Who doesn't love a good revenge film? When someone is deeply wronged by another and it seems like no consequences will come their way, we long for our hero to take matters into their own hands.
But the revenge film can also be self-reflective, asking us to consider questions like: Is revenge good? Where is the line drawn between justice and vengeance? When is vigilantism acceptable, if it is?
For any given case, the desire for revenge may seem justified by some yet unlawful or even immoral by others. Does the nature of an offense—or the degree of malice behind it—make retribution justifiable?
Here are my picks for the best revenge movies about vengeance and payback, which tap into the human need for settling scores and explore how far we're willing to go to make that happen.
10. Memento (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Mystery, Thriller (1h 53m)
Christopher Nolan's feature-length directorial debut was actually with Following in 1998, but for many, his first "real" feature film was the mind-bending amnesia film Memento in 2000.
This breakthrough movie was based on a short story by his own brother, Jonathan Nolan, and together they crafted one of the most intelligent revenge movies ever made.
In Memento, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) is a man on a quest. His mission is to find the man who killed his wife, but he suffers from anterograde amnesia (short-term memory loss and an inability to form new memories) so he frequently forgets who and where he is.
The entire story of Memento plays backwards, with every scene followed by the scene that came before it, resulting in one of the most unusual, gripping, and thrilling movies of our time.
9. Upgrade (2018)
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller (1h 40m)
In the futuristic and dystopian society of Upgrade, technology is becoming more and more advanced. However, the people of this society are being left behind in an impoverished state.
After one man watches his wife die at the hands of criminals and ends up paralyzed while trying to save her, he's given the opportunity for a cybernetic implant that can control his central nervous system. This grants him the ability to walk again—and seek revenge.
Upgrade flew under most radars when it came out in 2018, which is a true shame because it's one of the best cyberpunk movies with a hard-hitting ending. Full of twists and turns, revenge is rarely this cold.
8. Cape Fear (1991)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange
Crime, Thriller (2h 8m)
Cape Fear is a bit of a unique entry on this list because the one who's seeking revenge is the antagonist. In framing the story this way, Cape Fear allows us the experience the truly murderous nature and sadistic mentality of those who hunt for vengeance.
Convicted rapist Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro), who was sentenced to 14 years in prison, is given early release.
Now that he's out, he's determined to track down the lawyer who defended him in court—because he feels that the lawyer sabotaged his chances of being a free man.
His quest for vengeance is horrifying and De Niro's performance is honestly the stuff of nightmares.
7. Munich (2005)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josée Croze
Action, Drama, History (2h 44m)
Steven Spielberg, a director best known for making family-friendly movies, made one of the best revenge films of all time in Munich.
The narrative follows the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in cold blood by a group of terrorists. Most accepted this event as a tragedy and wanted to move on, but not everyone was quick to take this affront lying down.
A team of men are assigned by the Israeli government to avenge the deaths of their compatriots, and many are challenged by the bloodthirsty nature of their mission.
Based on a true story—called Operation Wrath of God—Munich looks at the heartache and turmoil involved in pursuing revenge.
6. Django Unchained (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Drama, Western (2h 45m)
Quentin Tarantino makes his first appearance on this list, but it won't be his last. With Django Unchained, Tarantino managed to create a historical film that pointedly looked at America's sordid history of slavery while also making it a gripping revenge movie.
The story starts with Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a man who's freed from his masters by a German doctor named King Schultz. He now has two missions—and both demand sweet, sweet payback.
One of the best movies of the 2010s, Django Unchained is a must-watch film for anyone seeking a good revenge story.
5. Mad Max (1979)
Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (1h 28m)
George Miller made the most profitable film of all time when he made Mad Max in 1979, but profit was only a secondary goal. His primary intent was to make a badass revenge flick—and he succeeded.
The story of Mad Max follows Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), a police officer stuck in an unruly Australian society. He ends up killing a gangster, but the villain's underlings take it personally and decide to punish Max by killing his family.
Vengeance breeds vengeance, and now Max will stop at nothing to find those who were responsible and get payback.
4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 51m)
For Tarantino's second entry on this list, we have Kill Bill, which is arguably the greatest revenge flick ever made as far as pure entertainment value is concerned.
After The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) wakes up from a coma, she seeks to find the people who nearly murdered her on her wedding day. She's going to hold them all accountable—and unfortunately for them, The Bride's sense of justice differs greatly from that of the law.
With endless style, fantastic characters, an insanely good soundtrack, and fight sequences that rival any action film, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is easily one of the best movies about vengeance.
3. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
Action, Drama, Mystery (2h)
Park Chan-Wook is one of the greatest Korean filmmakers of all time. When he released Oldboy—the culmination of his trilogy of revenge films—it was so good that it changed cinema forever.
In Oldboy, a man named Oh Dae-Su (played by Choi Min-sik) is held captive in a hotel room for 15 years. He's drugged asleep every night, his food is delivered, and he even has his hair cut every so often. He doesn't know who's doing this to him or why, only that he isn't allowed to leave.
When he's mysteriously released one day, he seeks answers. What follows is a dark and often surreal film about the nature of memory and its role in revenge. Twenty years on, Oldboy remains a masterpiece.
2. Irreversible (2002)
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 37m)
In 2002, Gaspar Noé made one of the bleakest revenge movies of all time. How did he do it? By telling the story in reverse.
Irreversible is a revenge film about two men in search of the man who raped and nearly murdered one man's girlfriend. However, this path brings them to a point that neither could've imagined.
By inverting the traditional revenge story structure, Noé communicates the truth about violence and vengeance: it's nothing but emptiness. As the story events move further away from the violence, we realize how hopeless their endeavor truly is.
In this way, Irreversible is one of the best payback movies: it's critical, it's reflective, and it's unspeakably violent.
1. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom
Drama (1h 29m)
Ingmar Bergman is up there as one of the greatest movie directors of all time. He was well-known for his beautiful cinematography, complex character psychology, dreamlike imagery, and the intense emotional turmoil of his protagonists.
So it should come as no shock that he made one of the most brutal and introspective revenge movies in The Virgin Spring.
Set in Sweden during the medieval period, two bandits rape and murder a young girl, then move on to seek shelter from the coming storm. But they pick the wrong place to hide: the house of her parents.
Once her father discovers who they are and what they've done to his daughter, he plans his revenge and waits for the perfect time to strike.
The Virgin Spring was later adapted by Wes Craven in 1972 as his debut feature The Last House on the Left. However, the original film is unbeatable for how thought-provoking it is, and there hasn't been a greater movie about vengeance since.