Good always triumphs. That’s the mantra of movies since the beginning of cinema; no matter how bad things are, in the end, the good guys win out. It may be hard, they may see a lot of loss and tragedy but Hollywood prefers a feel-good ending, especially in the current blockbuster age. Movies are meant to be an escape from real life where we see good people lose so much so it makes sense that filmmakers want to reward them with stuff to feel good with and thus why we get so many happy endings.
But sometimes, they go the other way. In several movies, the writer or director decides to be daring enough to have the villain win the day after all. In most cases, it’s the killer or crook managing to escape but it can go further. It can be the bad guy enjoying a true victory and often the hero of the story not only defeated but disgraced. The audience realizes the villain has been pulling off a grand plot that you only just understand and he had the upper hand all the while.
Whatever the case, it’s always a daring move to end a film on the bad guy being the winner but if done right, it can make the entire movie that much better. Here are ten films where the bad guy gets the final say on things and elevates these stories majorly.
While it should be obvious, be warned that this article contains massive SPOILERS.
The live-action version of the classic graphic novel has its share of critics and haters. But Zack Snyder did manage to replicate the story’s terrific ending. Hunting what they think is a masked killer that ties in to a growing threat of nuclear war in an alternate 1985, crime-fighters Nite Owl and Rorschach discover that the man behind it all is former ally Adrien Veidt aka Ozymandias. Confronted at his Antarctic base, Veidt recites a classic monologue explaining how he’s planning the greatest “practical joke” in history: tricking the world into peace by making them think something much more threatening is at hand. Utilizing the teleportation energies of the god-like Dr. Manhattan, Veidt will wipe out New York, Moscow, London and other major cities and thus unite world powers against the supposedly mad Manhattan.
It’s not quite how it happens in the comic but thankfully, the movie still keeps the same gut-punch twist. When a disbelieving Nite Owl asks when Veidt was going to enact this insane scheme, the man scoffs at the idea he would waste time detailing his master plan when there was a chance of stopping it. “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
Naturally, the real Manhattan is a bit ticked when he and Sally Jupiter appear in a ruined New York. He goes after Veidt, who counters by showing live broadcasts of President Richard Nixon declaring Manhattan has attacked humanity and thus the world powers are calling a global cease-fire to work against this “threat.” Veidt states that if the others expose him, all they’ll be doing is putting the world right back on the brink of nuclear war and the millions of people in those cities would have died for nothing. Nite Owl and Jupiter agree but Rorschach is intent on seeing justice done and is atomized by Manhattan. Some might argue about Ozymandis being a pure villain but getting away with the murder of millions for “peace” surely earns a place on this list.
9 No Country For Old Men
The success of the Cohen Brothers’ Oscar-winning Best Picture rests entirely on the shoulders of Javier Bardem, who justly won an Academy Award for his stunning performance. As Anton Chigurh, a merciless hitman sent to recover stolen money in a small Texas town, Bardem is chilling as a man who intimidates victims by asking them to flip a coin to decide their fate. Wandering into this town, he’s soon involved in the hunt for the money which has him targeted by the local sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The death toll rises as Anton tells the thief that he’ll spare the man’s wife if he gives up the cash but he refuses.
It all comes down to Anton confronting the wife who refuses the coin flip, telling Anton the choice to kill her is his. We see Anton leave the house, checking his shoes for blood and getting into an accident. Rather than this be the moment that trips him up and he’s captured, he manages to escape with just a minor wound and with the money as well. In the end, Jones realizes there was nothing he could do as, like a dark specter, Anton leaves all this damage in his wake and vanishes as quickly as he came. A fitting end to a stunning drama that deserves all its accolades.
A throwback to the film noir of the 1940’s, this 1974 classic has private investigator Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, hired by Evelyn Mulwray to spy on her husband Hollis, an engineer for the Los Angeles Water and Power Department. He does only to be confronted by a woman - Faye Dunaway - who claims to be the real Evelyn. This plunges Jake into a confusing case involving killers, power and water rights, a sliced nose and sleeping with Evelyn. Jake soon discovers that Evelyn is protecting Katherine, the mistress of her husband who Evelyn claims is her sister but later admits she’s her daughter. The two are both abused by their father, the rich and powerful Noah Cross.
