Will society ever not enjoy vengeance in some form or fashion? Probably not. I’m not smart enough to know what that means, but I’m glad it continues to be a deep, fascinating topic for movies to explore. Revenge in film is fun because it can go in a lot of different directions. This isn’t a genre, although there are subgenres specifically about certain types of revenge. Those will certainly make an appearance here.
If anything, many of the best revenge movies ever made are going to have a thread of violence. While that violence can in fact come in many forms, it is generally a physical concept. It deals in one or several human beings seeking retribution from other human beings who have done them wrong. There are plenty of examples of vengeance that doesn’t spill a drop of blood, or even leave so much as a light bruise. This list of the best movies about revenge will mention those, too.
Still, I think this goes without saying (certainly explains part of Game of Thrones’ appeal), but we generally seem to prefer revenge stories that involve brutality, gun fights, severed limbs, and stuff along those quaint lines.
I must admit that I prefer those, too.
At the same time, let’s take advantage of the chance to really explore the subject. We can’t talk about everything, but we can get some good conversations going. Maybe, we’ll give a moment or two over to living vicariously through these protagonists.
That’s another reason why people like films about revenge.
Note: This is not a ranked list. The revenge movies here are listed chronologically.
The 15 Best Revenge Movies
1. The Big Heat (1953)
Director: Fritz Lang
60+ years later, The Big Heat is as thrilling a movie as ever. One of the most enduring noir movies ever, The Big Heat pits stern, severe 50’s leading man Glenn Ford as a homicide cop against a mountain of police corruption.
The revenge element is the ferocity with which Ford’s embittered hero destroys the city’s political machine, when it kills his wife (the underrated Jocelyn Brando). Ford was a great actor for desperate, determined heroes and villains. No other movie perhaps emphasizes that more than The Big Heat, which remains one of his best.
It is difficult to imagine stuff like Sin City without The Big Heat.
Watch if: You like stories where someone kicks the ever-loving hell out of corruption. Avoid if: You just can’t stand movies where the wife or girlfriend has to die.
2. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
A young girl (Birgitta Pettersson) is raped and murdered by a group of herdsmen. Her father (the iconic Max Von Sydow) takes a brutal revenge, when the herdsmen make the unintentional mistake of staying in the home of the murdered girl’s parents. Ingmar Bergman directed some beautiful, bleak stuff over a long, storied career.
The Virgin Spring is up there with the heaviest of them, but it is an incredible story of rage and cruelty. The concept of hope is distant in a story like this. It is almost completely obscured by the overwhelming fury of Sydow as a father who reacts, honestly, quite naturally.
Wes Craven used the basic structure of this story for Last House on the Left some years later. That movie is pretty good, too, but it can’t touch The Virgin Spring on the larger issues it presents and suggests. It is not a redemption story, in terms of the function of vengeance. That much is certain.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best revenge movies ever made. Avoid if: You’ve gone this far without seeing a Bergman movie, and you’re not about to change that now.
3. Point Blank (1967)
Director: John Boorman
As far as revenge stories go, it doesn’t get much cooler than Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson in Point Blank.
Marvin’s kind of appeal never really goes out of style. It is put to good use here, as Marvin plays a guy named Walker, quietly hellbent on getting even with his philandering partner (the sublime John Vernon). Point Black doesn’t veer too far from that plot, with beautiful accompanying shots of San Francisco throughout.
Point Blank is all about the pleasure of watching someone you know is going to be successful. You know Walker is going to get what he wants, but you still want to see how he does it.
Watch if: You like your neo-noir heroes steely, seemingly relaxed. Avoid if: You prefer movies where the antagonists have at least a fighting chance.
Another of Sergio Leone’s best movies. Once Upon a Time in the West is not solely a revenge story. There are a number of characters and plot threads running through this massive western. Yet there is no question that revenge, when it does become part of the proceedings, hangs heavy over the atmosphere.
It would be difficult to not include this on any list of the best revenge movies ever made. Part of that is from Henry Fonda is one of his best roles. However, you will certainly want to stay for the incredible score and vicious, pitch-perfect cinematography.
You will also want to stay for Charles Bronson, who certainly knew a thing or two about getting even.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best westerns of all time. Avoid if: The idea of a 2+ hour spaghetti western fills you with cosmic dread.
5. Get Carter (1971)
Director: Mike Hodges
I could be wrong, but I believe the 1971 British noir revenge classic Get Carter is the first movie to make two of my movie lists. That’s because it’s a striking gangster movie with a classic revenge plot running through its brutal moments and memorable lines. It is one of Michael Caine’s best movies, too.
