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Tears In the Rain: Favorite Death Scenes in Film

December 16, 2010

“I googled ‘most beautiful death scenes in movies’ and the results are sad and deeply unsatisfying,” said @hsofia, so of course I googled the same thing to see what was coming up.  Most of the blogs focused on gore and horror, which makes sense, the purpose of those films is to come up with new and exciting ways for characters to be killed off by the supernatural or psychopaths, or there were dramatic lists that have the same 5 scenes mentioned again and again.  Although some of those repeat offenders are definitely great deaths (Rutger Hauer’s adieu in Blade Runner, where the title of this post also come from), here are some other exit scenes from film, both famous and less-thought-of, that haunt me to this day.

Dead Man Walking

Famous for making people rethink their position on the death penalty, also one of the first mainstream breakout movie roles for Celia Watson, but there are two moments from this movie that have stayed strongly with me through the years.  First, when Matthew (Sean Penn) is in the visiting room with his family for the last time, and his mom reaches out to touch him and simultaneously the guards close in around Matthew to prevent the act.  The movement in this scene is perfect by everyone, Penn, Guards #1 and #2 alike, and the way the mother’s face crumples at being unable to hug her son is when the tears first rise to the surface for me.  But of course it’s Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) telling Matthew at the end that everyone – everyone – deserves to see a face of love when they die, and she promises to be that face of love for him.  I kept thinking, they won’t really show it.  But they did.  I still can hear Sarandon saying that line, over 15 years later, and the memory alone moves me, there is no need to rewatch a youtube clip of it.  Actually, I’ve done no clip hunting for any of these scenes, it’s all from memory, which means there might be errors, but the point is death scenes that have stayed with me permanently, so it seems more apt to write about them solely from recall.

Children of Men

children-of-men_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85I’m still pissed this movie was passed over for some many Oscar nominations (and wins).  It was one of my favorite movies of that year, even more than Pan’s Labyrinth (which also got snubbed in the foreign film category for that sexist and dumb The Lives of Others).  I have the hots for Clive Owen but I also have the hots for Julianne Moore, who broke out of her Fragile White Lady mold and played a tough and sexy freedom fighter (as well as the ex-flame of Owen’s character) in the post-procreation world.  Shortly after reuniting, they are driving out to the woods, and what starts off as a flirtatious game with a ping pong ball transforms into a breathtaking scene of sudden and shocking murder, all seemingly done in one single camera take from the backseat.  That is some stellar DPing right there.  Also the reason why I’ve not yet been able to rewatch the film, I’m not sure I can relive the trauma and loss.

Set It Off

set-it-off-1I watched this movie so much in college, it was the go-to Friday rental from the video store if I was with a friend who hadn’t seen it.  Partly because it’s lesbionic (just as was I during that time), partly because it’s a heist movie, and I love heists.  The Robin Hoods of the Hood take out a bunch of banks and even though you know the run will end, you don’t want it too.  As their final robbery goes awry, one of the main characters Tisean (Kimberly Elise, in her first role) gets shot in the bank.  They carry her to the getaway car, but on the drive to the hospital, in the chaos of yelling, she quietly dies in Stony’s arms, who reaches down to brush her fingertips over her face and close her eyes.  The movie only gets more tear-filled after that.

Longtime Companion

This is the death scene probably number one on my list of most moving, most influential, even if I barely remember the details of the rest of the movie!  If you don’t know this 1990 film, it’s the first mainstream theatrical release full length feature to be about AIDS, as the plot revolves around a group of mainly gay men in NYC in the 1980s as it first emerges.  Bruce Davison plays David, the partner of Sean, who contracts the disease early on and we see him deteriorate throughout the film, starting with fear of getting sick, then the dementia, and then the end when he is in constant pain and strapped to his bed at home.  David sends the home nurse out on an errand, then sits down next to Sean, the only one who doesn’t fear touching him still, strokes his hair and quietly gives him permission to “just let go”.  And Sean finally does.


Ok, let’s help @hsofia out with even more suggestions.  What are your favorite death scenes from movies?  Or at least the most influential that have stayed with you over the years?

46 Comments leave one →
  1. hsofia permalink
    December 16, 2010 1:19 pm

    Thanks! And do you know what’s awesome? I re-Googled that phrase and now this post is already (what has it been, an hour?) the third result.