The ending has Jake arranging for them to escape to Mexico and confronts Cross, who’s been planning to annex lands north of the city and make a fortune developing them himself. His security chief takes the evidence Jake had against Cross and forces the detective to drive them to the women. Clearly, the man has been abusing both girls for years and intends to continue and when Evelyn drives away with her sister, the police open fire, killing her. Cross takes Katherine away and the police hold Jake back as he realizes the man is going to get away with the murders, his plans for the land, the abuse, all of it. That he can do nothing is a stunning move for a film and how the police and city officials are willing to turn a blind eye to such crimes as nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s all summed up by that famous closing line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
With shades of Agatha Christie, this 2003 thriller begins with talk on the discovered journal of a serial killer named Malcom Rivers who sits on death row. The movie then cuts to a small motel in Arizona where ten people are stranded by a massive storm: a limo driver, a faded actress, a cop transporting a serial killer, a prostitute, a pair of newlyweds and a couple with their mute son. Soon, one by one, each guest is murdered. It turns out that the “motel” is really the mind of Malcom Rivers, the killer suffering from alternate personalities and the “killings” are his psychiatrist’s method of trying to cut out the murderous persona.
The movie bounces from the real world to this one as Ed, the cop turned limo driver, is sent to kill the murderous persona, represented by the serial killer. They end up shooting one another, leaving only the kind-hearted prostitute Paris; the psychiatrist declares that Rivers is no longer a danger and he’s sentenced to a mental institution. But in the ride there, we see inside the mind of Rivers that it was the seemingly kind mute boy who was truly the murderous persona, killing the only survivors. With only this personality left, Rivers overpowers and kills his guards, wrecks the ambulance and runs off into the night, more dangerous than ever before. A wild end to a movie where you’re never sure who is what.
6 The Silence of the Lambs
The multiple Oscar winning masterpiece has a plot almost everyone knows. In order to catch a killer called Buffalo Bill, FBI recruit Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) interrogates Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a captured serial killer known for eating his victims. Their discussions offer fantastic character study as they begin to oddly admire one another in a twisted way, so much so that Starling knows when Lecter is feeding false information to the authorities about Bill. Lecter uses that to get transferred into a building so he can achieve a bloody escape.
In the end, Clarice manages to catch and kill Buffalo Bill and is perceived as a hero. Graduating as a full FBI agent, Starling receives a phone call from Lecter who congratulates her on her success. The viewers see the head psychiatrist of Lecter's asylum exit in a South American airport, to which Hannibal says “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Hanging up, he starts to follow Chilton as the camera pulls away. Yes, Bill was caught but this even greater monster is on the loose and ready for his next meal, capping one of the most notable Best Picture winners in recent memory.
This gripping 1995 mystery has Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as detectives investigating a series of brutal murders across the city, based upon the Seven Deadly Sins of the Bible. Pitt tries to handle this, supported by his wife who admits to Freeman she’s pregnant. As the case continues, into the police station strolls the blood-stained killer (Kevin Spacey) calling himself John Doe. He says he can lead the detectives to the last two bodies of his “sin list” or plead insanity for a lesser punishment. While doubtful, Pitt and Freeman follow his lead and drive Doe to an empty field by a dirty road.
After a few moments of waiting, a car pulls up and the driver follows his instructions to come to this time and place to hand the detectives a box. While Freeman tries to block Pitt, he realizes the box contains the severed head of his wife who Doe claims represents Envy. He taunts Pitt with her being pregnant as Freeman realizes Doe intends Pitt to represent the sin of “Wrath” and kill him. Freeman begs Pitt not to do it as it will be letting the man win but Pitt snaps and guns Doe down. Yes, the killer is dead but he has gotten the final word and ruined so many lives to leave his chilling mark.
4 Primal Fear
In his stunning film debut, Edward Norton plays Aaron Stampler, a Kentucky-born stuttering altar boy who’s accused of murdering Chicago’s beloved Archbishop. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a high-stakes attorney who loves the limelight and, realizing the media bonanza this case will bring, agrees to defend Aaron pro bono.
Vail soon believes in Aaron’s innocence, thinking the kid has been set up by local businessmen who lost millions of dollars due to the Archbishop’s policies and also discovers evidence that Aaron and a young lady were abused by the Archbishop. During an argument about the case, Aaron suddenly snaps into a different person, calling himself “Roy” and admitting to the murder of the Archbishop but then going back to normal to claim he knows nothing. A psychiatrist diagnoses Aaron as a multiple personality case but Vail is wary of an insanity plea. It turns out to be moot as during a harsh examination by the D.A., Aaron snaps back into Roy and tries to strangle the woman. The judge throws the case out and has Aaron placed in a mental institution while the Archbishop’s crimes (which the city leaders have been hiding for years) come to light.