Get Carter has an authenticity to its atmosphere and performances. It also gives us an immensely satisfying revenge story, and then reminds us that not everything should work to completion with our expectations.
Watch if: You’re always up for a young Michael Caine kicking buckets of ass. Avoid if: You prefer to stick to happy endings.
6. Straw Dogs (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Straw Dogs is arguably the most controversial movie directed by Sam Peckinpah in his long, consistently controversial career.
To be sure, this story of a young couple (Dustin Hoffman and Susan George) forced into a violent madness by a brutal group of townspeople can be pretty upsetting to watch at times. The rape scene alone is one of the most savage ever committed to screen. It isn’t something you’re going to get out of your head anytime soon, so keep that in mind.
Straw Dogs also has one of the most violent, complex endings ever made. It is among the most psychologically disturbing movies ever made. Vengeance is a big part of that. Look for a harrowing performance from an uncredited, incredible David Warner.
Watch if: You want to see a movie that’s going to burrow deep in your psyche. Avoid if: Again, that rape scene is ugly stuff.
A bullied young girl with psychic powers finally takes control and revenge. The last 20 or so minutes of Carrie, adapted from Stephen King’s first novel, are one of the most horrific examples of revenge ever put to film.
You certainly see where poor Carrie White (one of Sissy Spacek’s best performances) is coming from, but the shock of watching her get back at everyone after a prom night prank backfires in the worst possible way is as potent now as it was in 1976. The various remakes and sequels are not without merit, but they can’t touch this movie.
Certainly, Piper Laurie as Carrie’s cruel, crazy mother is another reason why that is the case. Spacek also plays Carrie as a complex character, rather than just a means to a gory end.
Carrie is still one the best Stephen King movie adaptations of all time.
Watch if: You want to see a horror movie with a shocking conclusion. Avoid if: You have a prom coming up. For some reason.
8. I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Director: Meir Zarchi
They don’t come more controversial than I Spit on Your Grave.
Either it is one of the most savage rape-revenge movies of all time, or it is a perverse, misogynistic celebration of raw sexual violence against women. Roger Ebert famously believed the second one. So did a lot of critics. The interpretation is yours to make, although I genuinely fail to see how anyone could view this movie as a fantasy, or as something that takes pleasure in violence against women.
There is nothing romantic, stylized, or pleasant about those rape scenes. This movie does not make much of an attempt to humanize the rapists either. It mostly just rests on star Camille Keaton, who gives one of the most unshakably memorable performances you will ever see. This is another one with some of the ugliest sexual violence ever filmed, so be warned.
If you can watch it, you will get to see a revenge story that will shake you pretty damn hard.
Watch if: You want to see a brutal depiction of what every rapist deserves. Avoid if: I’m not kidding, the rape scene is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch in a film. Keep that in mind going in.
9. 9 to 5 (1980)
Director: Colin Higgins
A chronological list of the best revenge movies of all time means taking a few sharp turns. This is one of them.
9 to 5 is a revenge story of an entirely different kind. It is swift, enormously entertaining, and very satisfying. It also doesn’t include a single murder, proving if nothing else that revenge movies can be expressed in a variety of different ways.
9 to 5 is certainly also one of the most likable movies on this list. It helps when you have a cast that includes people like Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman. The cast complements each other well, getting comedy gold from a great screenplay.
9 to 5 is in odd company on this list of the best revenge films, but it deserves to be here nonetheless.
Watch if: You want to see a revenge story where things actually work out for someone. Avoid if: You hate Dolly Parton. I’m sure someone does.
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro do some pretty amazing things with this remake of the near-perfect 1962 classic, starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (who have great supporting roles in the remake).
De Niro plays one of his most famous characters, a sadistic killer named Max Cady who begins to carry out a truly harrowing revenge against the lawyer (Nick Nolte, in another of his best) who put him away. The remake blurs the lines between good and evil a bit more than the original. It also features some stellar work from Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, and Joe Don Baker.
Cape Fear puts the revenge in the antagonist’s hands, which puts us into a weird position. In the best way possible, Scorsese grabs hold of that discomfort, and never lets it go.
Watch if: You want to see Robert De Niro at his absolute best. Avoid if: Bernard Hermann scores get stuck in your head forever.
11. Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2002/2003)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
We’re going to cheat a little here. While technically two films, no one in their right mind is going to watch one, and not the other.
They are two movies that tell one epic story of a woman (Uma Thurman, in her best role to date) seeking revenge against the mentor/ex-lover (and his crew) responsible for ruining her wedding day in the worst possible way. It would be nice to watch Kill Bill as a single film, but the single-film cut, known as The Whole Bloody Affair, doesn’t seem like it’s going to get a commercial release anytime soon.
