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10 Best Thrillers Where the Villain Wins

There are a few genres that feel perfectly suited to the unique characteristics of cinema as a medium; the thriller is certainly one. After all, what better storytelling medium than a movie to engage viewers in a gripping chase between heroes and villains? The best thrillers grip audiences’ attention and don’t let it go until the credits roll, building a simmering sense of suspense and letting it boil over every few minutes.

As is the case in the vast majority of movie genres, good prevails over evil in most thrillers. The hero triumphantly walks away from an epic explosion after foiling the antagonist’s schemes. However, this isn’t always the case. In a few noteworthy thrillers, many of which are remembered as some of the best in the genre, the villain is the one who gets their way. These endings may not exactly be feel-good staples, but they typically result in a fascinatingly unique film. These are the best thrillers where the villain walks away victorious, adding a new and unexpected layer of uneasiness.

10 ’12 Monkeys’ (1995)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Jeffrey and James looking in the same direction while at a mental isntitution in 12 Monkeys
Image via Universal Pictures

Best known for his involvement with the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python, Terry Gilliam has also directed some of modern cinema’s most delightfully bizarre films. One of his best is the sci-fi extravaganza 12 Monkeys, about a convict from a future Earth devastated by disease. He travels back in time to gather information regarding the man-made virus that wiped out most of the planet’s population, but there’s a lot more to his mission than he thinks.

As tends to be the case with time travel films, 12 Monkeys has a mind-bending finale that requires viewers’ full attention to be fully understood and appreciated. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a happy ending. It sees hero James Cole (played by a terrific Bruce Willis) gunned down by airport security, unable to prevent the outbreak of the virus that will wipe out humanity. This seemingly fatalistic ending is crucial to the film’s intriguing exploration of whether predestination exists, a debate it never provides a definitive answer to.

12 Monkeys Film Poster

12 Monkeys

Release Date
January 5, 1995

Joseph Melito , Bruce Willis , Jon Seda , Michael Chance , Vernon Campbell , H. Michael Walls


Chris Marker , David Webb Peoples , Janet Peoples

9 ‘Funny Games’ (1997)

Directed by Michael Haneke

Arno Frisch next to a person with covered face in Funny Games.
Image via Attitude Films

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has made some of the most disturbing films in history—some are emotionally gut-wrenching, but others, like 1997’s Funny Games, appeal to much darker corners of the human psyche. This thriller is about two young men who invade a family’s vacation home and kidnap them, forcing them to participate in sadistic games for their twisted pleasure.

Haneke remade the film ten years later in Hollywood, but the Austrian original is usually agreed to be the superior version. It’s easily one of the most unsettling films ever made, presenting a message on the depiction of violence in media that’s every bit as intelligent as it is disquieting. The despicable young kidnappers may technically win at the end of the story, but having willingly witnessed such atrocities, perhaps it’s viewers who suffered the greatest loss.

Funny Games 1997 Film Poster

Funny Games (1997)

Release Date
March 11, 1998

Susanne Lothar , Ulrich Mühe , Arno Frisch , Frank Giering

108 minutes

8 ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995)

Directed by Bryan Singer

Verbal Kint smoking cigarette in front of parked car in The Usual Suspects
Image via Gramercy Pictures

Though it may be one of only a few highest-rated movies on IMDb not on Letterboxd’s Top 250, The Usual Suspects is still often praised as a groundbreaking achievement in the mystery, crime, and drama genres. It’s also an outstanding thriller, where the sole survivor of a shootout relates how a notorious criminal influenced the events that began with five criminals meeting in a police lineup.

With outstanding performances and some of the best editing American cinema has ever seen, The Usual Suspects explores themes of lies, deceit, and violence in highly effective ways. However, the main thing that the film is known for is its twist ending—and for good reason. Keyser Söze’s victory right before the credits roll is one of the greatest moments of ’90s cinema, entirely recontextualizing a film that viewers are guaranteed to want to see another time.


The Usual Suspects

Release Date
July 19, 1995

106 minutes

7 ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Joker sits on the floor of an interrogation room with his back against the wall in The Dark Knight
Image via Warner Bros. 

Even after years of the genre’s initial boom and dozens of terrific entries, fans still think The Dark Knight is as good as superhero movies will ever get. What’s so special about it is that it’s not just a simple superhero flick but also an incredibly tense action thriller. In it, Batman faces his biggest threat yet when he must stop a villain who seemingly just wants to watch the world burn.

Heath Ledger‘s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker is one of the most iconic performances of the 21st century thus far and the main reason why the villain is remembered as one of the best in movie history. Another reason is that he arguably wins in the end. Though some of his plans fall flat, such as unmasking Batman, Joker ultimately succeeds by corrupting Gotham’s knight in shining armor, bringing the city to its knees, unveiling its dark and corrupt innings, and taking away its Dark Knight.

6 ‘Memories of Murder’ (2003)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Detective Park looking intently to the distance in 'Memories of Murder'
Image via CJ Entertainment

South Korean cinema is filled to the brim with incredible thrillers; in Memories of Murder, Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho made what’s easily one of the best. Based on a true story, this incredible police procedural is set in a small Korean province in 1986, where two detectives struggle to solve a case involving multiple women murdered by an unknown culprit.

The killer behind the murders was only identified in 2019. Thus, when the film came out, though the criminal was already serving a prison sentence, he hadn’t yet been recognized as the man behind these ghastly crimes. As such, the ending of Memories of Murder is grim and painful but full of profound meaning. As detective Park looks directly at the camera in the final shot, it feels like Bong is making a statement that the real killer could be anywhere—even sitting in the audience. After all, one never knows where such darkness may lie.

