We live in an age where forgiveness, redemption and moving on are almost alien ideals. Still, some movies remind us that, at least occasionally, people can become better. Here are 10 films where characters receive some form of redemption.
01. Stand by Me (1986)
Though he’s obviously known as a horror author, Stephen King occasionally veers into normal storytelling. In fact, sometimes he even deals with the phenomenon of redemption. While ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ seems to be the most obvious choice for this topic, ‘Stand by Me’ is perhaps a better example. In some respects, it’s a better and simpler story. Or is it so simple? When four kids set off on an adventure to find the body of a missing boy, it seems their lives are anything but simple.
One of the boys, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), is being cruelly ignored by his parents after the death of his older brothers. Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) hails from a dysfunctional family, apparently resenting being considered another bad seed. Teddy Duchamp’s father is an abusive “loony,” at one point burning Teddy’s ear on a hot stove. Vern (Jerry O’Connell) may not have so many quirks, but he’s obviously lambasted by others as the “fat kid,” and he hears his older brother (Casey Siemaszko) talking about the dead kid they found. This is what initializes their quest, and one of the great coming-of-age films of the 1980s. They learn more about each other, about life and death, about pursuing one’s dreams, and what it means to finally stand up for one’s self.
Just as importantly, when the gravity of the situation settles in, they eventually wonder if looking for a dead body should really be an adventure. All that aside, ‘Stand by Me’ also manages to be quite funny along the way. In fact, it’s one of the funniest dramas you’ll probably ever see. Good stuff!
02. Flatliners (1990)
Here’s a movie that’s all about redemption! For whatever reason,’Flatliners’ is apparently not a critic’s darling, but quite often that’s not a valid strike against something. Perhaps the story was deemed too straightforward, not complex enough? Maybe it lacked dazzling special effects? Whatever the critics say, each character here faces the afterlife, gets resurrected by a medical student colleague, and then has to face a haunting sin from the past. It’s about each character’s individualized journey to redemption. What’s not to like about that premise? Sure, you can be an atheist and not like it. However, you can also be an atheist and dig it. It’s a good movie!
You have Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland), who faces off with Billy Mahoney (Joshua Rudoy), a kid he bullied as a youth. Similarly, David (Kevin Bacon) is taunted by a girl (Kesha Reed) he bullied in grade school. Meanwhile, Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) is haunted by images of women he made sex tapes of without permission. Really, the most boring flashback is of Julia Robert’s character, Rachel, who merely feels guilt over her father’s (Benjamin Mouton) death. Boo! It seems Julia Roberts is usually incapable of playing a genuinely flawed character, as her characters are typically praised for being beautiful, perfect angels. Nevertheless, it doesn’t subtract much from the story. I recommend ‘Flatliners’ for a watch.
03. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In the original ‘Terminator,’ Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially played a mindless killing machine pursuing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), with the ultimate goal of killing her son so computers could more easily conquer the human race. Talk about a dystopian future! In contrast to that, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ has Arnold playing a good guy Terminator, actually sent to protect Sarah and her son John (Edward Furlong). At first it seems the cyborg is just following its programming, and that’s why it’s not trying to kill them. However, as the story progresses, it seems there is almost a natural bond formed between the three, and a more genuine animosity between Arnold’s T-800 Terminator and the wicked T-1000 model, played brilliantly by Robert Patrick.
In a way, Sarah Connor also redeems herself in the eyes of her son, who previously thought her a lunatic. Similarly, John Connor goes from being a “rebel without a cause” to a fledgling leader, capable of training a Terminator to understand moral codes. If that’s not enough, Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), whose research is supposed to launch the apocalyptic Skynet system, redeems himself somewhat by attempting to destroy his present research to alter the future (though his efforts apparently don’t succeed, as the Terminators in his time don’t disappear). Sure, the Terminator franchise has some massive plot holes, but when Arnold says, “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do,” it’s a potential tearjerker moment.
04. Schindler’s List (1993)
The real Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved at least 1,200 Jews from death in concentration camps by putting them to work in his factories. It was perhaps the only way he (or anybody else) could have saved them. In the film “Schindler’s List,” Liam Neeson does an amazing job conveying the dichotomy of his position. On one hand, he had his business interests and his need to appeal loyal to the government. On the other hand, he felt an immense obligation to prevent deaths, often resorting to bribing SS officials in order to save his worker’s lives. It worked.
Of course, not everyone in ‘Schindler’s List’ is redeemed. Ralph Fiennes portrayal of SS captain Amon Göth is ranked 15th on American Film Institute’s list of top 50 film villains of all time. Although “Schindler’s List” is a dark film by any sane standard, it does offer a glimmer of hope, and reminds us that a little bit of difference can sometimes go a long way. In fact, the real Oskar Schindler is the only Nazi Party member to be honored by the Israeli government. If you think about it, that’s pretty profound.
05. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is just one of those great films! Part of its greatness stems from the redemption of – you guessed it – Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). Gilbert isn’t exactly a villain, or anything like that. In fact, he’s sort of an everyman figure. However, life has its way of letting him down, making him feel trapped, and he is increasingly lashing out at people. He has a mentally challenged brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a bratty sister (Mary Kate Schellhardt) and an obese mother named Bonnie (Darlene Cates) who became depressed and housebound after her husband committed suicide. One of Gilbert’s few thrills comes from his affairs with Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), a married woman.