  2. December 16, 2010 1:20 pm

    People realize these responses will contain spoilers, right?

    My favorite is Tom Lee Jones’ in Space Cowboys. It’s an off screen death – so we think – but the parting shot of his body on the surface of the moon, with a cracked mask and it’s clear he his childhood dream came true. They also play the world’s most jaunty version of an already jaunty song – Fly Me to the Moon. I’ve never forgotten this death scene.

    two words: TOP GUN!!!

  3. December 16, 2010 1:20 pm

    Interesting selections. Gotta include The Green Mile for my money. Love me some movies!

  4. December 16, 2010 1:23 pm

    when Wade played by Giovanni Ribisi in Saving Private Ryan dies still lingers in my mind. As well as when Ofelia died in Pan’s Labyrinth.

  5. December 16, 2010 1:36 pm

    @hsofia: ha! sweet! I hope a good list comes out with lots of movie minds commenting.

    @snarkysmachine: I thought about placing a spoilers warning, but damn, I get tired of playing with kids sometimes. this pop culture discussion is FOR ADULTS ONLY.

    @1sttimeoffender: yes, the Pan’s Labyrinth death scene definitely stays with me too. I actually haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (nor Green Mile!) – perhaps I have unresolved Tom Hanks issues I’m unaware of?!?

  6. eieioj permalink
    December 16, 2010 1:43 pm

    Scenes where you don’t see the actual death get me more than ones where you do. The two that pop to mind right now are the montage from Up and the story of Edward Bloom’s death/escape from Big Fish. Also, the mom-fish getting eaten at the beginning of Finding Nemo. Damn Pixar.

  7. Amber permalink
    December 16, 2010 1:46 pm

    i recently re-watched crouching tiger hidden dragon. it has two beautiful death scenes back to back. the first being when yu shu lien (michelle yeoh) realizes that li mu bai(yun-fat chow) is going to die from poison through to his death (and her implied suicide after he dies). she balances her character’s grief against her sense of propriety in a delicately heartbreaking way. the second is when jen yu (ziyi zhang) flies off into the mist.

  8. Amber permalink
    December 16, 2010 2:07 pm

    oh and UP! yes. i didn’t want to like that movie, but damn did it get me.

  9. December 16, 2010 2:10 pm

    I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I was terribly moved by Kevin Spacey’s death in American Beauty. It was softened somewhat by knowing that it was coming.

  10. hsofia permalink
    December 16, 2010 2:39 pm

    I’m a sucker for soaring classical music during a death scene. The death scenes I was thinking of when I did the search were:

    Fearless – Technically it’s the death scene of a whole bunch of folks, but Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez don’t die (obviously; the movie is about them and the plane crash is a flashback), but it’s simply stunning. Also, if you don’t love Henryk Gorecki music that plays over that part … well, I can’t even talk to you. The plane crash is one of several reasons this movie has remained in my top ten since I first saw it. (On Netflix Instant)

    White Squall – This one also stars Jeff Bridges. I won’t say who dies, but the imagery was powerful enough for me that it is the ONLY scene I remember from the movie. (On Netflix Instant)

    Dead Presidents – I can’t even effing deal with this movie, and I mean that in a good way. The tragedy of the heist-gone-wrong is just too heartrending for me.

    The Thin Red Line – Which death scene? There are so many. Woody Harrelson’s, Jared Leto’s, Nick Stahl’s, and of course the final death scene. They are all very different from each other, which I respect.

    Pitch Black – Radha Mitchell. I love this one in large part because it’s the death of a woman and her death is noble, not sexualized, and not sentimentalized.

    Hero – Tony Leung standing in the sand making a decision I’m really not sure I agree with. It’s heavy handed, but I saw the movie three times in the theater basically for that scene.

    Last of the Mohicans – I saw this movie years after the fact, offended that it some kind of Last Samurai with Daniel Day-Lewis as the supposed titular character. It wasn’t till the final death scene that it registered with me that a secondary character was really what this was about.

    Widow of St. Pierre – Sort of in the vein of Dead Man Walking but different because we get to see the murderer redeem himself before submitting to his punishment.

