19 Movies Where the Protagonist Isn’t the Hero

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Through legitimate or illegitimate means, the main character doesn’t always end the film as a good person. Sometimes it comes through a shocking twist, sometimes we’ve known all along that this main character is not somebody we actually like.

It’s usually these types of films that make you really wonder about human nature. How good or evil are people, deep down? What is humanity like, at it’s core? But we’re not going to answer those questions in this post: we’re just going to recommend all the movies we know of that’ll make you ask them.

Whether through deception or a mistake, it does not change the result: several of the most thrilling and astonishing events reveal that the protagonist is mistaken or definitely a villain. Here are some of the best films that demonstrate that!

1. Falling Down (1993)

Scene from Falling Down
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Numerous cinema enthusiasts cite Falling Down as a prime example of an individual thinking they’re virtuous, only to realize that they are not. In the lead role, Michael Douglas portrays William, a man who experiences a sudden and intense breakdown, leading him to embark on a violent rampage. While his job loss and marital separation fuel his growing bitterness and resentment, both he and the audience come to the realization that he is far from the virtuous person he perceives himself to be.

2. Shutter Island (2010)

Scene from Shutter Island
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Shutter Island ends with a wild twist by the end. U.S. Marshal Teddy, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his recently teamed partner, Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, disembark from a ferry at a mental institution. Their objective is to locate a fugitive murderer who has managed to escape. As reality blurs and Teddy’s psyche unravels, the end reveals how far Teddy’s stretched his delusion rather than face the truth of his past.

3. Primal Fear (1996)

Scene from Primal Fear
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Several people included this 90s flick on their lists. Primal Fear’s plot revolves around Martin (Richard Gere), a defense lawyer who represents Aaron (Edward Norton), an altar boy accused of killing his archbishop. Through windy twists, Martin believes he’s the story’s hero but soon learns he’s otherwise. This twist in this one is thoroughly shocking.

4. Fight Club (1999)

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you know the phrase “first rule of fight club.” While the first film had a young Edward Norton, Fight Club stars adult Norton narrating a story about him and his off-kilter friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). After forming an underground fight club, more people join their ranks, and chaos ensues as their club becomes much more. If you haven’t seen the film, check it out for the surprise twist.

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5. Memento (2000)

Scene from Memento
Photo Credit: Newmarket Capital Group.

Memento is a film where people debate whether the lead is good or bad. It all depends on how you classify good. If it’s by a person’s actions, even if accidental, can they be called “good?” Also, because of the order, the end is the beginning, as Leonard (Guy Pearce) has short-term memory loss. His goal is to discover who killed his wife; however, he forgets info which lays the groundwork for monumental mistakes.

6. The Others (2001)

Scene from The Others
Photo Credit: Cruise/Wagner Productions.

It’s no surprise The Others is on most folks’ lists. The twist was so shocking that I was angry because I did not expect that ending. Grace has it rough living in shadows in her dark home because her two children have severe skin reactions to sunlight. Soon she suspects ghosts haunt her home and fights to protect her children while not unraveling herself.

7. Pumpkinhead (1988)

Scene from Pumpkinhead
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Justice for a loss is understandable. But there is a fine line between justice and vengeance, which Pumpkinhead crosses. Following the tragic loss of his young son in a motorcycle crash, Ed (Lance Henriksen) searches for an eerie elderly woman to invoke Pumpkinhead. Naturally, fewer individuals would pursue revenge if they were required to endure the same terror and agony that their victims went through. The final twist is the icing on the cake.

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8. Identity (2003)

Scene from Identity
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Identity delivers a lot of surprises, but it’s only near the very end that you realize what’s happening. Ian (John Cusack) and nine other strangers wind up stranded at a motel during a storm when people die one by one. Who and what is causing their deaths, and can we trust any of the cast anymore?

9. Us (2019)

Scene from Us
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Jordan Peele’s Us is another one where the “good person” turns out to be anything but. When Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the home she grew up in as a child with her husband and two kids, masked strangers arrive who resemble them. Whether you agree with the twist, “good” does not factor in. You can understand, but that’s it.

10. Frailty (2001)

Photo Credit: David Kirschner Productions.

