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15 Movies Where the Main Character Dies in the End

October 21, 2017
10 min read

As audiences, we’re often led to believe that the main character/protagonist will survive in the end, no matter how difficult the circumstances may be. This belief is imprinted in our psyche, and so we’re often shocked or devastated to witness the death of the main character. Many filmmakers have cleverly exploited this belief of ours to create compelling, realistic stories in which there are no happy/predictable endings. Movies where the main characters die are often more exciting, thrilling and realistic than the ones where all of them manage to survive even in the most absurdly impossible situations. So with all that said now, let’s take a look at the list of movies where the main character dies. WARNING: SPOILERS ALERT 

15. Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Lars Von Trier’s hopelessly melodramatic tale follows a naïve young woman who is desperate to earn some money in order to secure her son an operation so that he doesn’t suffer from the same degenerative eye condition that she suffers from. She works in a factory and is loved by all of them but her desperate neighbor tricks her with her money and falsely accuses her of stealing it and out of self-defense, she kills him. She is later convicted of the crime and is sentenced to death. The film relies heavily on the central performance by Bjork who has since declared that she would not appear in any film again as her role here was incredibly demanding, emotionally and psychologically.

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14. Scarface (1983)

Brian De Palma’s blatantly over-the-top crime drama chronicles the rise of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who arrives in Miami in the 80s with absolutely nothing and builds a drug empire and goes on to become the most feared gangster of the city. Pacino’s wildly over-the-top performance is in line with the film’s tone, and it keeps the film alive at many places. In the final showdown, Montana almost single-handedly kills a large group of armed men but is ultimately shot from behind by a highly skilled assassin.

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13. Breaking the Waves (1996)

One of Lars Von Trier’s most beloved films, ‘Breaking the Waves’ tells the story of a happily married couple whose lives are torn apart after the husband suffers from an accident at work and is paralyzed. The central character is Bess McNeill, a deeply religious, naive, young woman with mental problems, and her unconditional love for her husband is brutally tested when he asks her to have sex with other men and describe the experiences to him for his own mental health. Their relationship deteriorates over time and Bess, as a sacrifice for her husband, eventually gives herself up to a gang of violent men who brutally rape and torture her as she succumbs to her wounds while her husband manages to get back to his normal life.

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12. The Departed (2006)

Well, pretty much everyone dies in this film. ‘The Departed’, directed by the great Martin Scorsese, is cop movie that tells the story of two men, an undercover agent and a mole, who are desperate to expose each other before their own covers are blown. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon star in the lead roles, and the film basically revolves around their cat and mouse drama which culminates in a bloodied showdown at the end that peels off every single character’s identities and their motives as they try to double-cross each other but end up getting killed on their way.

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11. The Prestige (2006)

Now this might come off as a bold pick because, essentially, we’ve got two protagonists here. And there’s a sense of moral ambiguity that pervades the air of the film which makes it an even more challenging experience as Nolan doesn’t bracket his characters as heroes and villains. The two artists try to upstage each other every time, and the desire to win ultimately consumes them, and though one of them comes out triumphant in the end, their sense of morality is completely destroyed. It’s an intensely dark, almost disturbing portrait of identity, rivalry, sacrifice, duality and obsession.

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10. Philadelphia (1993)

‘Philadelphia’ tells the story of a highly successful lawyer who discovers that he is infected with AIDS and, after getting fired abruptly by his law firm, decides to fight a case by hiring a homophobic lawyer. It’s an incredibly moving story that is further elevated by a heartbreakingly honest performance by Tom Hanks and an equally brilliant Denzel Washington who is funny, intelligent and loving as a homophobic lawyer who, despite his own personal beliefs and ideologies, fights his case out of humanity and ultimately wins. However, Hanks’ character dies in the end, but their relationship brings about a massive change in Washington’s character, and his transformation is so effective portrayed in the movie.

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9. Into the Wild (2007)

This heart-wrenching survival drama tells the real life story of Christopher McCandless, a 20-year-old graduate who abandons his family and his most prized possessions and leaves for a long, adventurous journey into the wilderness in Alaska. During the journey, he meets and stays with different kinds of people from different phases, and his interactions with them bring about a change in his perspectives on life and existence. However, with no real means of survival and after having eaten a poisonous plant, McCandless eventually dies in Alaska but realizes the true nature of happiness.