  11. December 16, 2010 2:40 pm

    ” Actually, I’ve done no clip hunting for any of these scenes, it’s all from memory, which means there might be errors, but the point is death scenes that have stayed with me permanently, so it seems more apt to write about them solely from recall.”

    I love that you wrote this post from memory, because its a true testament to the fact how much these clips moved you. UP just ruins me–I have to be out of the room during the first 10 minutes of that movie.

  12. December 16, 2010 2:54 pm

    Oh just thought of another one: Amadeus’ death after composing the Requiem with Salieri. For me, the most heartrending part is that a funeral can’t be afforded for him, so his body is dumped into a mass grave. Sad, moving and a little creepy.

  13. December 16, 2010 3:12 pm

    I am Legend. It destroys me. Even if you know the source material and the story, you take this emotionally intensive journey only for it to end appropriately but very unsatisfying.

    Another death scene that has stayed with me, but mostly because it made me cry and angry was one of the characters in Gattaca. Because you know, as a disabled person the only noble thing you can do is extract all your precious bodily fluids and then incinerate yourself.

  14. December 16, 2010 3:32 pm

    @Snarky that’s good. I forgot about Jude Law in Gattaca. Does E.T. count?

  15. December 16, 2010 5:02 pm

    I am totally crabby about the movie UP, but even I found the beginning montage showing a marriage over a lifetime quite touching.

    @Snarky, I’m with you on I Am Legend, too, that scene between Neville and Sam is partly why I haven’t rewatched that movie either — I’m not sure I could handle seeing it again.

    @hsofia: I got your back on Gorecki!!

  16. hsofia permalink
    December 16, 2010 5:10 pm

    The Gattaca death is memorable, although I never viewed it as a noble act (though Niccol may have intended it to be taken as such), but rather a tragic act of desperation (his second attempt to kill himself) – a sort of rational conclusion to what happens when society creates these hierarchies of value. The whole thing is just misery-making.

  17. hsofia permalink
    December 16, 2010 5:20 pm

    I need to watch I Am Legend again because I thought it was beautiful and loved all of it, including the jarring ending – but the part with the woman and the boy (?) at the end befuddled me. I’m curious to see what the alternate endings were, and I don’t know which one the director preferred.

  18. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 5:52 pm

    My brother, who calls any movie that doesn’t end completely blissfully—all love happy, all main characters alive and well–“Old Yeller movies” said about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger “That movie should have been called Crouching Tiger, Hidden CRAP. The only thing that would have made that worse would have been if when she jumped Jen Yu landed on Old Yeller.”

    I disagree, but it made me laugh pretty hard.

    The first time Lola and her boyfriend (each) got killed in Run, Lola, run stick with me.

    And Danny Glover’s Deets in Lonesome Dove.

  19. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 5:56 pm

    And the final montage in Six Feet Under.

  20. December 16, 2010 5:56 pm

    @snarkysmachine: I thought about placing a spoilers warning, but damn, I get tired of playing with kids sometimes. this pop culture discussion is FOR ADULTS ONLY.

    Besides we can delete any whiners!

    How much do I love this post. It is awesome!

    Heat had two of indelible deaths that I can barely get through whenever I watch it. One makes me so sad because I loved that character and the other makes me mad because the character in question was so damn hard headed and I hated seeing them felled by their own stubbornness.

  21. December 16, 2010 5:57 pm

    Shoot we could do a separate post on Danny Glover. *sob* 2012.

  22. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 6:00 pm

    @snarky’s machine: Truth.

  23. Kia permalink
    December 16, 2010 6:07 pm

    Time to Leave by Francois Ozon is quite uneven for me but what works really works. The entire film is building up to the death of the main character but Ozon still makes it lyrical and dignified.

  24. December 16, 2010 7:22 pm

    omg, I would love a series where we focus on one actor and detail all of their death scenes! and yes, @aliciamaud, that Six Feet Under one can be played if I just need to have a good cry when blocked!

    I love hearing all these movies in the comments. Death scenes in film that effect us can be quite telling about our understandings of grief and loss in general.

  25. December 16, 2010 7:31 pm

    Omg. BEACHES.

