Bleak Implications: Things are not going to get better. All of their lives have been ruined.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Ellen Burstyn’s fantasy is quite heartwarming if you can look past the fact that it isn’t really happening.
American History X (1998)
The Unhappy Ending: Having renounced the neo-Nazism that cast a dark cloud over his elder-brother’s life, Danny Vinyward goes to school full of optimism that his life can change for the better. Sadly he is mistaken as a young black student he’d quarrelled with the previous day shoots him dead in the bathroom.
Bleak Implications: One man’s epiphany does not mean an end to racial hatred, and nobody gets away clean. Derek Vinyard has a life of gut-wrenching guilt to look forward to, and Venice Beach’s deep-seated racial problems look set to rumble on long after the credits roll.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Both Derek and Danny had at least turned their backs on fascism. And a happy ending was always pretty unlikely, wasn’t it?
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Unhappy Ending: Darth Vader, the biggest shit in the galaxy, is revealed to be Luke’s old man. Which kind of changes everything…
Bleak Implications: Our hero, the blue-eyed poster-boy for the revolution, is actually the fruit of the Dark Lord’s loins. Oh, and Han has been kidnapped as well! Bummer.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Luke stands firm against his dastardly pa, opting to chuck himself down an air shaft rather than join his crooked Empire. What a guy!
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
The Unhappy Ending: Whilst the theatrical cut has Ashton Kutcher deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Amy Smart as a child, the director’s cut takes things even further, with Kutcher returning to the womb in order to throttle himself with his umbilical cord. Jesus…
Bleak Implications: “Everyone would be better off without me, so I may as well kill myself” is quite a strong message for a film to give out. It becomes even bleaker when you consider the fact that Kutcher’s character is described as a “miracle baby”, born after a number of stillbirths. Did all his siblings kill themselves too?
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Everyone else turns out alright in a Kutcher-free universe. Job done then! Kind of…
The Unhappy Ending: Unashamed slushfest it might be, but there’s no denying that Titanic ’s conclusion is a bona fide tearjerker. As Rose clings to the wall-panel that will prove to be her salvation, poor Jack dies of hypothermia in the freezing water. Tissues please!
Bleak Implications: True love cannot conquer all. A massive iceberg on the other hand, can.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least Rose survives. Her heart will indeed go on.
Withnail & I (1987)
The Unhappy Ending: As Marwood heads off to a life in the theatre, Withnail is left standing in Regent’s Park, soaked to the skin by the pissing rain, grimly reciting Hamlet to himself. Get that man a drink!
Bleak Implications: Whilst Marwood has dragged himself out of the mire, the future does not look bright for the charismatic Withnail. Will he ever play The Dane? It seems unlikely.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least it’s a bit cheerier than Bruce Robinson’s original ending which saw Withnail blow his brains out upon returning home!
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The Unhappy Ending: Having had her dreams of a new life in Paris dashed by her unambitious husband, April Wheeler gives up on life altogether, performing a self-administrated abortion to her unborn child which turns out to be fatal. Unsurprisingly, husband Frank is left a broken man.
Bleak Implications: The shot of Frank despondently slumped on a park bench leaves us in no doubt that the man’s life has been utterly shattered.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Frank dedicates himself to the children following April’s death. At least there’s some hope they might turn out alright…
Do The Right Thing (1989)
The Unhappy Ending: A confusing proposition in that it isn’t really a clear-cut happy or unhappy ending. Whilst the death of Radio Raheem is undoubtedly tragic, Mookie’s decision to chuck a dustbin through the window of Sal’s restaurant arguably saves his employer’s life. It’s the lack of easy answers and sense that a lot has still to change that lends this one its downbeat flavour.
Bleak Implications: Sal and Mookie’s reconciliation is tentative at best, and the neighbourhood is left a seething maelstrom of resentment and bitterness.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: There is a reconciliation of sorts, and both Sal and Mookie do live to see the credits roll. It’s not exactly a cheery ending though, nor should it be.
When The Wind Blows (1986)
The Unhappy Ending: The denouement of Raymond Briggs’ gloomy, paranoid drama sees cuddly couple Hilda and Jim praying quietly as they wait for death amid the fallout of a nuclear attack.
Bleak Implications: Humanity is so hell-bent on destroying itself that not even the twinkliest of pensioners are safe. Shame on all of us.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Radiation sickness might be one of the nastiest ways to go, but at least they die in each other’s arms.
Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1978)
The Unhappy Ending: Survivor Veronica Cartwright spots what she believes to be an ally in the form of hero Donald Sutherland. But before the audience has time to punch the air, the rug is swiftly whisked away as Sutherland emits the ear-piercing shriek that is the mark of a pod-person. They got him too? Noooooooo!
Bleak Implications: The hero of the piece has been taken…it’s time to abandon all hope for humanity. The disconcerting silence that accompanies the end credits leaves you in no doubt as to how you should feel at the end of this one.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Maybe he was doing it for a laugh?