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8. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino’s explosive feature debut redefined the American indie scene and revolutionized filmmaking in America in the 90s. The film was noted for its shockingly explicit depiction of violence, especially in the climax where almost all characters die in a bloodied shootout. The story is told using a non-linear narrative, and it keeps the suspense intact without ever letting you drift apart from the movie. The film doesn’t have an established protagonist but most of the characters are relevant to the story, and many of them do not survive the final battle.

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7. Insomnia (2002)

‘Insomnia’ may not be among Christopher Nolan’s most cherished works, but it still comes off as an incredibly compelling piece of crime drama. The film follows a cat and mouse play between a veteran, insomniac cop and a smart psychopath who recently murdered a teenage girl. The film is quite intense in the way the drama is built, and is superbly complimented by some compelling performances by Robin Williams and Al Pacino. The film’s climactic shootout results in Pacino’s character getting shot and ultimately dying in the arms of Hillary Swank in an emotionally charged finale which so beautifully defines the movie’s themes and does complete justice to its characterization.

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6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Master storyteller Steven Spielberg once again gives a hero to root for in the most trying times. In ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Tom Hanks plays John Miller, the leader of a group of soldiers who have been tasked with the duty of retrieving a young solider whose three brothers have already been killed in the war. The film chronicles the soldiers’ arduous search for Private Ryan and their epic battle in the end with the Germans. However, Hanks’ protagonist is killed by a German who was earlier set free by Hanks on the condition that he surrender to the Allies. The German is later killed by one of the remaining soldiers in Hanks’ unit as Hanks dies a true martyr.

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5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Arguably one of the greatest American movies of the 70s, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ centers around Randall McMurphy, a prisoner who fakes mental illness and is shifted to a mental institution where he must rebel against an authoritarian nurse to survive. McMurphy brings life to the institution by engaging patients in various kinds of activities like watching television, taking them out fishing, et cetera. However, McMurphy is lobotomized after trying to kill Nurse Ratched and, unable to withstand the pain of having to see him in such a state, Chief, McMurphy’s best friend, smothers him with a pillow and leaves the institution.

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4. Titanic (1997)

James Cameron’s sweeping romantic drama tells the tragic love story of two people, belonging to different classes of the society, who fall in love with each other. The woman is engaged to a wealthy upper class businessman, but she decides to get off with her lover. However, their ship collides with an iceberg and ultimately sinks, resulting in the tragic fate of our male protagonist who saves his love but dies of hypothermia. It’s a beautiful film that still strikes a chord in you with its unbridled passion and intimacy.

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3. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece centers around a middle-aged man who, along with his family, moves into a secluded hotel where he begins to lose control of his mind and slips into the dark corners of paranoia. He terrorizes his family as he attempts to kill his wife and child, but the movie culminates in his death. However, like most Kubrick films, it doesn’t really end with the death. Jack Torrance is seen in an old photograph in the hotel, dated July 4, 1921, and the final shot makes the film even more ambiguous than what its plot suggests.

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2. Dead Man Walking (1995)

One of the most underrated American movies of the 90s, ‘Dead Man Walking’ is a profoundly poignant, intimate tale of redemption, love, benevolence and humanity. The film depicts the relationship between a convict and a nun who acts as his spiritual adviser to guide him through his final days before execution. Penn stars in the lead role, and his transformation from being a sexist, racist, violent man to a kind soul, feeling intense remorse for his actions is the highlight of the film while Susan Sarandon brilliantly compliments with an equally moving performance as a gentle nun looking to redeem convicts. Penn’s character is executed in the end, but he leaves the world realizing the nature of his sins and the pain he caused to a lot of people.

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1. American Beauty (1999)

Featuring one of the greatest performances in American cinema history by Kevin Spacey, ‘American Beauty’ tells the story of a middle aged man going through a midlife crisis when he gets infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend. Spacey’s character Lester Burnham eventually reaches his destination when he realizes the futility of his existence and begins to examine his own life and relationships. Burnham, in the end, is shot by an anonymous intruder and is discovered by his wife. It’s a fitting end that stays true to the film’s thematic ambitions and the central character’s delusional state of mind.

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