Frailty, which a few people name, is about people thinking they’re good when they’re not. An unknown man (Matthew McConaughey) visits an FBI agent, Wesley (Powers Boothe), and recounts his childhood when his father believed he got a vision from God to kill people who were demons. This is still a favorite film because of the reveal at the end. We won’t spoil it here, but give this a view!

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11. 500 Days of Summer (2009)

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

500 Days of Summer is one of those love-hate movies. It’s beautiful and fun and funny, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are great actors, but Gordon-Levitt’s character, Tom Hansen, is looking for something that Summer isn’t offering. They get into a relationship, and Summer perpetually wants to keep things casual while Tom perpetually wants more. But the real trouble comes in when Tom is unable to accept the fact that Summer doesn’t want what he wants.

12. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

There’s no doubt that without any single member of the fellowship, the story of The Lord of the Rings would not be what it is. Each of the nine members is essential in some way to the success of the whole: but right at the end, even Frodo succumbs to the power of the ring, and it’s Sam, the quiet hero, who rescues him, carries him the rest of the way up Mount Doom, and urges him to cast the ring into the fire. Frodo is undoubtedly one of the most important character in the whole saga, but Sam is an often-unsung hero.

13. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

There are plenty of main characters in Pulp Fiction, and none of them are really “good guys.” But rather than bore you with the reasons they’re all terrible, we’ll hone in on Jules; he’s a hitman, which is plenty bad enough, but he’s the one character who turns his life and choices around at the end of the film. He’s a bad guy, just like all the others here, but as one Redditor said: “Jules always knew he was the bad guy. He just stopped being OK with being the bad guy.”

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14. Angel Heart (1987)

Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures.

In Angel Heart, there’s a long string of people who’ve lost their lives right after contact with the main character, Harry Angel, who’s been hired to find a missing person. After the third, it’s just a little too coincidental and suffice it to say … Angel isn’t exactly the good guy he’s made out to be at the beginning.

15. The Banshees of Inisherin (2023)

Photo Credit: Searchlight Pictures.

This is another film where neither of the protagonists is really good. The movie centers around two old men living on the fictional island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland, Colm Doherty and Padraic Suilleabhain. The two men have had a lifelong friendship, until Colm cuts it off. At first Padraic tries to restore their relationship, but eventually he finds he cannot forgive Colm. The two escalate to arguing, threatening, and attempting to hurt each other (or themselves, in retaliation.) While it’s a fascinating movie, the main characters are both disturbing and disturbed people.

16. The Prestige (2006)

Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

In the movie The Prestige, Robert Angier and Alfred Bordon become competing magicians, each resorting to darker and darker tactics to outshine the other. Eventually, Angier receives a machine from Nicola Tesla that can be used to duplicate himself, which aids in a magic trick of appearing to magically transport across a room or stage. But to make the trick a success without having copies of himself existing everywhere he goes, Angier has to resort to dark and twisted methods.

17. Gone With the Wind (1939)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

The whole point of Gone With the Wind is to show the shockwaves in one woman’s personal life that came on with the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara is a strong-willed woman who will do anything to get what she wants, including a married man to run away with her. Throughout the movie, she makes choices that eventually drive her husband away right as she realizes that she loves him. Scarlett seems to grow into a better character by the end, but it takes an entire movie of anger and poor choices for her to get there, and she’s definitely not the hero in her own story.

18. Blade Runner (1982)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard in this legendary film, and while he’s the protagonist and we’re all cheering for him, the movie asks some bigger questions about what it means to be human, and Deckard blurs the line with that. He hunts down some humanoid characters he’s been asked to terminate, but in the end he saves and even runs away with another whom he’s come to love. Overall, a great movie, but Deckard is as human and fallible as the rest of us.

19. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

This one depends a bit more on your definition of a hero … if you’re looking for a good time, just one carefree day, and you need an icon to look up to, then Ferris Bueller is your guy. On the other hand, some of us watch that movie and mostly see an entitled teenager borrowing his friend’s dad’s sports car to buzz around town for the day. A whole series of calamitous (but funny) events occur as a result of Bueller’s truancy, but he makes it home in time for his parent’s to see him still “sick” in bed. So you decide this one: Farris Bueller – hero or zero?

Source: Reddit.

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