  26. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 7:32 pm

    @raymondj I hear the first chord of that Sia song and all the hair on my forearms stands up. I played it in the coffeehouse where I worked and a guy ordering his coffee got misty and said “Isn’t this Claire’s driving away song?” And I was in love with him for like a year.

  27. December 16, 2010 7:32 pm

    @1sttimeoffender: yes, the Pan’s Labyrinth death scene definitely stays with me too. I actually haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (nor Green Mile!) – perhaps I have unresolved Tom Hanks issues I’m unaware of?!?

    Ha. That sounds like an understatement if I ever heard one. How are you fixed for Forrest Gump or The Ladykillers?

  28. December 16, 2010 7:34 pm

    I feel like 21grams is nothing but death scenes, yet somehow none of them are particularly memorable.

  29. December 16, 2010 7:34 pm


    I saw Forrest Gump in the theater. I still haven’t seen Castaway, The Terminal, or Charlie Wilson’s War. I did like Angels & Demons, actually.

  30. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 7:36 pm

    Holy crap. Beaches. Which I watched for the first time a) the day before I moved away from my middle school best friend and b) had my dog put to sleep. It took me years and years to be able to watch it again.

    The scene right after Debra Winger’s character in Shadowlands died killed me…it wasn’t her actual death scene, but once a single tear escapes Anthony Hopkins’ eye and then he sobs…I was a complete wreck. And it happened the second time I watched, too.

  31. aliciamaud permalink
    December 16, 2010 7:39 pm

    Robards, Magnolia. Reminds me of Dead Man Walking in that it’s the surrounding characters’ reactions that break your heart.

  32. hsofia permalink
    December 17, 2010 1:44 am

    Speaking of Beaches, the Mary Louise Parker scene in Fried Green Tomatoes. I BAWLED.

  33. December 17, 2010 9:37 am

    Omigod, this thread makes me both teary and happy.

    From the world of animation: The Lion King and Iron Giant. When Simba tries to get his dad to wake up, I start bawling. Then there’s the Iron Giant sacrificing himself for the love of a little boy. I was a wreck.

    I second the love for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Um, I might also cry at the end of Armageddon when Bruce Willis is being all manly times and self-sacrificing.

  34. December 17, 2010 12:14 pm

    I can’t believe I forgot to mention what is for me the mother of all death scenes, Ali MacGraw’s in Love Story.

  35. December 17, 2010 12:21 pm

    I second the love for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Um, I might also cry at the end of Armageddon when Bruce Willis is being all manly times and self-sacrificing.

    Oh my god, thirding for CTHD. Painful. And definitely add Willis’ scene to the genre of “Oh snap, they’re famous, yet they’re being offed.”

    I still haven’t gotten over Seagal getting offed ten minutes into Executive Decision. I am still bitter about it and still want my $6.75 back. I went to see that move solely for Seagal!

  36. metermouse permalink
    December 17, 2010 2:12 pm

    oh goodness…

    @eieioj I totally agree with BigFish, it always gets to me, its beautiful and sad at the same time.

    Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth got to me,

    The beginning of Up always makes me cry

    Steel Magnolia’s, not when Shelby actually dies, but the part after the funeral, where Sally Field loses it, that part ALWAYS makes me cry, even though I’ve seen it a million times, and everytime I’m like “No way am I gonna cry, I’m OVER it.”

    Terms of Endearment


    ok this isn’t a human, but when I was younger when those evil dudes killed “two socks” in Dances with Wolves, I would get so intensely angry and sad. I haven’t seen it in some time, so I’m not sure I would have the same reaction.

  37. metermouse permalink
    December 17, 2010 2:24 pm

    how could I forget Boys Don’t Cry… I was so unwell after that death

  38. December 17, 2010 6:59 pm

    Ok, I am clearly a sick, sick person but I am kind of in love with the creepy death scene in Elizabeth where one of the ladies puts on the poisoned gown. Come to think of it, that movie had another great death scene with Mary lying in the bed of state and having her ring of office yanked off before she was even cold. Something about unabashed, naked greed just gets my toes tingling, what can I say!

  39. December 17, 2010 7:10 pm

    Denzel in Training Day. I didn’t know he was allowed to die on screen. He won an academy award for it and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since.

  40. Val permalink
    December 19, 2010 12:23 am

    This is a great topic! And I’m late…as usual…

    Yes, to Roy in Bladerunner.

