To redeem is to set yourself free; free from the shackles of eternal guilt and the lingering memories of unspeakable sins committed in the past. Themes of guilt, salvation and redemption have been extensively used in cinema to tell stories that are profoundly human. Redemption is essential to character development in that it provides a great amount of depth and complexity to the characters and in the process humanizing them which evokes a sense of empathy in the viewers. Actors are often pushed beyond their abilities here in roles that demand immense psychological and emotional preparations.
While there are films that focus on redemption as their central themes, there have been numerous occasions in cinema where a brief moment or act of redemption could do wonders with the film’s underlying meanings and character development. This article takes a look at both of those kinds of films where redemption of the characters have been portrayed effectively. Also note that the numbers do not reflect any sort of rankings for the films. With everything said now, let’s move on to the list of top movies about redemption. You can watch several of these best redemption movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
None of Quentin Tarantino‘s films have been as thematically deep as ‘Pulp Fiction’. A film that created ripples in the American indie scene back in the 90s, ‘Pulp Fiction’ depicts the stories of two mob hitmen, a boxer, a gangster’s wife and a pair of diner bandits whose lives get intersected in the strangest possible ways that explore tales of violence, masculinity, loyalty and redemption. The film’s most powerful act of redemption comes in the form of Jules Winfield’s character. Tarantino uses his character to convey the essence of the central themes of violence and redemption running in the film.
‘Pulp Fiction’ features one of the most memorable acts of redemption in cinema in the famous diner scene in the climax where Jules overpowers Ringo who attempts to rob the restaurant with his girlfriend. After explaining him about the miraculous escape he made earlier that morning that very nearly killed him, Jules recites verses from the Bible only this time making the slightest effort to interpret what was being said through those lines all the time when he used them to commit heinous acts of violence and murders, making his act of redemption powerful beyond words.
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9. Groundhog Day (1993)
This Bill Murray starring classic fantasy-comedy drama holds a special place in every cinephile’s heart. The film tells the story of a highly self-centered, arrogant weatherman, Phil Connors, who has been sent to Pennsylvania to cover a report on the Groundhog Day activities but soon finds himself trapped in a time loop. Open to countless interpretations and debates, ‘Groundhog Day’ deals with a wide variety of themes including self-discovery, improvement and eventual redemption.
The time loop concept brilliantly plays out as a metaphor to life repeatedly throwing chances and opportunities on you to redeem and introspect on the actions from your past life while pulling you back from the escapes and luxuries of death and forcing you to confront the realities and inner truth of your selfish desires consumed by utter self-importance. The film is now widely regarded as one of the greatest comedy dramas of all time.
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8. In Bruges (2008)
‘In Bruges’ is a showcase of great, original writing and splendid performances. The film focuses on two hitmen, one of whom has accidentally killed a young boy and is waiting with his fellow hitman to receive further instructions from their boss. Ray is deeply shattered inside and could hardly ever live with the unspeakable sin he committed and is slipping towards the dark corners of suicide and depression. Ken, his partner, has been given orders by his boss, Harry, to kill Ray since he committed the most heinous crime of killing a child. Sympathizing with Ray and understanding the complexity of the situation, Ken implores Harry to change his mind and that Ray deserves more than a good chance at redeeming himself but gets himself killed while trying to stop Harry.
The subsequent chain of events lead to poetic and at times even darkly comic acts of redemption as Harry commits suicide since he thinks he killed a child trying to shoot Ray while Ray, gravely wounded, has a moment of contemplation on his actions knowing that he might never have a chance anymore in life at redeeming himself.
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7. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood‘s finest film and one of the greatest westerns ever made in cinema, ‘Unforgiven’ is a burning tale of a once brutal gunfighter seeking redemption in the midst of having to deal with the wicked realities that encompass his existence; realities that were blurred by his unquenchable quest for power, ambition and insatiable bloodlust. ‘Unforgiven’ narrates the story of William Munny, an ageing, physically deteriorating, former gunfighter who takes on one last job years after had quit the it and turned to farming. His violent, enigmatic past is beautifully concealed in a fabulous act of filmmaking, adding a sense of intrigue and mystery to his character.
Eastwood’s stone-eyed, deadpan looks pull us into the realm of his distraught conscience which makes us truly empathize with his character despite the vicious acts and atrocities he committed in his youth. In one final act of violence and mayhem, William crawls out of the tyranny of guilt and lingering memories of a past he isolates himself from and in the process redeeming himself and his soul tainted with hatred, guilt, agony and regret.
