20 Movies Where the Bad Guys Win

Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. Photo: LucasFilms

In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.

You know the story: A hero journeys into a strange land, discovers a strange new item, uses it to defeat a villain, then returns home victorious. But what if the hero didn’t win, and instead was crushed by the evil forces arrayed against him? Then you’d have a film worth celebrating in the list below. First, some caveats. Slasher films were out entirely, since there the villain almost always wins. So were films where an anti-hero wins (Hannibal) and films where the bad guys are defeated by other, bigger bad guys (Cabin in the Woods). We also tried to avoid films where the bad guy merely doesn’t lose, or where a seemingly good guy reveals himself as the villain at the last minute. In other words, we wanted movies where the hero and the villain squared off with battle lines clearly drawn, and the hero took the L anyway. Suffice it to say, this list includes major spoilers.

Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005)
There was basically no way for the Star Wars prequel trilogy to give fans a happy ending, but the lack of surprise doesn’t diminish the tragedy of the final installment one iota. No matter how you felt about Jar Jar and midichlorians, it’s hard not to weep as Anakin Skywalker succumbs to the dark side, the Jedi are stabbed in the back by their clone compatriots, and Padmé dies in childbirth. (Her children will eventually take down the Empire, but it’s still a bum deal for her.) Empire Strikes Back gets a lot of praise for ending on a minor key, but that’s practically a Carly Rae Jepsen song compared to the symphony of sadness that is Episode III’s ending. —NJ

Alien: Covenant (2017)
Despite its middling performance at the box office, May’s Alien: Covenant had the increasingly rare distinction of being a summer blockbuster that was actually about something — in this case, the monstrosities that have been carried out by seemingly urbane men in the name of science and progress. Few actors could’ve served as a better avatar for such a concept than Michael Fassbender, a guy who already looks like he was designed in a lab by Lockheed Martin, and in the role of android David — as well as a newer model, Walter — Fassbender embodied a devious, seductive danger; Lucifer with a flute. When it’s revealed at the end of the film that it was David, not Walter, who helped save Katherine Waterston’s Daniels from the Xenomorph, and that David now has free rein to nurse his designer aliens to full maturity, the effect is both chilling and practical: David, and by extension Fassbender, isn’t just sticking around because it’s right for the movie. David has become the movie, in the way that the best villains often do. —KL

The Vanishing (1988)
If you’re looking for a case study in how important it can be that the villain comes out victorious, look no further than The Vanishing. Dutch director George Sluizer’s 1988 film is a great movie in many ways, but it’s a classic because of how firmly it commits to its central idea, which is that evil can lurk in the most ordinary and unremarkable of men. This idea reaches its inevitable conclusion with the protagonist waking up in a box, buried alive, having asked his partner’s family-man killer to show him what happened to her, at any cost. It’s one of the most disturbing and remarkable endings in cinema, and when Sluizer made an American remake five years later, he changed it so that the protagonist survives, climbs out of the grave, and sells the story of what happened to him as a novel. It’s a betrayal of the original’s integrity and vision so complete that it almost feels like a joke, not to mention a great example of how nobody’s better at ruining a good story than an American film studio; Matt Zoller Seitz even once called it the worst remake of all time. Happy endings aren’t always happy. —KL

Chinatown (1974)
Oh, the bad guy wins in Chinatown, all right, and that bad guy is America. One of the best movies ever made about the rapacity of capitalism, Chinatown locates in the larger-than-life figure of Noah Cross all of the most dangerous qualities of the American Dream: bourgeois charm, the hypnotizing shine of wealth, and a greed so bottomless that nothing, not even his own daughter, is out of bounds. And as if that weren’t enough, casting the great John Huston means that we’re not just watching the shroud be pulled off of the city of Los Angeles, or the country of the United States: We’re watching a homegrown legend, an icon of masculinity, let us in on a little secret about powerful men. It’s not about the money. It’s about the future. —KL

Basic Instinct (1992)
The fun of Paul Verhoeven’s kinky masterpiece isn’t in figuring out whodunit. You know that Sharon Stone’s crime novelist Catherine Tramell very likely took an ice pick to her retired rock-star boyfriend, 31 times. And she wrote a novel in which a mysterious blonde kills her lover with an ice pick as an alibi. And she’s just toying with police during that infamous interrogation scene. But like Michael Douglas’s detective Nick Curran, you find yourself seduced by Catherine anyway, even as she reveals that her new novel is about a woman who murders her detective lover. For Verhoeven, the tension lies not in the bodies that keep piling up, with the arrows clearly pointed at Catherine, but in whether Nick’s survival instincts can overpower his sexual ones. Spoiler alert: They can’t, and the two find themselves alone in her bedroom, an ice pick beneath her bed. You can guess what happens next. —JY

