It can be pathetically easy to pick out just who will die in a film. If the character is played by Sean "Is lunch provided?" Bean (I kid because I love), you can bet the character will die midway through the film. If the character is especially adorable or incredibly annoying, they will probably die. Wives, girlfriends, brothers, and fathers often die, especially if the film pivots on revenge, redemption, or rebirth.
However, there are the occasional jolts. Occasionally, it's a shocker just because of the actor chosen to play the part. Certain actors just do not (or did not) die onscreen, period. Modern films toy with this a little more keenly than old films do, relying on the combination of A-List actor and (hopefully) well-crafted twists and turns that convince you that Mr. or Ms. A-List will survive to fight another day. And then they don't! Wow!
But jaw-dropping deaths aren't always the lead. Sometimes, it's one of those secondary characters you grew terribly attached to. Even if they're the MacGuffin of the entire plot, it can still be a blow when the writer or director actually goes through with it, especially if the dispatch is particularly cold and nasty.
With that, here's a list of some of the most jarring onscreen deaths I could think of. I've tried to range fairly far and wide through genres and eras In doing so, I've undoubtedly missed some obvious and obscure ones. I've also excluded most horror films since their deaths are designed to be jump-scares, and you go into it expecting shocking deaths. That's probably an oversight though, and I certainly hope you'll add your own contributions below.
Spoilers abound, so read cautiously!
1. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
Martin Scorsese never plays softball with his heroes, but no one expected Leonardo DiCaprio to step out of an elevator, and immediately lose the back of his head. I suspect even those who were familiar with Infernal Affairs (where poor undercover cop goes out the same way) may have still been startled, as who expects DiCaprio to get capped in a major Hollywood thriller? He was the good cop! It's also a deeply upsetting moment since our hero seems on the verge of finally, finally being free of all his trials and crimes. (Honorable mention goes to DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, who meets a similarly bloody and unexpected end.)
2. Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
It's a World War 2 film, so you expect most (if not all) of the company will die. What viewers didn't expect was that one of the fallen would be Captain John H. Miller, played by the affable (and always left breathing) Tom Hanks. Sure, the main man can go out in a war film, but generally not when the film pretended to open with his point of view, implying we were seeing some haunting recollections from one old soldier.
3. Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential
It's a neo-noir, so someone good and heroic will die in a dirty fashion. But no one in 1997 expected it to be Kevin Spacey, fresh off an Oscar win, and billed ahead of Australian upstarts Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Billing aside, it's simply a fantastic moment of plotting that subverts our expectations, reveals the villain, and makes us furious for justice.
4. Steven Seagal in Executive Decision
So notorious, it's shorthand for "Big actor dies unexpectedly within first fifteen minutes of film as cheap shock value." Viewers go into a film like Executive Decision expecting one of the big leads may die, but not before they've taken a sip of their overpriced Coke. What made it particularly cheap was that audiences hungered for a Kurt Russell – Seagal pair-up, and the marketing played heavily on how awesome it would be. We've been suspicious of top heavy casts ever since.
5. Emilio Estevez in Mission: Impossible / Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker
I nearly lumped these in with Seagal of #3, but there's some difference. Neither Estevez or Pearce are major, bankable stars who can bring in crowds solely on being on the poster. However, they are reliable character actors and while they might be the guys who die in any given film, they don't usually happen within the first ten minutes. Their reassuring presence lulled us into some complacency before they were splattered across our screen.
6. Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski
The Coens delight in unexpected (and often hilarious) death, but none are so pathetic and so unexpected as poor Donny's in The Big Lebowski. You fully expect the Dude or Walter to get it. Even Maude seems a good candidate. But Donny? Poor Donny, who can't follow the conversation, is hurt by Walter's dismissal, is shocked by swearing, and so afraid of violence that he has a heart attack at the very sight of the Nihilists.
7. All of the Inglourious Basterds
Like the Coens, Quentin Tarantino can always be expected to pepper his films with mayhem and familiar corpses. While Pulp Fiction is a classic and iconic example (John Travolta? What?), I think Basterds takes the cake. Shoshanna, Lt. Archie Hilcox, Bridget von Hammersmark, Stiglitz, Hitler ... take your pick. If you saw it coming, I'll call you a liar and only give you Stiglitz.
8. Nicolas Cage in Kick-Ass
Even in a film that prides itself on shock value, the death of Big Daddy manages to come out of nowhere to horrify the hell out of us. Not only does he burn to death (a rare an awful end for any character), but he does so in front of his own daughter and a live Internet audience. In an adult thriller, this might have been slightly more old-hat since it sets off the final revenge sequence, but it's quite jarring in a film of teenage superheroes.
9. Julianne Moore in Children of Men
I almost wonder if Moore belongs up with Emilio and Guy, but she lasts far longer than either, and Men isn't the kind of film where you expect a bullet to fly out of nowhere and explode the throat of the oh-so-she's-not-the-heroine. Moore's revolutionary was the brains of the plot, seems destined to rekindle things with her ex-husband, and so tough that she can survive everything and protect everyone. But wham! Suddenly and violently, she's gone, and the audience realizes it's that kind of film, the kind where no one (not even Clive Owen) is safe.