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6. American History X (1998)
Raw, unrestrained and uncompromisingly forthright in its depiction of fanaticism and its underlying theories of hatred, violence and vengeance that are drenched in futility, ‘American History X’ is quite possibly the most hard-hitting American film about redemption. Derek is the leader of a Neo-Nazi skinhead group whose extremist ideologies have spewed hatred and violence around the streets of his neighborhood. His relentless rapacity for blood culminates in a brutal murder that mocks the perpetual paradox of vengeance. After serving a harsh time in prison, Derek, perennially wounded by the haunting memories and terrifying experiences of his life in prison, returns a changed man only to find out that his brother has embarked on a journey that follows his own fatal footsteps.
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5. On the Waterfront (1954)
The great Elia Kazan’s 1954 crime drama, ‘On the Waterfront’ is one of the most influential works in cinema. Marlon Brando, who steers the film, further explores his method acting realism and goes beyond the ultimate truth that actors strive to attain with their craft in one of the most complex roles ever written that delves deep into the intricacies of humanity and its inherent frailties.
The film centers around Terry Malloy, a man torn by the long lost desires of his past and is embroiled in a scorching conflict with his own self and the world around him. His relationship with Edie Doyle proves to be a gateway to his lost self which edifies him about life, its purpose and his existence as the concealment of truth burns inside his conscience. In a powerful act of redemption, Terry fervently revolts against Johnny, escaping his tyrannical clutches while embracing the truth in all its ambiguities.
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4. Amores Perros (2000)
In what is now regarded as one of the greatest directorial debuts in cinema, Mexican maverick Alejandro Inarritu displays a remarkable level of craftsmanship and raw intensity that is nearly unmatched. ‘Amores Perros’ is a triptych containing three distinct stories each of them searingly exploring the themes of human loss, regret and pain. The redemption tale, while not being the central thematic focus of the film, is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking ever put on screen. El Chivo, a homeless hitman, wandering the streets of the city who lives with several mongrel dogs, is seen weeping in silent moments of his life, desperate to see his daughter. We later learn that Chivo was once a school teacher, happily married, before succumbing to his own idealistic and extremist notions and perceptions, abandoning his loved ones.
In the final act of redemption, Chivo ties up his victims who are found to be half brothers, leaving a pistol in between them within their reach. After breaking into his daughter’s house Chivo leaves a huge amount of money and records a heartfelt moment of confession and expresses his unfeigned love for his daughter on her answering machine as he sets out on journey with his dog; a journey beyond the horizons of human desires, greed, violence and hatred.
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3. Gran Torino (2008)
Clint Eastwood’s subtly moving drama that portrays the relationship between a war veteran and his young neighbor is a sweeping tale of humanity and redemption. The calculated pace of the film takes a good amount of time to establish and develop the characters as Eastwood displays some fine old school filmmaking prowess.
Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood, is an old, cynical man, distraught by the traumatic images and memories of the Korean War and holds the world and people around him in contempt with his racist ideologies. His frequent interactions with the neighborhood Hmong family, flowers a sense of humanity and tenderness in him as his withering life transforms with the new-found meaning and discovery of a side of life that has distanced him even in the most trying times. Walt redeems himself by a sacrifice that sets him free from a world that was beyond his comprehension, leaving behind poignant memories to the people he’s been with and cared for.
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2. The Wrestler (2008)
Darren Aronofsky‘s ‘The Wrestler’ is a fascinating exploration of a man’s life, ambitions and longing to regain his lost fame and recognition. The theme of redemption here is slightly underplayed but nevertheless helps in drawing an organic conclusion to a film that soars high in ambition and drama.
Mickey Rourke, in a role of a lifetime, plays an aging professional wrestler who discovers his own self in the second half of his life, leading him back to the ring again in an attempt to regain lost fame, deserted desires and faded memories. In his desperate journey to his own self, Robin discovers forgotten emotions and relationships of his life which were clouded by his life of fame and searing desires. Robin returns to the ring and reconciles with his estranged daughter, mending the shattered pieces of his own life as he redeems himself in the eyes of the people he abandoned and most importantly in his own eyes.
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1. Biutiful (2010)
Two of Javier Bardem‘s performances have given me sleepless nights. One for a performance that froze my nerves and numbed my senses, terrifying me in ways I thought were plain impossible; two for a performance that shook me to the core with its raw humanity and a deeply melancholic sense of despair and agony. And that in itself is a testament to the acting genius that the man is.
In Alejandro Inarritu’s poignant family drama of a father trying to come to terms with the tragedy looming in the times ahead, Bardem essays a role that is delicate in its rendering of humanity and complex in its vulnerabilities. Bardem’s Uxbal is a man, separated from his wife, living with his children in a shabby apartment and is struggling to make ends meet with his job while strives hard to come to terms with the realities of his terminal illness. In a blunder of sorts that turns into a horrific tragedy which takes the lives of numerous immigrants, Uxbal is emotionally wrecked and plagued with unspeakable guilt and on his road to redemption, finds a place that sets him free from the shackles of harsh realities and the perennial pain of burden.
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