12 Major Box-Office Hits That Had Bleak-as-Hell Endings
My colleagues over on Uproxx, Ashley Burns and Chloe Schildhause, have a really great interview with Kevin Walker, the screenwriter of Se7en up today, Among the revelations is that he had written a second, less bleak draft of the screenplay and had turned it into director David Fincher, who said “No, I don’t want to do this, I want to go back to that first draft.”
Walker wouldn’t expound too much on that other ending, except to say:
I’ll just say that it involved, as I remember it, an abandoned church and the seven deadly sins were depicted in a kind of tableau of paintings, and I don’t believe there was any head in the box or anything, there was just a confrontation in an abandoned church. It sounds like the end of Batman.
With that ending, it would’ve been a completely different film, and one that wouldn’t have been nearly the hit it was at the time (or a movie with the kind of shelf life Se7en has had over the years).
The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood is that a happy, hopeful, upbeat ending will result in more repeat viewings, more word of mouth, and more box-office dollars, which is why studio executives so often insist on “Hollywood endings.” Why is this considered so? You might leave a theater after a happy ending with a satisfied feeling, but it’s those bleak endings that stick with you, and when something sticks with you, you’re more likely to tell your friends to go see the movie. Sad, miserable endings, you will remember. Happy endings? They’re a dime a dozen. Nobody left No Country with Old Men with a smile on their face, but it didn’t keep others from seeking it out in theaters.
Still, it takes a lot of clout for a director to take $100 million from a studio and return to them a movie that makes the viewer feel miserable afterwards, which is why only the most powerful directors can usually get away with it. But when they do, box-office dollars often match critical acclaim.
Here are several examples of movies with bleak endings that nevertheless managed to put up big numbers at the box office. (Warning: Spoilers for a bunch of movies you should’ve already seen).
Titanic ($1.1 billion, adjusted for inflation) — The mother of all box-office hits ended with the male lead freezing to death in the cold ocean and most of the passengers in ship drowning in near frozen water. People cried. A lot. And then returned, a lot, because tragedy sells.
The Dark Knight ($624 million, adjusted for inflation) — Rachel dies, The Joker’s imprisoned (which is sadder than it should’ve been) and Two-Face died, which should’ve been a victory, except that Batman convinces Gordon to frame him for the murders so that Harvey Dent will remain a symbol of hope for the city, and if that’s not harsh enough, a letter that Alfred burns was written by Rachel to Bruce announcing her engagement to Dent. After The Dark Knight, I thought everything would change, and what studios meant by “gritty” reboots were more movies with bleak endings. Not so. They just mean, movies with less lighting, apparently. I also think that the third film in the trilogy might have been better without the coda, showing that Batman had survived.
The Passion of the Christ ($500 million, adjusted for inflation) — Jesus dies, brutally. Jesus died for our sins, 18 times over, according to Mel Gibson, who never met a back he didn’t want to flog. It’s two hours of unrelenting savagery, and it’s the highest grossing R-Rated film of all time.
The Shining ($144 million, adjusted for inflation), Chinatown ($95 million) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ($478 million) — It was a good time to be Jack Nicholson in the 1970s, although was not a good time to be a Jack Nicholson character.
The Bridge Over River Kwai ($456 million, adjusted for inflation) — Everyone dies, but by God, they blew up that bridge, didn’t they? To what end? Madness, people. “Madness! … Madness!”
American Sniper ($361 million, adjusted for inflation) — Had Chris Kyle not died in real life, I’m not sure how American Sniper would’ve ended. A martyr is even more powerful than a hero, after all. I didn’t know that Kyle had died in the end, and whatever my feelings on the rest of the film, the post-script gutted me.
Midnight Cowboy ($285 million, adjusted for inflation) — What could be more depressing than an ending where one character is riding on a bus with his arm around his dead best friend, and a driver says to you, “Nothing we can really do about that right now. I guess we’ll just keep driving”?
American Beauty ($185 million, adjusted for inflation) — A daughter, with her boyfriend, walks in to find that the boyfriend’s closeted gay dad had murdered her Dad out of shame. But you know? He looked so peaceful lying their with his head on the table, blood pooling onto the floor.
Seven ($156 million, adjusted for inflation) — Fact. This movie doesn’t break $35 million if Gwyneth’s heads not in a box.
The Departed ($156 million, adjusted for inflation) and Shutter Island ($139 million) — Scorsese, like Fincher and Nolan, is one of the few directors who can get away with killing nearly everyone in the film and win an Oscar and make a fortune at the box office.
(Kevin Walker interview via Uproxx)