To take revenge is a deeply cinematic endeavor. Since the earliest days of the medium, writers and directors have been utilizing it in their toolbox. Vengeance is one of the most human of emotions, so obviously it translates extraordinarily well to film. Over the years, countless movies have depicted the act of revenge, sometimes as a cautionary tale, sometimes as a release. It’s a filmmaking choice that has led to many a classic tale. So, it goes without saying, there was any number of offerings to sort through in whittling down a list. It was quite a challenge, albeit a fun one.
Below you will see a list of ten great revenge films. There was an attempt made to look at vengeance in a number of different ways. As such, some picks you may be rather partial to won’t be here. That comes along with the territory, but it was worth mentioning. A special citation should definitely go to “The Virgin Spring,” which not only on its own is a classic revenge tale, but also would go on to be remade as “The Last House on the Left.” Likewise, just missing the cut were such diverse works as “Blue Ruin,” “The Crow,” “Death Wish,” “Hard Candy,” “Hardcore,” and “Nine to Five.” Honestly, you could have made a list up of a whole other ten flicks, aside from the ones mentioned here or below. That’s how lush this genre is.
Here now are ten of the best revenge movies of all time:
A film ahead of its time, this body horror satire has a lot on its mind. That being said, the depiction of a girl’s body opting to defend her through vagina dentata is a unique form of vengeance. We watch as Jess Weixler‘s Dawn initially is horrified by her mutation, especially when it pops up without her control. Then, she begins to understand the power she now possesses, eventually using it to exact revenge on those who have wronged her. It’s funny, gross, and a decidedly unique take on the genre.
We’re cheating here and including both versions, though for the purposes of discussion, let’s focus on the Martin Scorsese remake. As you can see in the image, Robert De Niro‘s Max Cady literally has justice branded on to him. Determined to have revenge against the lawyer who didn’t keep him out of prison, Cady goes to disturbing lengths in order to exact his pound of flesh. It’s Scorsese doing his version of a popcorn flick, but the revenge depicted is startlingly effective, especially when Cady focuses in on Juliette Lewis‘ Daniele.
So far, we’ve looked at Hollywood’s take or a satirically tinged take on revenge. Here, we have deeply realistic and painful vengeance to deal with. There’s a jilted ex husband taking a horrific form of revenge against his former spouse’s new flame. There’s parental grief turning into a lust for blood on the part of parents. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson were properly feted for the anguish they brought to their lead roles. Todd Field‘s underrated gem is hard to sit through, partly because the vengeance is so messy and real.
Sure, this is a silly action flick, but the revenge here is incredibly relatable. Ask any pet owner what they would do if someone murdered their dog, and the answer would closely resemble what Keanu Reeves does here. Is it all an excuse for elaborately choreographed fight sequences? Sure. Does that take away from the actual emotion of avenging a dog? Not at all. Man’s best friend indeed, and the title character honors his memory in the most violent way possible. A whole franchise was launched because of this one terrible act. Most acts of revenge are relatable in films, but few are more understandable than this one.
Surprise revenge is a whole other can of worms. If you were to show “Audition” to someone and not tell them it’s a horror film, they could make it a solid portion of the way through just thinking it’s an odd romantic comedy of sorts. Then, the turn happens. A producer using the audition process to test out prospective new partners could be a Hollywood lark. Instead, in this Takashi Miike classic, Ryo Ishibashi‘s Shigeharu crosses the wrong girl in Eihi Shiina‘s Asami. The revenge she exacts is brutal, but oddly justified. Sure, she’s psychotic, as the movie periodically hints at, but he’s a pig.
While Hugo Weaving‘s V is a freedom fighter looking to bring about political revolution, the politicians he’s targeting have a deeply personal connection to him. So, there’s a larger uprising afoot due to V’s actions, but at its core, the film is about a damaged fan taking revenge on those who have wronged him. This is a great example of a movie giving multiple meanings to an act of vengeance. There’s the macro and the micro, and they’re brilliantly intertwined.
Quentin Tarantino has made revenge a theme throughout his career. Not included here on this list is also “Django Unchained,” which is very much a tale of vengeance. Here, an ensemble World War II epic is anchored by Mélanie Laurent and her character Shosanna’s need to avenge her murdered family. How her long burning desire dovetails with an Allied plan to kill Adolf Hitler and end the war is utterly amazing, if decidedly fictitious. Tarantino knows how to depict revenge, as you’ll see later on in this piece. He’s kind of a master of the act, oddly enough.
We’re decidedly not including both versions of this film. Spike Lee‘s remake was misguided at best, so let us focus on the Korean original. Literally part of the “Vengeance Trilogy” of films from director Park Chan-wook, there’s layers of revenge at play here. On the one hand, we have our protagonist seeking answers, as well as revenge, in regard to his seemingly random imprisonment. Then, on the other hand, there’s the form of vengeance that involves the why of his torture. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that this is one of the sickest forms of revenge ever committed to celluloid.
Christopher Nolan tackled the idea of revenge as a form of therapy here in this modern-day noir. Guy Pearce‘s Leonard is supposedly searching for his wife’s murderer while dealing with short term memory loss, but there’s more to the story than that. Spoiler alert, but Leonard is using his obstacle as an excuse to keep searching for a killer, letting the blood lust and need for vengeance sate his pain. Most people look to this for its backwards narrative, but Nolan ha more on his mind here than just that. There’s both style and substance on display.
Tarantino makes another appearance, and as mentioned, could have even had another entry on this list. Still, taking the top spot should be good enough. After all, this is one long (or a two part) film about the act of revenge. Uma Thurman‘s Beatrix Kiddo is on a quest for vengeance against the title character Bill. The title itself is a bit of a spoiler, but clearly, the journey is more important than the destination here. What “The Bride” goes through to get to her target is the stuff of classic modern cinema legend. All told, it stands tall among all revenge movies to date.