Arlington Road (1999)
Tim Robbins — a villain? He couldn’t be, right? His voice is too soft; his eyes, too sensitive. That’s just what he wants you to think. In this middlebrow thriller, Robbins plays a domestic terrorist who moves in next door to a college professor played by Jeff Bridges. Will he be unmasked? Not a chance! Though Bridges slowly gets wise to his neighbor’s true identity, Robbins outsmarts him with a scheme that rivals Rube Goldberg in its ludicrous efficiency. As Roger Ebert complained, “How can anyone, even skilled conspirators, predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a car crash? How can they know in advance that a man will go to a certain pay phone at a certain time, so that he can see a particular truck he needs to see?” Forget it Roger, it’s Arlington Road. —NJ

No Country for Old Men (2007)
At one point in No Country for Old Men, Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells is asked if Anton Chigurh, the man chasing him, is dangerous. “Compared to what?” he says. “The bubonic plague?” It’s an apt comparison: Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, isn’t your typical villain, operating under some plan or evil intention. Instead, he’s more like a natural disaster, as unfeeling and merciless as a tornado sweeping across a plain. Even killing he leaves up to the chance of a coin flip: He provides space for fate within the bounds of his brutality. And his ultimate impact isn’t in what he does or doesn’t accomplish, just as a tornado doesn’t win or lose. For Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell, Chigurh represents the forces of the world that we can’t control, forces that are quite possibly evil — forces that may end up winning out. —KL

Body Heat (1981)
Lawrence Kasdan’s nod to Double Indemnity keeps the femme fatale, the handsome stooge, and the doomed husband. But, freed from the restrictions of the Hays Code, Kasdan is able to give his scheming seductress (Kathleen Turner, in a star-making turn) the glorious ending she deserves. There’s no studio-mandated comeuppance here: Instead, Turner’s Matty Walker gets off scot-free with her husband’s money, a new life, and some fantastic sunglasses. —NJ

The Wicker Man (1973)
One of the greatest horror films of all time clinched its legacy with one of the most shocking finale sequences ever put onscreen. After spending an entire movie scouring the island of Summerisle for a missing girl, prim Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) at last finds her and tries to rescue her. But it turns out the girl has just been bait all along: The devout Christian detective realizes that he’s been lured to Summerisle by its pagan inhabitants as a sacrifice for a strong harvest. As the villagers sing songs of revelry and Howie get engulfed in flames, the old gods triumph over the new, agrarian tradition defeats urban progress, and hope in a supreme, righteous force of good is lost. —JC

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Domesticity has rarely seemed so poisonous as in this Roman Polanski classic. After being raped by the devil, a liaison made possible with the help of her rotten husband, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) spends the entire movie being poisoned, gaslighted, and manipulated by those around her, and for her trouble, she’s rewarded with the news that her baby is the literal Antichrist. A cynical New Yorker might read it as a cautionary tale: See all the terrible things that can happen when you talk to your neighbors? —JC

The Omen (1976)
Would a movie kill a child? Usually not. Does it matter, though, if the child is the Antichrist? That’s the dilemma faced here by Gregory Peck, who takes in an abandoned infant only to discover that the boy happens to be the son of Satan. (As this and Rosemary’s Baby prove, back in the ’60s and ’70s, there was just no stopping Satanists.) Peck spends the film coming to grips with the boy’s true nature — too late, as it turns out, as we’re left with the evil little boy on top — both in the movie and in the real world, where “Damien” shot up baby-name lists. —NJ

Se7en (1995)
Se7en came out 22 years ago, but if you still can’t trust Kevin Spacey after his brief but heinous turn as a theology-themed serial killer, it would be entirely understandable. Although Spacey’s character may get a bullet to the head in the film’s climax, it doesn’t happen until after he’s claimed one last victim, packaged her severed head in a box, and mailed it to her cop husband — who doesn’t find out she was pregnant until he sees the bloody package. The police get their man in the end, but rarely has screen vengeance felt so hollow. —JC