    Yes to the execution scene in Dead Man Walking.

    Pitch Black…yes! I love pretty much everything about that character. She makes big mistakes, learns, tries so hard, dies so well. What more can you ask from an action hero, really?

    Mozart in Amadeus…the lime pit and frozen countryside. So bleak and lonely…

    Nemo’s mother…not so big for me, but my child created an imaginary playmate named Carl/Coral not long after watching the movie. So, Coral was the new Bambi’s mother in my house.

    The death of Elias in Platoon. My sister almost drove off a highway ramp a few weeks after seeing the film… Barber’s Adagio came on the radio and she burst into tears. It hasn’t completely ruined that music for me, but the associations remain strong.

    The death of Chomina in Black Robe. There is also a stillbirth in that film that was very emotional.

    Thelma and Louise! Butch and Sundance!

    @ hsofia The Widow of St. Pierre! Insider knowledge: I was living in the Nova Scotia town of Louisbourg, working at the Fortress when they filmed there. It’s a national parks site with reconstructed 18th century French colonial building above ground and original 18th century archaeological streetscapes underground. The film crew wanted the buildings, but only got site access because the important stuff was supposed to be safe due to freezing. Then winter was late and the crew and vehicles started tearing things up big time. My friend/roomate was assigned to keep tham all away from sensitive spots. Film crews, they take direction badly! Poor Becky! The film crew hated her for doing her job while lots of the parks types called her “archaeologist to the stars”.

    Somehow, I never managed to see the movie…must fix that!

  41. IrishUp permalink
    December 19, 2010 11:53 am

    Cannot read this thread without the Puffs!

    Sgt Elias/Platoon; gets my nod for Most Tears Jerked using “Adagio for Strings” award.

    Ripley’s death in “Aliens 3” affected me – and not just b/c it meant the movie was over.

    LoTR movies are not my favorite, but I loved Boromir/Super Orc’s death scenes.

    And I must note Robert Shaw/Quint’s death in Jaws. Man went down afighting!

  42. evmaroon permalink
    December 19, 2010 12:35 pm

    What a great post! How did I miss this for days? I’m in total agreement on:
    Pan’s Labrinyth
    Thelma & Louise
    Dead Man Walking
    Children of God

    Other films that have stuck with me for their death scenes:
    2001: A Space Oddysey
    fucking Steel Magnolias
    Something Wicked This Way Comes–I just was not getting on a merry go round after that.

  43. angie permalink
    December 20, 2010 12:39 pm

    um, i have not seen set it off. i KNOW. i always feel like i have so i don’t. the wind that shakes the barley. cillian murphy. but i am always a sucker for irish revolutionaries.

  44. December 20, 2010 1:19 pm

    One that just occurred to me was the character Stan from “Volcano” who sacrifices himself to save a bunch of passengers on the LA Metro(fail)rail. It’s poignant and sad scene rendered somewhat cheesy by the unnecessary reaction shot of his horrified colleagues.

  45. December 21, 2010 4:02 am

    @Beth: I’m totally with you on “The Iron Giant”. Especially since he spent the entire movie trying not to hurt anyone… but he was willing to do what it took to protect his friend.

    Speaking of animation, I have to mention Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies”. Setsuko and Seita, two orphaned children, try desperately to survive on their own in the war-torn Japanese countryside. The scene where she finally starves to death is the single saddest moment I’ve ever seen in any movie. I’ve only been able to watch it once. The DVD has been sitting on my shelf for eight years, and I keep planning to give it another try because the whole movie is so brilliantly done (not to mention historically important). But I haven’t been able to bring myself to sit through it again.

    And yes yes yes to “Longtime Companion”. Bruce Davison’s performance is amazing. The way he starts out the scene as just another day of the routine their lives have become… and gradually he realizes his lover is trying to tell him it’s time. And it’s all the little details: raising his eyebrows, swallowing hard, narrowing his eyes, and gently saying… “It’s okay. You can go.” And staying with him until he’s passed.

  46. antonia permalink
    May 10, 2011 7:54 pm

    Prince in Under the Cherry Moon. Artfully laid out in a white trench coat and white high heeled boots, one trickle of blood dabbing his lips.

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