In cinema, as in life, redemption plays an important role in the stories that define us.
Be it classic tales of bad men trying their best to right past wrongs, or blind, selfish fools finding enlightenment, it has been a staple of storytelling since the beginning of recorded history.
In this article, you will learn about our top five movies about redemption, with a few unconventional choices thrown in for good measure!
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by the Cohen Brothers in 2000, this satirical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey has become a cult classic amongst fans and critics alike.
Set in rural Mississippi in 1937, the film follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), as he and his comrades (John Turturro’s Pete, and Tim Blake Nelson’s Delmar) escape from prison and flee across the Deep South.
Whilst themes of brotherhood, fame, and vanity play a significant role in the movie’s plot, what begins as a break for freedom and the search for lost riches (and Ulysses’ favored pomade, “Dapper Dan”), soon turns into a tale of redemption, as the trio try to find some peace, rediscover family/friendship, and make up for the mistakes of the past.
Their adventures along the way, which see them becoming unlikely music stars (“The Soggy Bottom Boys”), unwilling bank robbers, and saboteurs of the Ku Klux Klan, ultimately wind up with the boys finding salvation, Everitt reconnecting with his estranged family, and planning to remarry ex-wife Penny.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper in 2008, Crazyheart tells the story of Otis “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges), a washed-up former country star in the twilight of his career.
Blake now spends his nights playing small-time gigs in bowling alleys and bars, drinking his earnings, staying in cheap motels, and spending his time traveling.
Estranged from his ex-wife and adult son (whom he hasn’t seen for 24 years), Blake has all but given up on life, until a chance encounter with a young journalist called Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a young child and mistakes of her own gives him something to live for.
The heart of this movie is redemption, with the troubled Blake finding renewed purpose, renewed feelings of love and friendship, and a renewed sense of his past, himself, and the legacy he will leave behind, by writing one last, critically acclaimed hit which he sells to his former mentee Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell).
Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee in 2013, Dallas Buyers Club tells the true story of hedonistic rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof who in 1985, after a period of promiscuity, is diagnosed with AIDS and given only 30 days to live.
After being abandoned by family, and ostracized by friends and colleagues, Ron’s intolerant viewpoint is challenged, as his dealings with the LGBT community changes from a money making venture (acquiring and selling FDA-unapproved medicine to his “Dallas Buyers Club”), to a mission of compassion, going to greater lengths to help himself and his peers in the face of government intolerance, and unsympathetic pharmaceutical companies.
The film ends stating that Ron succumbed to his illness in 1992, having successfully lived seven years longer than his doctors initially predicted.
Leaving Las Vegas
An unconventional choice, Leaving Las Vegas presents a protagonist who refuses redemption.
Directed by Mike Figgis, and based on the 1990 John O’Brien novel of the same name, Leaving Las Vegas focuses on Hollywood screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) who, after a long stint of alcoholism that costs him everything, decides to move to the Las Vegas Strip to drink himself to death.
After encountering Sera, a troubled prostitute fired by her violent pimp, Ben introduces himself and offers her $500 to spend time with him.
After Ben declines sex, the pair talk and develop a friendship, with Ben insisting she never confronts him about his drinking, and with Sera asking him not to pass judgement about her past.
Despite happiness, the pair’s problems ultimately get in the way. However, after a sexually violent altercation with a group of students, Sera and Ben reconnect on his deathbed, where they reconcile and make love.
Despite not being especially uplifting, and portraying a character (Ben) who refuses the chance for redemption, the movie shows two characters who accept each other for who they are, and in doing so, find a period of relative happiness in their dark lives.
Directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood, this 2008 drama film focuses on hostile, bitter, and bigoted Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski, who after losing his wife of 50 years, finds himself diagnosed with lung cancer, and alone in a changing neighborhood of poor, southeast Asian (Hmong) immigrants plagued by gang troubles.
After catching his young neighbor Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) trying to steal his prized Ford Gran Torino, the pair strike up an begrudged bond, with Walt teaching the teenager how to be a man, work, and accept responsibility, and with the Vang Lor family providing Walt with the friendship he was too proud to admit he needed.
A recurring theme in the film is respect, namely for other races and creeds, and this is shown through the character of Walt, whose outspokenly bigoted opinions (particularly to Asians) is challenged (and ultimately changed) through his growing bond with the Vang Lor family.
In his final moments, as the gang violence builds, and the neighbourhood faces further trouble, a dying but content Walt confronts the gang alone and unarmed, sacrificing himself to bring down the gang, who get arrested for his murder.
Of course, these are but a handful of redemption films out there, but they highlight the imperative nature that the notion of redemption plays to human storytelling.
Be it in the form of wrongs righted, the changing of negative opinions, or through the selfish becoming selfless, redemption takes many forms. Why not check out these ones for yourself? You won’t be sorry.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘Movies Filmed In Philadelphia‘.