- Justice loses its meaning as revenge takes over in these crime movies that explore the flaws of the criminal justice system.
- The Vanishing, I Saw the Devil, and Kill List showcase characters who have lost faith in the justice system and are trapped in a cycle of violence.
- From unresolved cases in Memories of Murder to unjust accusations in Atonement, these movies highlight the limitations and injustices of the pursuit of justice.
Good crime movies will always make the audience wonder what justice really means, and how hard it is to achieve, especially when people turn their backs to it. That America’s criminal justice system is flawed is nothing new for audiences, but in a world where the courtroom has become a stage play for the whole world to see, morality and ethics clash with serious consequences.
Yet serving justice isn’t all about reaching a verdict in the courtroom, especially when there’s revenge involved. These crime movies follow characters whose faith in the justice system has long been lost, or alternatively, their journey to do the right thing continuously brings them down dead-end alleys. They serve as the perfect allegory to a world where justice has become a privilege, not a civil right.
Here are 10 crime movies where justice isn’t served.
10 The Vanishing (1988)
The Vanishing, or Spoorloos, defies traditional crime thriller structure by creating tension through dialogues and flashbacks, gradually building the moment in which a terrifying truth will come to light. In the film, Rex and Saskia’s biking holiday turns to tragedy when Saskia disappears without a trace at a gas station. Three years later, Rex is contacted by a mysterious man who may or may not know the whereabouts of his wife.
Humanity at Its Most Wicked
The Vanishing has one of the most disturbing endings ever made, reserving a fate worse than death for its main characters. Unable to find justice for his girlfriend, Rex puts his own life at risk just for the sake of finally getting rid of the burden of uncertainty. What he encounters is the worst possible proof of humanity’s wicked nature. Stream on The Criterion Channel
9 I Saw the Devil (2010)
I Saw the Devil is a stomach-turning Korean thriller that follows the game of cat and mouse between a ruthless secret agent and the unscrupulous serial killer who killed his wife. As the protagonist engages in bloody acts as revolting as those of the man he’s chasing, the movie makes the viewer confront how easy it is to become a monster.
Justice Versus Revenge
Korean thrillers sure know how to use graphic violence to elevate the tension, and I Saw the Devil is no easy watch. However, it carries a relevant purpose along by committing to an anti-revenge approach. At the end of the day, justice loses all its meaning, and when it comes to seeking revenge, it’s always best to dig two graves. Rent on AppleTV
8 Kill List (2011)
Living under the shadow of a fateful mistake, a deadly hitman reluctantly accepts a new assignment. What’s supposed to be three uncomplicated killings hints at something much darker, sending the killer into the heart of a chilling conspiracy.
There’s Always a Bigger Fish
Starting off as a savage hitman thriller, Kill List progressively gives in to a disorienting psychological horror. The moodscape is fueled by hopelessness and dread. The way the movie addresses a hitman’s sense of justice is as violent as one might expect, but it does a great job of showing that there’s always someone worse. Kill List follows one predator chasing after another in a vicious cycle, in a context where every bit of humanity left turns into a weakness to be taken advantage of. Stream on AMC+
7 The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
The Secret in Their Eyes
- Release Date
- August 13, 2009
- Soledad Villamil , Ricardo Darin , Carla Quevedo , Pablo Rago , Javier Godino , Bárbara Palladino
The Secret in Their Eyes is an Oscar-winning film from Argentina, giving the country’s biggest star, Ricardo Darín, the international recognition he deserved. In the film, a retired legal counselor, troubled by an unresolved homicide from years ago, tries to vent his frustrations and concerns in a novel of his own, unleashing old bruises from the past.
An Eye for an Eye?
The Secret in Their Eyes proves that revenge isn’t always about an eye for an eye, and in that sense, the film explores with intimacy the complex emotions that overcome each character’s individual idea of justice. “Time heals all wounds,” goes the saying. In The Secret in Their Eyes, however, it’s best to say that time destroys everything. Rent on AppleTV
6 Memories of Murder (2003)
In the early years of his career, Bong Joon-ho had already pulled off a timeless masterpiece: Memories of Murder, a haunting true crime movie that recounts the exhaustive investigation of South Korea’s most infamous serial killer. Set in the 1980s, the narrative offers a detailed look into the neglectfulness of the local police in the face of a string of rapes and murders.