10. John Wayne in The Cowboys
John Wayne did not die in movies. Period. He especially did not die in westerns, where he was always the good guy, even when he was a bank robber or a gunfighter. Now, Wayne actually died onscreen seven times, but only two stick out in popular memory: The Shootist, and The Cowboys. The latter is the shocker, though. The plot gently rolls along, seemingly about boys who learn the value of hard work and the meaning of manhood, and then the villainous Long Hair (Bruce Dern) shoots Wil Anderson in the back. Many a moviegoer was stunned, and it's a betrayal that's factored into a few revisionist Westerns in the decades since.
11. Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma
I was speaking of revisionist Westerns, wasn't I? Actually, 3:10 to Yuma was quite the return to the pulp, drawn-from-dime-novels Westerns of old, until the final minutes when Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) rises from a cattle stampede to gun down Dan Evans (Christian Bale). It's a cruel and cold end for Evans, who longed to be a hero so desperately that he agreed to escort Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma. It's a distinct departure from the 1957 version and Elmore Leonard's short story. And because one shocking death (two if you count Peter Fonda, and I think you should) wasn't enough, Wade guns down Prince, making it one heck of a commentary on honor, legend, and morality.
12. Jodhi May in The Last of the Mohicans
The title gives away the fact that one or more of those Mohicans will die. We know once Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis, of course) comes striding in that the superfluous love interest Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) will die, probably to save his beloved-but-uninterested Cora (Madeleine Stowe). But when Alice (Jodhi May) hurls herself off that cliff? That was unexpected. Gentle flowers like Alice rarely get it onscreen, and certainly not on the eve of rescue. Impressive and dark stuff, and certainly not anything you'd see today.
13. Everyone Mel Gibson knows in The Patriot
If a horror film had a baby with a bodice ripper, it would look something like The Patriot. The film seems aware it can't kill off Mel Gibson post-Braveheart – Too expected! Too cliche! – so it contents itself with slaughtering everyone else around him. It's positively gleeful as it kills moppets (I mean, really, the little red-haired tavern kid?), hunks (Heath Ledger), and dewy brides with equal ruthlessness. It's like the Grim Reaper took form as a summer blockbuster.
14. Charles Martin Smith and Sean Connery in The Untouchables
It's gangland Chicago and Al Capone is reigning supreme. Of course there will be casualties, even if killing off any Untouchables is historically inaccurate. But who didn't gasp when that elevator opened (shades of The Departed) to show poor, nerdy Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) decorating the walls with his blood? (Come on, we thought the accountant would survive since Capone was caught on tax evasion!) Even if we expected Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) to get it, one expects it to be in a blaze of exchanged bullets and heroic glory, not gunned down listening to an opera record.
15. George Clooney in Syriana
Blood always flows in a geopolitical thriller, especially if oil is the prize, and there's four storylines jostling for prominence. Paths will be crossed. Plot will be thwarted. At least one of the major players is going to die. But Bob Barnes (George Clooney)? Well, he is a CIA operative, but he has the keys to the plot! He can't die! Well, he can. And if you're willing to brush off his death as "expected" and "the whole point," then I give you Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon)'s son, Max, who is bizarrely electrocuted in a pool. If there's a prize for meanest MacGuffin, Max might win.
16. Jeff Bridges and Hope Davis in Arlington Road
This too-soon/ahead-of-its-time thriller features two "No! What?!" deaths. One occurs off-screen after Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis), girlfriend of Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), discovers Too Much about their terrorist neighbors. The second occurs at the end of the film, where Faraday not only dies without having successfully alerted a single authority, but is framed as a domestic terrorist. It's a rare film that not only kills off its hero, but rubs his failure in his face.
17. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty
The film may open with Lester Burnham telling us he will die, but it's a fact that's quickly forgotten, particularly since he hints it might be a whole year away, entirely off-screen, and due to illness or household accident. Then comes that awkward kiss between Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) ... and that unexpected gunshot. It's safe to say we began regarding Spacey movies a little more suspiciously after that.
18. Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges
You rather want Ralph Fiennes' Harry to die, if it means Ray and Ken will live. You half expect him to since bullets are flying willy-nilly with sweaty and drunk desperation. But then we stumble on Jimmy the dwarf's corpse (itself an awfully shocking moment) simultaneously with Harry, and barely have time to blink before Harry offs himself. If you thought you were numb after Ken's tumble out of the tower, you were wrong.
19. Bo-bae Han in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Someone will snort at my listing a South Korean film at all – the country has practically defined "shocking death" – but of all the deaths that sprinkle this film, it's little Yu-sun's (Bo-Bae Han) death that elicits absolute horror. You know it's coming, you know it's what sets off the second half of the film, but that doesn't mean you won't clench up in a tight ball each and every time you see it.
20. James Caan in The Godfather / John Cazale in The Godfather: Part II / Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III
The Godfather trilogy has become so ingrained in popular culture, mafia mythos, cinematic studies and Sofia Coppola hate that it may be hard to remember a time when you didn't know Sonny died, Fredo was whacked, and Mary was murdered by mistake. The series may deal with a crime family, but when any of the Corleones fall, it's a startling thing. It's hard to say which is the most jolting, but I think I'd have to go with poor Fredo, who you just didn't think Michael would have the heart to kill.