Gone Girl (2014)
Infuriating sexual politics aside, the delicious part of David Fincher’s interpretation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway best seller is how difficult it is for so much of the movie to discern who the bad guy actually is. We’re first presented with the disappearance of gorgeous, perfect Amy (Rosamund Pike), whose husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), is acting incredibly suspicious, and is later revealed to be a lying cheat. And he’s still all of those things when we find out that Amy has elaborately staged her death as revenge for Nick’s cheating, and is hoping he gets executed in prison. In the process, Amy tricks and kills another man; gets a police department to turn against its best detective; and ends up both pregnant with the baby she wanted and back together with the husband whose life she very nearly destroyed — which I guess is a win? Though given that Ben Affleck shower scene at the end, perhaps we’ve all won. —JY

The Usual Suspects (1995)
We know who the bad guy is: Keyser Söze, a Turkish criminal mastermind with a mythic reputation who set fire to a boat in a pier, in an apparent scheme to destroy $91 million of a rival’s cocaine, killing 27 and leaving behind only a severely burned Hungarian mobster and a chatty con man with cerebral palsy, Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) to tell the tale. As Verbal pieces together what happened in a police interrogation, director Bryan Singer tells the story in flashbacks, where we learn about the five felons (including Gabriel Byrne and then-unknown Benicio del Toro) who met in a seemingly random police lineup and decide to pull off the heist. Or was the whole thing Söze’s plan all along? The narration is consistently unreliable, everyone onscreen seems to be both a patsy and a potential perpetrator, and the storytelling moves at such an insane pace that even when the truth comes out, you just have to applaud the villain for pulling it off. —JY

Brazil (1985)
In a world defined by consumerism and terrorism, one man who works at the all-powerful Ministry of Information dares to buck the system in the pursuit of love and freedom. And he fails. Heartbreakingly and totally, he fails. Director Terry Gilliam even dangles the carrot of a happy ending for our hero, Sam (Jonathan Pryce), but at the last moment, we’re snapped back to reality to find he’s been tortured to the point of a psychotic break. Forever trapped in his own mind, Sam will remain a prisoner of the system until the day he meets his end. If you want to feel good about the future, do not watch Brazil. —JC

Fallen (1998)
Director Gregory Hoblit pulled off a classic bad-guy-wins twist in 1996’s Primal Fear, and he did it again in this supernatural noir, which sees a Philly cop (Denzel Washington) on the trail of, well, what turns out to be a demon. It’s kind of silly, but Hoblit does a good job of making you think Denzel might maybe have a chance against the demon. He doesn’t. It’s a demon! —NJ

Funny Games (1997)
To say that the bad guys win at the end of Funny Games is a bit of a dodge. The whole gist of Funny Games is that nobody wins, least of all you, the viewer, who just spent two hours watching a family get massacred by a pair of sociopaths in golf shirts. Funny Games is an indictment of cinematic violence that indulges lustily in cinematic violence, so lustily that Michael Haneke made it twice, once in Austria and again a decade later in the U.S., and it constantly implicates the audience in the conventions of brutality onscreen. By the time Peter and Paul — the names, you might also note, of two of Christ’s greatest apostles — finally throw the body of the mother into the lake, it’s hard to miss Haneke’s point. The characters didn’t do this: You did, and so did he. —KL

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
It may be stretching the definition of the word movie to include Manos, the micro-budget horror film made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000, on this list, as the film studiously avoids following the most common rules of cinema, stuff like “have interesting conflict” and “make sure everything makes a basic level of sense.” But, quality aside, the bad guys certainly do win at the end of Manos, as our heroes try to escape from the devilish Master by … returning to his house, where they’re promptly captured and forced to be his slaves — the last in a long line of inexplicable decisions made in and around the film. —NJ

Creep (2014)
This two-man show is surprising for many reasons. The first is the fact that it features Mark Duplass as the creepiest version of himself, using that toothy grin to skin-crawling effect. The second is that villainous Duplass triumphs in the end over his nice-guy counterpart, and he does so by casually driving an ax into the dude’s head while wearing a wolf mask, all in the bright afternoon sun. It’s the rare horror movie with a truly surprising conclusion. —JC

The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn is not here to give you heroes, and you definitely won’t find any in his love letter to beauty-worship in the City of Angels. When our pure heroine (Elle Fanning) turns sour, she’s soon consumed — literally, yes, but also existentially — by the craven desire for aesthetic perfection. The impulse to embody perfection will outlive any vessel, and if we’re not careful, it can make villains of us all. Still, it’s not all roses for Neon Demon’s villains, as one of the baddies gets a mean case of indigestion at the end. Blech! —JC

20 Movies Where the Bad Guys Win