More often than not, it’s easy to predict when a character in a movie is going to die. In horror movies, it’s usually the randy teenagers who decide to spend an amorous night in an isolated cabin. In action movies, it’s the cocky villain whose nefarious plot is uncovered just in the nick of time and, occasionally, the grizzled hero who sacrifices himself in a hail of gunfire. In Nicholas Sparks movies, it’s whoever’s death will cause bored housewives to cry the most.
No matter the film, the actors, or the director, we’ve learned to recognize certain recurring patterns in the films we watch. It’s been said that there are only seven stories in the world and that every movie, book, television show or video game that we enjoy is derived from one of these seven basic frameworks.
However, there are occasions where an audience can still be taken by surprise. The 1999 film Deep Blue Sea played with our expectations by casting Samuel L. Jackson — an actor known for his vigorous, emphatic delivery — as Russell Franklin, a corporate executive sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding an escaped shark. In Jackson’s first major scene, in the middle of delivering a rousing, energetic speech, he is stopped mid-sentence when a shark leaps from the waters and essentially swallows him whole.
By playing with our expectation that the film’s highest-billing star was safe so early in the film, Deep Blue Sea sent a message to the audience that, in fact, nobody was safe. In the end, the film benefited from the decision by increasing tension and uncertainty, two qualities inherently valuable to a horror movie.
On this list, we take a look at seven similar examples of moments when films subverted our expectations. Whether through the death of a major character early in the movie or by allowing the death of a typically protected class, such as children. Here, we look at seven of the most surprising movie deaths.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
7 The Mist (2007)
Who: Billy Drayton, Played By Nathan Gamble
For all intents and purposes, The Mist appeared to be just another in a long line of Stephen King adaptations. Kicking off with a severe thunderstorm that ushers in a roiling, apocalyptic fog, the film follows David Drayton and his son Billy — along with a small collection of townspeople — as they take refuge in a local grocery store.
The film then follows the standard King formula: a religious nut wreaks havoc inside the store, tension escalates, the stakes are raised and — ultimately — the situation becomes untenable and our main characters are forced to take drastic action.
Near the end, Drayton, his son and a handful of others venture outside the store. On the road, faced with a difficult decision, David takes hold of a revolver and — believing he’s sparing his compatriots a horrible death — pulls the trigger one by one. It is only after the gun runs out of bullets, after everyone is dead, that David discovers a horrifying truth: rescuers have arrived.
6 No Country For Old Men (2007)
Who: Llewelyn Moss, Played By Josh Brolin
Praised by critics and audiences alike, No Country For Old Men is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. Directed by the Coen brothers, No Country For Old Men was lauded by Roger Ebert, who said it was “as good a film as the Coen brothers have ever made.” High praise, considering the duo also directed perennial favorites The Big Lebowski and True Grit.
The majority of the film follows hunter Llewelyn Moss, who incurs the wrath of hitman Anton Chigurh after he discovers a misplaced cache of drug money. Just as the audience gets comfortable rooting for Moss, Chigurh tracks him down at a motel room in El Paso and murders him.
5 The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)
Who: Luke Glanton, Played By Ryan Gosling
2013’s The Place Beyond The Pines tells the multi-generational tale of two men in the Glanton family and their respective chance encounters with police officer Avery Cross. The film was hailed by Indiewire critic Kevin Jagernauth as “a wondrously widescreen tale of fathers, sons and the legacy of sins that are passed down through the generations.”
To unsuspecting audiences it came as a surprise when the film’s lead character Luke Glanton — played by Ryan Gosling — was shot dead at the conclusion of a bank robbery gone awry. Afterwards, the film shifted its lens to a new character — Luke’s shooter, Avery Cross — before eventually returning to the Glanton family in its third act.
4 The Departed (2006)
Who: Billy Costigan, Played By Leonardo DiCaprio
Martin Scorsese, known for his gritty depictions of criminal life in films like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, directed The Departed in 2006. The film, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood A-listers, tells the story of a Boston mob crew infiltrated — to varying degrees of success — by the Massachusetts State Police.
Among the film’s superstar-laden cast, Leonardo DiCaprio — as trooper Billy Costigan — stands out as the movie’s primary protagonist. Depicted in a way that highlights his personal growth and relatively intact morality, it comes as a surprise, then, when he is unceremoniously executed by virtual nobody Barrigan — whose role doesn’t even merit a first name — before he himself is summarily dispatched by Staff Sergeant Sullivan.
3 Funny Games (2007)
Who: George Farber Jr., Played By Devon Gearhart
2007’s Funny Games was an interesting movie. A literal shot-for-shot remake of a 1997 film of the same name, the film follows the Farber family — George, Ann and pre-teen George, Jr. — as they endure a sadistic night of “games” at the hands of two teenaged psychopaths.
Likened to the Hostel series and accused of being “art-house torture porn,” the film distinguished itself as one of the most relentlessly brutal movies of the decade. At the heart of the film’s brutality lies a scene where the Farber family and their captors engage in a fatal variant of eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Little George, Jr. panicking, attempts to flee and is mercilessly gunned down by one of the psychopaths.
2 Pet Sematary (1989)
Who: Gage Creed, Played By Miko Hughes
Another entry for horror master Stephen King, Pet Sematary tells the tale of the Creed family who — upon moving into a new home — discover two things: first, it’s dangerous to live beside a busy highway and second, it’s even more dangerous to live adjacent to a Micmac burial ground.
In one of the movie’s most shocking scenes, the Creed’s young son, Gage, who has just learned to walk, toddles his way precariously close to the highway’s edge. Moments later, he has crossed the white lines and stands — teetering — in the path of an advancing 18 wheeler that summarily obliterates him.
1 Zombieland (2009)
Who: Bill Murray, Played By Himself
In the glut of zombie movies released over the last decade, it’s easy to overlook Zombieland. Decidedly tongue-in-cheek, the film follows “Columbus,” a college student immune to a prolific, human-affecting strain of mad cow disease as his makes his way home to Ohio. On his journey, he encounters an eclectic cast of fellow travelers and — in the end — learns the value of family.
Among the cast of characters Columbus meets is legendary actor Bill Murray. Disguised as an undead shambler, Murray first meets two of Columbus’ companions before he is unexpectedly shotgunned in the chest after being mistaken for a legitimate zombie.