Getting attached to characters is natural in well-written stories, especially when we identify with their aspirations and the strides they take to make a difference—in their life or for the world they live in.
That's why it's so gut-wrenching to witness a shocking character death. It completely messes with everything we know about how life works: one second they're alive and well, the next they're dead.
It's a scary thought, but one worth examining. Cinema would be dull and lifeless if it didn't shock us from time to time, and well-executed character deaths are one of the best ways to be shocked.
What are the most shocking movie character deaths of all time? Here are my picks that represent the most surprising, breathtaking, and perturbing death scenes due to them being so unexpected.
Note: Given the nature of character deaths, there will be spoilers ahead! That's why we're only listing the movie titles. If you haven't seen a particular movie, skip down to the next movie in the list.
7. Burn After Reading (2008)
I maintain that the excitable and rather dopey Chad Feldheimer remains one of Brad Pitt's best performances of all time.
In a not-so-idiot-proof reconnaissance mission, Chad finds himself trapped in the house of the man he's investigating. As he's stuck hiding in a wardrobe, he waits for a chance to make good on his escape.
However, that moment never comes—and Chad realizes too late that Harry Pfarrer has a gun. He makes a last-ditch attempt to placate Harry with a goofy grin, but the surprised Harry shoots him in the head.
Judging by his own reaction, Harry Pfarrer was likely as shocked by the murder as the rest of the audience was.
6. Happy Gilmore (1996)
Note to self: do NOT mess around with another person's trauma, and especially when that trauma involves hand-eating alligators.
In Happy Gilmore, Happy wants to do a nice thing for his friend Chubbs after he helps him improve his golfing game. However, his PTSD-inducing gift ultimately results in Chubbs's untimely death.
What started as a cheerful scene of two friends appreciating each other suddenly turns into manslaughter. Yikes!
5. L.A. Confidential (1997)
L.A. Confidential is an underrated gem of 90s cinema. Directed by Curtis Hanson, it features twists and turns that make it intricately complex the first time around and still riveting on subsequent viewings.
Jack Vincennes is a corrupt cop in the Narcotics Department. After realizing he's made a mistake on a past case, he decides to re-open it and solve it properly. To do that, he needs info from Captain Dudley Smith.
That ends up being the last meeting he ever has. When Jack lets slip that his details aren't known to anyone else, the crooked Captain Smith pulls off what might be the most relaxed murder ever as he calmly pulls out his pistol and shoots Jack in the heart.
Jack Vincennes wasn't a good cop, and the one time he wanted to be good, it got him killed. It's a sobering moment and a truly shocking death.
4. Pulp Fiction (1994)
"Do you really think God came down and stopped—"
Blood, brains, and pieces of skull splatter the interior of Jules's car. As though we needed an explanation of what just happened, Vincent offers: "Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face." Brilliant work, Vince.
This death in Pulp Fiction wasn't only shocking, but also darkly funny. Quentin Tarantino has a penchant for black humor and Pulp Fiction has always been a perfect example of that.
In the midst of Vincent and Jules philosophizing, a conversational scene turns into a death scene that few could have predicted.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
This one was shocking precisely because it was so out of the blue, or at least that's how it felt the first time around. As it turns out, the Coen brothers masterfully left some clues that led up to this.
When the trio in The Big Lebowski finish up bowling, they leave to go home, only to discover that the Nihilists are back and they want their money. When Walter refuses to play ball, a fist fight ensues.
Bowling balls are thrown, ears are bitten off, and a stereo is even used to deliver blunt-force trauma. But when Walter and The Dude turn around, Donny has collapsed to the floor, clutching at his chest.
Cut to the next scene, where Donny has already died. This death was so shocking because of how random it felt.
Though his impending heart attack was hinted at in the previous scene—Donny clutches his right arm in pain after missing a strike—the arbitrary nature of his death is confusing, which is perfectly in line with the nihilistic themes that run through The Big Lebowski.
2. The Departed (2006)
After spending years undercover, Billy Costigan finally sniffs out the rat within the Massachusetts State Police: it's the corrupt and murderous Colin Sullivan, who tries to wiggle out of his predicament.
But Billy won't budge. He doesn't even seem to care if the charges stick. He just wants to do what's right.
After a tense stand-off, Billy apprehends Colin and drags him into an elevator. It seems as though justice is finally about to be served.
The elevator doors open. There's a gunshot, and Billy goes down. His blood colors the wall behind him and his lifeless body prevents the elevator doors from shutting closed.
It's a sad end to his justice-seeking endeavors, and it's an extremely shocking death in a movie full of deaths. Billy deserved better.
1. Serenity (2005)
For fans of Firefly who watched Serenity, this character death hurt more than any other—not just because it was so sudden, but because the character was a fan-favorite who least deserved to die.
As the rag-tag team of the Serenity space ship attempt one last mission, they depend on their expert pilot Wash to guarantee their escape.
After deftly avoiding many fleets of ships throughout the film—ships belonging to the corrupt bureaucrats of the Alliance and ships full of man-eating Reavers—Wash safely lands the crew and utters his signature catch-phrase: "I'm a leaf on the wind. Watch m—"
Without warning, a harpoon impales him straight through his chest. Zoe and Malcolm are just as shocked as the audience is.
Wash was the backbone of Serenity, an integral member of the crew, and a delightful ball of innocence and levity. To see him die so abruptly and so violently, nothing could've been more shocking.
Before Joss Whedon was effectively excommunicated from Hollywood, he gave us an incredibly memorable television show in Firefly as well as a fantastic movie follow-up in Serenity.
Between those two things, he managed to deliver what might be the most shocking character death of all time.