Although Gilbert initially seems jaded, and possibly on his father’s same suicidal path, a girl named Becky (Juliette Lewis) moves into town and changes his course. Yes, Gilbert makes a few bad decisions along the way, but there is room for redemption. Gilbert grows up, and realizes much of his problems stem from within, from how he sees himself and his place in the world. This film has other great, understated performances by John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover, who should have honestly worked together more often. Anyway, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” has a “one-of-a-kind” quality, and deserves a fair amount of praise.
06. Pulp Fiction (1994)
It may not seem so at first, but Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ is largely about redemption. Just look at some of the main characters. Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) starts off as an occasionally humanized yet still brutal henchman of gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). However, by the end of the film, Jules emphasizes that he’s had a “moment of clarity” due to a miraculous moment, and intends to give up his life in crime to humbly walk life’s path. Frankly, this is a Tarantino character who definitely, without a doubt, merits a follow-up film – especially one where his past catches up to him, and he’s forced to face the consequences (Seriously, Tarantino could make this work. Do it, Quentin!). Tell me this Jules line isn’t iconic: “The truth is..you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
Jules isn’t the only character who is redeemed, however. Marsellus Wallace is arguably also redeemed, to an extent. When he and boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) are initially at each other’s throats, it’s assumed that one of them will have to die. However, an inexplicable, twisted shared experience between them reveals Wallace as a man capable of forgiveness and honor. You also get the sense that Wallace will never be quite the same. Perhaps he’ll never totally abandon his role as crime boss, but he’ll at least know what it’s like to need someone to save your life – even if it’s someone you previously wanted dead. Many people consider ‘Pulp Fiction’ to be an amoral film, yet it’s surprisingly moral, so long as you know where to look.
07. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Based on a real man of the same name, the character Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a truly gifted conman. He was notorious for forging checks and identities. He alternately pretended to be a PanAm Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor and a Louisiana Prosecutor. Soon, FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is in hot pursuit, with Frank seemingly always one step ahead. However, Frank is eventually faced with the prospect of joining the ranks of the FBI and helping them prevent fraud or simply going to prison. While the FBI is itself not a 100% squeaky-clean organization, Frank is arguably a character who has a chance to redeem himself, and it makes for quite an interesting story.
08. Spider-Man (2002)
Snobs likely dismiss it now, but Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ was arguably the most successful comic book movie for a time – before DC and Marvel started crapping them out every other month, anyway. Part of what makes the movie successful is the main character’s redemption. Sort of like Batman, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) became who he was through dark circumstances. Sure, he was bit by a radioactive spider and attained wild new superpowers, but that’s not what I’m referring to. No, Spidey became a superhero after not stopping a random, petty thief who soon caused the death of his uncle, Ben (Cliff Robertson).
Of course, Ben had told his nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.” While those words sort of idealize power, they are obviously meant to channel it in proper, just directions. It’s a message that Peter Parker takes to heart, and he is soon facing off against various criminals, and also the powerful Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Of course, Kirsten Dunst does okay as Mary Jane Watson and Rosemary Harris is convincing as Peter’s aunt, May Parker. However, the story of Spider-Man and the special effects are largely what made this movie a huge success, in addition to Maguire’s “everyman” performance and Dafoe’s maniacal Green Goblin. Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ (and ‘Spider-Man 2′) are still worth an occasional watch, and are simply superior to many other such films.
09. Shrek (2001)
Before he became a lowly, weird yet entertaining series of internet memes, ‘Shrek’ was just a film franchise. The first film was a likeable spoof of Disney-variety fairy tales, with Mike Myers voicing the now iconic ogre named Shrek. So, how is this tale about redemption? In case you didn’t notice, Shrek is no longer quite a grumpy ogre by the film’s end, and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) becomes comfortable with her true form. In some ways, ‘Shrek’ is about acceptance, freedom and avoiding unnecessary conflict, while allowing characters to occasionally take a stand.
In addition to that, the Dragon is no longer feared after getting together with the donkey (Eddie Murphy). Of course, Dragon does swallow Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) whole like the bitter pill he is, but he was arguably a tyrant who had it coming. While ‘Shrek’ doesn’t have the most fully redeemed characters imaginable, it’s also just not that kind of movie. Stuff happens to Shrek and company, and they deal with it the best they can. Take it or leave it!
10. Halloween (2018)
David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ broke box office records, but that alone doesn’t make it a worthwhile film. It has more to do with the prevailing undercurrent of an alienated, paranoid woman who regains the trust of her family. Yes, that’s how I would characterize Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) here. Rather than just being about the psychotic Michael Myers (Nick Castle/James Jude Courtney), this film looks at his deep, lasting psychological scars, and what it means to be prepared for a re-match. So, in contrast to some of these movies, Laurie Strode is actually redeemed because she refused to totally move on.
While her family understandably characterizes her as a paranoid lunatic, it seems she’s the only one who truly understands what “The Shape” really is. However, Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) is eventually forced to face what Laurie knew all along, in a showdown which is both controversial and redeeming. While some people constantly trash-talk the survivalist mindset, 2018’s ‘Halloween’ reminds us there may be something to it sometimes. Self-defense isn’t all bad, and we should probably all be prepared for an emergency. Yes, it pays to be a little battle-ready sometimes, even if we’re not exactly facing an iconic, death-defying, masked maniac. Survival can be its own limited form of redemption.