The Unhappy Ending: The truth behind Leonard’s wife’s death is revealed, with Leonard himself proving to be the one at fault. The ongoing search for “John G” is shown to be a delusion created by Leonard in order to give his life purpose, and absolve himself of guilt. Presented with all this information, our hero opts to forget the truth, thus setting in motion the events that will lead to Teddy’s death.
Bleak Implications: Not only was Leonard responsible for his wife’s death, but he will end up killing the one man who has been a true friend to him in order to avoid facing up to it. Nice.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: The villain responsible for the initial attack on Leonard’s home was found and killed long ago.
The Unhappy Ending: Gittes realises the water conspiracy will never come to light, a state of affairs summed up perfectly by the least idealistic quote in cinema history: “forget it Jake…it’s Chinatown.”
Bleak Implications: The bad guys sometimes win, the truth won’t always out, and life can be pretty damned unfair!
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Jake Gittes will live to fight another day. Don’t give up hope old boy, you can’t win ‘em all.
Grave Of The Fireflies (1988)
The Unhappy Ending: This unremittingly downbeat animation concludes with orphan boy Seita returning with food to his malnourished sister Setsuko, only for her to die of starvation before he can save her. All alone in the world, Seito carries his sister’s ashes with him until his own death a few years later.
Bleak Implications: The pair do all they can to survive in war-torn Japan, but their struggle is ultimately futile, with neither of them making it past 1945.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: The final scene sees them reunited in death. That’s about as upbeat as it gets.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
The Unhappy Ending: Jack Nicholson’s authority-baiting anti-hero McMurphy is reduced to a mumbling shell by a lobotomy that leaves him a shadow of his former self. Distressed by this transformation, Chief Bromden puts him out of his misery by smothering him with a pillow.
Bleak Implications: Somehow, in the end, the bastards always grind you down.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Chief Bromden makes his escape, smashing the place up as he does so. Hooray!
The Unhappy Ending: The “happy ending” in which Sam drives off into the sunset with Jill is revealed to be taking place in our hero’s head. In reality he remains catatonic in Jack’s observation room, written off as a lost cause.
Bleak Implications: Our hero has been driven mad and will spend the rest of his days trapped inside his own head.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least his fantasy is a happy one. He’s even smiling at the end!
The Unhappy Ending: Just when detectives Mills and Somerset think they have John Doe just where they want him, the sin-obsessed wacko reveals his last trick: the courier-delivered head of Mills’ luckless wife. Consumed by wrath, Mills kills him, thus ensuring the completion of the monster’s masterpiece.
Bleak Implications: Mills is taken into custody a catatonic mess, whilst Doe successfully sees his grisly plan come to fruition.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Detective Somerset’s final words suggest he hasn’t quite given up all faith in humanity. “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” he quotes from Hemingway. “I agree with the second part.”
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
The Unhappy Ending: Having battled off hordes of the undead, protagonist Ben thinks help is finally at hand in the form of a trigger-happy posse of local types. Running to the window to attract their attention, he receives a bullet in the head for his troubles.
Bleak Implications: With one wayward bullet, the film’s last beacon of hope is snuffed out and chucked on the fire with the zombies. Sigh.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: At least his guts weren’t ripped out…being shot is a comparatively nice way to go!
Dancer In The Dark (2000)
The Unhappy Ending: As is to be expected from a film by cheery old Lars Von Trier, Bjork’s heroine Selma comes to a brutal end at the hands of a state executioner. She’s even hanged before she can finish the final song of the movie…
Bleak Implications: Poor old Selma has had a singularly difficult life, and now she’s given a callous, undignified death to cap it all off.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: In a significant silver-lining, Selma learns that her son’s operation has been a success, allowing him to dodge the hereditary disease that has gradually been blinding her. So that’s something.
The Mist (2007)
The Unhappy Ending: Having managed to escape the beleaguered supermarket where much of the film is set, Tom Jane desperately attempts to drive the last few survivors out of the mist and into salvation. Finding that the monsters exist well beyond the local environs, he tearfully puts a bullet in each of his companions’ heads. Including his son. Oof…
Bleak Implications: It gets worse. Seconds later the army turn up, meaning that poor Tom has just killed his pals for no reason whatsoever. Oh dear…
Reasons To Be Cheerful: Erm…at least the monsters didn’t get them? Not that they would have anyway…
Arlington Road (1999)
The Unhappy Ending: Jeff Bridges’ university lecturer unwittingly delivers Tim Robbins’ car-bomb to a packed federal building. The bomb kills Bridges and 183 other people, whilst Robbins and his (complicit) wife escape scot free…
Bleak Implications: Not only do a hell of a lot of people die, but Bridges is posthumously vilified as a terrorist himself. His orphaned son is bought up not knowing the truth, whilst real villains the Langs discuss relocating, “somewhere nice, somewhere safe”, suggesting they will strike again.
Reasons To Be Cheerful: None whatsoever. It’s the mother of all downer endings.