Nonetheless, Kill Bill is a cinematic carnival of memorable fight scenes, brilliant performances, endless homages (or rip-offs, depending on how you feel about Quentin Tarantino), and an unrelenting, self-aware sense of style. When the righteous anger of our hero confronts the titular Bill (a great one by David Carradine), we are absolutely ready.
Watch if: You want to see Uma Thurman kill a lot of people with a sword. Avoid if: You can’t stomach Tarantino. Or you’re mad that I’m counting Vol 1 and 2 as one entry.
12. Oldboy (2003)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Directed by the absolutely amazing Park Chan-wook, Oldboy takes us back to that notion of the consequences of revenge.
That ending is a gut punch that simultaneously shaves the back of your head. The journey to that ending is pretty bleak stuff, too, although there are moments so thrilling, so electric, we are barely able to keep up with just how vicious the pace of this thing really is.
Oldboy isn’t just an intense screenplay with gorgeous style. Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su is exactly what this movie needs to make it one of the very best revenge movies ever. The range Choi Min-sik has to cover to play this character is one of film acting’s most stunning achievements.
Watch if: You want to see a revenge story with a truly shocking conclusion. Avoid if: You’re just not in the mood for one of the most depressing endings of all time.
The last truly perfect collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to date.
Depp takes on the title role with a fire that marks his best performances, moving seamlessly from scenes of graphic violence, to moments of deep sorrow and pain, to the film’s staggering musical numbers. This is a revenge movie that includes the benefit of getting several songs that will almost certainly get stuck in your head.
Beyond Depp, who drives this movie with the force of an enraged spirit, Sweeney Todd also features great performances from Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, and Sacha Baron Cohen. It is heavy on atmosphere and energy.
Watch if: You want to see a pretty good movie musical about bloodthirsty vengeance. Avoid if: You just can’t imagine anyone replacing George Hearn or Angela Lansbury, who popularized the role on Broadway.
14. John Wick (2014)
Director: Chad Stahelski
One of the biggest surprise hits of the 2010s, John Wick is a glorious blend of style, fast-pacing, the right touches of humor, and some of the best fight choreography in modern film history.
It is also a good example of just how effective an actor Keanu Reeves can be, when he’s working with a movie that plays to his numerous strengths as an actor. If you don’t really care about that part, John Wick still suits you just fine with one incredible fight scene after another. It’s also a movie smart enough to fill the cast with actors who can do a lot with just about anything, such as Ian McShane or Willem Dafoe.
John Wick is a revenge movie that unfortunately has to involve a dog. But from the moment that dog dies, we watch John Wick carry out a response so destructive, memes rightfully point out that Thanos would have had his hands full with this guy in Endgame.
Watch if: You want to see gorgeous cinematography and sound editing, combined with one of the most badass characters created in recent history. Avoid if: You still can’t take Keanu Reeves seriously as an actor, despite many examples to the contrary.
15. Mandy (2018)
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Will Mandy, one of the best-reviewed movies of 2018, continue to live as an example of a truly great, wholly unique film? I’m willing to think it will be.
Director/co-screenwriter Panos Cosmatos and Nicolas Cage certainly bring out the best in each other in this hallucinogenic, decidedly spiritual descent into one of the most vibrant depictions of hell we will ever see in a film. Mandy is weird, but in a way that doesn’t devour itself with its singular style, or with any intention of meandering throughout its distinctive, layered screenplay.
Mandy has some of the most potent fight scenes you’ve seen in a while. It is a showcase for the best of Nicolas Cage, and it presents a version of a world that can be just about anything you want it to be. Until unknown forces rage forward and change that, forcing you to either fight, hide, or die.
Cage’s often-bloody protagonist chooses the first option. What we get is nothing short of astounding.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best cinematic acid trips of the past few years. Avoid if: You don’t have a lot of patience for highly stylized films.
Best Revenge Movies Runners Up
Once again, we are left with a massive list of movies that we just don’t have time to talk about. Before you start planning my downfall, keep in mind that I had to stop myself after coming up with more than 108 movies about revenge. This was not an easy list to construct, but it sure as hell was fun.
Here are a few entries for the runners up, films every bit as good as the ones we got to talk about, presented in no particular order:
True Grit (2010) Darkman (1990) Lady Vengeance (2005) Payback (1999) Ms. 45 (1981) Titus (1999) The Crow (1994) Man on Fire (2004) Death Wish (1974) Sleepers (1996)