Memories of Murder poster

Memories of Murder

Release Date
May 2, 2003

Kang-ho Song , Sang-kyung Kim , Roe-ha Kim , Jae-ho Song , Hie-bong Byeon , Seo-hie Ko

129 minutes

Bong Joon-ho , Kwang-rim Kim , Sung Bo Shim

5 ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Hannibal Lecter with blood on his face in his jail cell in Silence of the Lambs
Image via MGM

The latest movie to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most horrifying thrillers ever made, to the point that many would confidently call it a straight-up horror film. It’s about young FBI cadet Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who must receive the help of incarcerated cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help her catch another serial killer.

Horror film or not, The Silence of the Lambs is a one-of-a-kind experience. Though it’s full of iconic lines of dialogue and exceptionally crafted scenes, its third act is probably the best part of the whole thing. Although Clarice has succeeded in catching Buffalo Bill, the final section of the movie shows one of the best prison escape sequences in film history, which ends with Hannibal getting back into the open for him to continue his evil deeds. The sound of Clarice’s voice repeating Lecter’s name is haunting and unforgettable.

The Silence of the Lambs - 1991 - poster

The Silence of the Lambs

Release Date
February 14, 1991

118 minutes

Ted Tally

4 ‘Oldboy’ (2003)

Directed by Park Chan-wook

Yoo Ji-tae with a gun pointed at his head in 'Oldboy'
Image via FilmDistrict

Park Chan-wook is another one of South Korea’s greatest filmmakers, and in 2003’s Oldboy, he made one of the best arthouse action thrillers of all time. Like many of the best thrillers, this one has a story racing against the clock. A man named Dae-su is released after having been kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years. He discovers that he only has five days to find his captor and get his revenge.

Few films convey the chaos and pointlessness of violence and revenge with quite as much effectiveness as Oldboy. This chaos comes to a squeamish pinnacle at the end of the movie when the villain reveals that Dae-su’s lover is, in fact, his long-lost daughter. Though Dae-su recurs to a hypnotist to make the two forget about their familial bond and remain happy together, Park intentionally leaves the ending ambiguous as to whether the hypnotist succeeds. It’s a disturbing and truly shocking finale, to say the least, closing off one of the best thrillers of the 2000s.

Oldboy Film Poster

Oldboy (2003)

Release Date
November 21, 2003

Choi Min-sik , Yoo Ji-tae , Kang Hye-jung

120 minutes

Garon Tsuchiya , Nobuaki Minegishi , Park Chan-wook

3 ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Anton Chigurh looking ahead while walking down a hall in No Country For Old Men
Image via Paramount Pictures

Joel and Ethan Coen have made some of the best films American cinema has seen in recent times. Among all their outstanding gems, No Country for Old Men shines the brightest. Bringing tropes of the Western and neo-noir genres to a violent clash, it’s a tale about good, evil, and the concept of progress. In it, mayhem ensues after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and steals two million dollars from the scene, causing the sadistic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to chase him.

A personification of fate, death, and chaos, Chigurh is arguably the Coens’ single greatest villain. Like many of film history’s great antagonists, this one walks away from the story with nothing but a few (admittedly quite grisly) wounds, having killed the protagonist and evaded the law’s capture. The movie thus ends with Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the aging sheriff who was chasing Chigurh, wondering what his place is in the modern world that seems to be populated by cynicism and senseless violence. It may not be a hopeful ending, but it sure is a thought-provoking one.


No Country for Old Men

Release Date
November 8, 2007

122 Minutes

Joel Coen , Ethan Coen , Cormac McCarthy

2 ‘Se7en’ (1995)

Directed by David Fincher

John Doe walks handcuffed between Detectives Mills and Somerset in Se7en
Image via New Line Cinema

Though he’s dabbled in all sorts of genres, David Fincher is still best known as one of the best thriller directors working today. His best work is probably Se7en, one of the grimiest films ever made. It’s the horrifying story of two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, who are hunting a serial killer using the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.

It’s well known as one of the film’s main twists today, but it’s not often that villains turn themselves to the police before the movie ends. As such, John Doe’s arrival at the police department is still one of the genre’s most memorable moments and the beginning of Se7en‘s metamorphosis into an even more disturbing film than it already was. Even if audiences today know full well what’s in the box, the ending of Se7en is still one of the most gut-wrenching in any thriller, mercilessly bringing the film’s themes of violence and revenge to a hopeless close.



Release Date
September 22, 1995

Brad Pitt , Morgan Freeman , gwyneth paltrow , R. Lee Ermey , Daniel Zacapa

127 minutes

Andrew Kevin Walker

1 ‘Chinatown’ (1974)

Directed by Roman Polanski

J.J. Gittes looking over his shoulder in a crowd in Chinatown
Image via Paramount Pictures

Probably the best neo-noir mystery film ever made, Chinatown stars a terrific Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, a private detective hired to expose an adulterer in 1930s Los Angeles. As he unravels the mystery, Gittes unknowingly brings himself deeper and deeper into a web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Whereas most detective films see their heroes tackle a huge case and gradually make it simpler, Chinatown does the opposite.

The mystery seems relatively simple at first, but as the movie goes on, it becomes far too overwhelming for even the audience to handle. With one of the most iconic quotes in movie history, Chinatown comes to a resounding close as Gittes’s lover gets killed and the villain escapes with her daughter. All the hero can do is watch in horror and walk away. There aren’t many movies that depict the dark side of the American Dream like Chinatown, a theme that feels all the more hard-hitting with the infamously bleak ending.

Chinatown movie poster


Release Date
June 20, 1974

130 minutes

Robert Towne , Roman Polanski

NEXT:The Best Cat-and-Mouse Thrillers, Ranked

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