Meeting his client one last time, Martin is about to leave but when Aaron asks about the D.A.’s neck, Martin realizes he couldn’t remember it if he blacked out when becoming Roy. After a pause, Aaron starts to clap and reveals that he had been faking the entire insanity plea to get away with killing the Archbishop as revenge for his years of abuse. When Martin notes that there never was a Roy, Norton laughs that he has it wrong. “There never was an Aaron.” He gloats how the two won as Martin just stumbles out, stunned to realize he let a psychotic killer skate by. Norton earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for selling as brilliant a twist as you’ll ever see in movies.
“I wanna tell you about the time I almost died.” So begins the voice-over of this 1998 horror film as Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) oversees the execution of Edgar Reese, a brutal serial killer he captured. When similar murders occur, Hobbes naturally believes it’s a copycat but the details are way too precise and complete strangers are taunting him on the street just like Reese did.
It turns out Reese was merely the latest host of Azazel, a demon who can jump from one body to another by touch and has been using hosts for centuries to commit brutal murders as revenge for being cast out of Heaven. Hobbes' soon framed for murder and his own family is targeted by Azazel, pushing Hobbes to an extreme action. Hiding out in a cabin in the woods, he tricks Azazel into coming in the body of Hobbes’ partner. Shooting the demon, Hobbes points out that they’re the only two people around for miles and Hobbes has ingested poison. He shoots Azazel dead and forces the demon to jump into Hobbes’ dying body.
So it appears to be a pyrrhic victory for Hobbes, sacrificing himself to stop this demon once and for all. Unfortunately, Hobbes has made one major error: his assumption was that Azazel can only possess human bodies. As the camera pulls up, it appears we’re seeing Azazel’s final fall only for his narration to point out how he’d said at the start this was the time he almost died. We cut to a close-up of a passing cat that looks right at us as Azazel’s voice chuckles “be seeing you.” The cat walks off, letting us know Hobbes’ sacrifice was for nothing and this demonic killer is still out there to continue his work.
2 Arlington Road
In this underrated 1999 thriller, Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a college professor mourning his wife, an FBI agent killed in the line of duty in a militia raid gone wrong. Faraday becomes suspicious of his new neighbors Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), seeing architectural plans and suspicious behavior but his talk is dismissed by FBI agents and others. Digging deeper, Faraday believes that Oliver is a member of a home-grown terrorist group who framed an innocent man for the bombing of a federal building and killed a friend of Michael’s when she discovered the truth. When his son is kidnapped during a scouting trip, Faraday confronts Oliver in a fight where he yells that the man’s attacks won’t change anything. Faraday then follows a van he saw that he’s convinced will be carrying a bomb into FBI headquarters. Giving chase in Oliver’s car, Faraday bursts into the building’s parking garage with his FBI friend stops him, saying the van isn’t here and every car has been checked - except for the one Faraday is driving.
Faraday realizes the bomb is in his car but it goes off, killing himself, the agents and hundreds of others inside the building. In a montage of news reports, we learn that because of his erratic behavior and some planted evidence, the authorities conclude that Faraday was the lone man behind the bombing as revenge for the death of his wife. His son is shown having to grow up with relatives and live with the shadow of his father being a terrorist. The final shot has the Langs noting they want to move “somewhere safe,” clearly preparing to continue their terrorist work and let some innocent soul get the blame for it. A truly dark ending that naturally makes you wonder how many of these “lone nuts” may truly be guilty.
1 The Usual Suspects
In his classic crime noir, Bryan Singer shows Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) obsessively trying to prove that a massacre and explosion at the Los Angeles docks was the work of his old adversary Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). Kujan interrogates Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey in a performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a crippled con man who’s somehow managed to get immunity from the law.
Via flashbacks, Kint tells of how he, Keaton and three other crooks were pulled into a lineup and soon embarked on robberies. That got them on the radar of a lawyer named Kobayashi, who informs the group that they have to work for Kyser Soze, a near-mythical gangster so ruthless that he murdered his own family to prove he couldn’t be intimidated.
Kujan eventually breaks Kint down to admit Keaton was really “Soze” and Kint is let go. As he leaves, Kujan glances at the bulletin board on the wall and slowly stares in shock. As he looks at the various photos, cards and notes, Kujan realizes that every single name has been used by Verbal in his story somehow. A fax comes in from a survivor of the dock massacre identifying Soze and the face is all too familiar. Outside, we see Verbal limping down the street but in mid-step, his walk becomes strong and steady. A car pulls up driven by the man we know as Kobayashi and Verbal gets in, the car pulling out just as Kujan bursts onto the street, remembering what “Verbal” had told him earlier: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The discovery that Verbal was spinning a wild story all this time is one of the greatest cons ever pulled in cinema and that he gets away with it puts him atop this list.