For fans of the revenge thriller, the 21st century has thus far been an exciting, variable, and enjoyably unpredictable era. Borne of the more extreme genre elements that punctuate crime films, action-oriented spectacles, and classical noir, neo-noir, Western, and more often than not the knife-edged extremes of seedier underworlds, these films promise fist-pumping satisfaction after plummeting our heroes and antiheroes often through hell and back.
The films on this list show a wide-ranging assortment of violent, provocative, auteur-driven vehicles, influential movies, astonishing international fare, a few blockbusters, and distinctive arthouse gems, too. Enjoy!
10. Kill Bill (Vol 1, 2003, Vol 2, 2004)
Sure, Quentin Tarantino’s super violent genre pastiche lifts its plot completely from François Truffaut’s 1968 classic The Bride Wore Black, but this two-part revenge epic following Uma Thurman’s the Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo, aka Black Mamba) is an exercise in over-the-top excess, ultra-violence, and fist-pumping fun.
Fun? Well, the gleeful nihilism with which the Bride, a former assassin, seeks bloody revenge on those who wronged her at the altar, is a wildly inventive and relentless affair. While some of the ensuing mayhem is off-putting to the extreme (a comatose Bride is regularly pimped out by an awful orderlie), the fight choreography, endless pop culture references, action set pieces, and revenge fantasy role play is hard to resist.
Admittedly adolescent and affectionate to all the schlock it celebrates, Kill Bill warrants wide appeal to all but the squeamish. For everyone else, this is Tarantino at his most reinvigorating, teeth-gnashing, and samurai sword swingin’. As Budd (Michael Madsen, with all the charm of a rattlesnake) remarks, “That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.” And die they sure as shit do.
9. True Grit (2010)
This gloriously realized Revisionist Western from the Coen Brothers, adapted from the 1968 Charles Portis’ novel of the same name (famously adapted in 1969 by Henry Hathaway and starring the legendary John Wayne), is a blood-splattered tale of revenge on the open range.
When a fiery 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks revenge for her father’s murder at the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she hires Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a booze swillin’, pistol-whippin’ lawman, who’s best days are behind him, more or less. Soon they’re joined by Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who has hit eyes fixed on Chaney, too.
Journeying through hostile lands, ready to mete out Old West Justice, True Grit makes some smart remarks on Manifest Destiny, wish-fulfillment violence, the American frontier, and then some, with the Coen’s signature splashes of dark humor, silver-tongued idiosyncratic dialogue, eruptions of violence, dashes of biblical and religious references, and some exquisite , mythic-like visuals courtesy of DP Roger Deakins (who’s startling cinematography garnered one of the film’s ten Academy Award nominations).
8. John Wick (2014)
Nimble directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a shit ton of fun with this pastiche-addled neo-noir thriller about retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), mourning the death of his wife he is reluctantly pulled back into the fray after wronged by bad guys who kill his puppy, Daisy (how dare they!!) and swipe his vintage 1969 Mustang.
There’s an awful lot of awesome in John Wick, from its mad props to forebears like John Boorman, and John Woo –– maybe these are who Keanu’s hitman is named for? –– to its detailed underworld cosmology which memorably contains a hitman hotel straight out of some surreal fantasy world.
Alfie Allen’s arrogant bad guy is easy to despise, making the revenge all the more sweeter, and great performances from Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane also add immeasurably to the proceedings. John Wick is a revenge thriller chock-full of savoir-faire and imagination.
Also well worth checking out is the sequel, dubbed “The Godfather 2 of action movies,” this is another fist-pumpin’ franchise from Keanu that you’ll want to revisit again and again (we sure do).
7. Blue Ruin (2014)
Jeremy Saulnier’s second film, Blue Ruin, really made a big blip on indie cinema’s radar, indicating that a new and insistent filmmaker had startlingly broke the surface.
Succeeding into full-on auteur as writer/director/cinematographer of this instantly engrossing shocker, Blue Ruin stars Macon Blair––who also surprises and stirs the pot in Green Room––as Dwight Evans.
Near homeless and wracked with anxiety, Dwight lives in his rusted-out, beaten-up old blue Pontiac Bonneville––the literal “blue ruin” of the title––making him instantly endearing and strangely sympathetic. Very soon a string of ill omens and bad news sends Dwight to his old haunts to revenge the deaths of his parents years ago.
Dwight’s tit for tat bloodbath doesn’t play out as you’d expect it to, and amidst the unforeseeable outcomes and dramaturgy Saulnier shows us a post-9/11 rural America that’s obsessed with guns, disintegrating values, diminishing dreams, and all sorts of blood and thunder. As a dark hymn to family, pained poetry, frustrated fury and fractured grace, Blue Ruin is an indistinct treasure.
6. Dogville (2003)
“For passion, originality, and sustained chutzpah,” wrote The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman in an overwhelmingly positive review of Dogville, “this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier’s strongest movie –– a masterpiece, in fact.”
A challenging experiment that stylishly utilizes a barren soundstage to manufacture the thinnest semblance of a spartan small-town mise en scène, the eponymously named Dogville and its citizens represent a succinct and cynical microcosm for America in the first picture of von Trier’s thus far unfinished USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy (with 2005’s Manderlay being the succeeding film, and as for a third film, well, don’t anyone hold their breath).
This problematic, provocative, and arguably very heroic picture concerns a mysterious fugitive woman named Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) going underground, as it were, hiding from the gangsters who are after her. The rather duplicitous people of Dogville agree to provide refuge for Grace, but in exchange for asylum she must work for various townspeople to gain patronage.
As a helpless and desperate outsider Grace soon provokes some upsetting abuse and perverse derision as the film morphs into a potent morality tale and a spring-loaded parable of human suffering.
As paradoxically alienating and appealing as anything in von Trier’s oeuvre, Dogville is a risky venture that’s well served by a startling, strong, and rather savage climax. For all the film’s antithetical audience and critical reception Dogville nevertheless topped numerous 2004 top-ten lists. Rarely does a film garner such equally appalling and exuberant attention as it wrestles with such intense and dense subject matter, unless of course it comes from von Trier.