A Case Goes Unresolved
Memories of Murder recounts a case that remained unresolved for decades, and even having in mind the killer’s confession in the present day, the film doesn’t lose any relevance. In fact, the fatigue and frustration of the detectives have become all the more unsettling. Justice was served in real life, but in the film, these characters will always be bound to the uncertainty of an effort made in vain.
5 Eden Lake (2008)
Eden Lake is set in the remote English countryside, a small town by the lake where people like to handle justice on their own terms. In these circumstances, what should be a couple’s idyllic romantic trip turns into an absolute nightmare when they pick a quarrel with a group of teenagers.
A Nightmarish Survival Flick
Eden Lake is a movie that absolutely knows no boundaries, fully committed to keeping the viewer simultaneously hooked and revolted at what unravels onscreen. As the quarrel escalates into an incessant struggle for survival, justice quickly becomes obsolete in the minds of the main characters. They stoop to the level of their enemies, giving in to their innate savagery, and even though the film’s death toll isn’t as high as it could be, each death scene in the movie is pure nightmare fuel. Finally, shout out to Eden Lake for having the guts to end on, well, a gut-wrenching note. Stream on Prime Video
4 Blow Out (1981)
Directed by one of the geniuses of crime thrillers, Brian De Palma, Blow Out follows John Travolta as Jack Terry, a sound recordist of classic horror B-movies, who witnesses a car accident and is led to believe by the sounds he recorded that the tragedy was actually staged.
The Pieces of a Puzzle
Blow Out drinks from the same fountain as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; a narrative whose mystery is built around fragmented images of an incomplete whole. In that sense, the main character is forced to find the pieces of a jigsaw he himself created, in a mix of paranoia and distrust. The movie pays off with a melancholic ending that offers no chance of justice for the characters involved. Rent on AppleTV
3 Atonement (2007)
- Release Date
- September 7, 2007
Two years after Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright returned with Atonement, doing what he does best: emotionally charged period dramas that deal with desire and possession with the fervor of a forbidden love. The movie is centered around a reckless lie that drastically affects the lives of everyone involved: when young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) wrongfully accuses her sister’s (Keira Knightley) love interest (James McAvoy) of a crime he didn’t commit, two lovers are set apart indefinitely and a vicious criminal is left on the loose.
A Tragic Love Story
Different from Pride & Prejudice, the lovers in Atonement don’t have time nor place in their favor: separated by horrible lies, different classes, war, and most notoriously, an unfair accusation, they drift away into what could and couldn’t have been. Rent on Prime Video
2 The Green Mile (1999)
Stephen King is best known for his horror tales, but he’s also the mind behind The Green Mile‘s moving story. The movie follows the relationship between a head guard and a death row prisoner wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a little girl. The prisoner is a giant man with a big heart and has a mysterious ability to heal others.
America’s Criminal (No) Justice System
The Green Mile uses a fable-like narrative to expose the flaws of America’s criminal justice system. It prompts viewers to judge beyond appearances and regard the fantastical and the unknown with different eyes. Though its message is pretty straightforward and the film follows quite a predictable direction, anyone will have a hard time holding back the tears against the injustice of its final act. Rent on AppleTV
1 Zodiac (2007)
- Release Date
- March 2, 2007
Zodiac recounts the real-life investigation of the “Zodiac” serial killer, who terrorized northern California between the 1960s and the 1970s. Although the title carries the nickname of the killer, viewers only get a glimpse of him: what really matters here is the exhaustive process of tracking down a man with no identity, who made the police his puppet with a series of encrypted messages.
The Hunt for a Serial Killer
There’s an argument to be made that Zodiac is David Fincher’s most underrated movie. Zodiac perfectly captures America’s paranoia as an effect of the country’s serial killer hysteria. For a movie entirely focused on an investigation that goes nowhere, it does a great job of translating each character’s exhaustion onto the screen, as they materialize their fears into clues and specters that lead them to the same dead-end alley. Stream on Paramount+