19 Movies Where An Ordinary Person Breaks Bad

Voting Rules
Vote up the best movies where crime is the only way out.

Movies are full of stories about organized crime and hardened gangsters pulling off impossible heists, but some films take a different perspective by focusing on ordinary characters who break bad. Whether it’s for money, family, or survival, there are many reasons why a normal person might turn to crime. These movies often feature relatable characters with whom viewers can immediately identify. In John Q, for example, Denzel Washington plays the father of a young boy who needs a heart transplant in order to live. In The Breaking Point, John Garfield plays a charter boat captain who can’t afford to support his family. Painful circumstances like these are recognizable to many viewers, which makes them great material for stories about good people driven to extraordinary lengths. 

The trickiest part about these storylines is making the crime and the outcome convincing. If the audience can’t put itself in the shoes of the protagonist and understand why they break the law, the movie has probably missed the mark. It's up to you to decide which movies stick the landing and which fail to justify their characters' actions. Vote up the best movies where crime is the only way out.

Photo: Fargo / Gramercy Pictures

  • Aubrey Plaza finally got to prove her dramatic chops in the 2022 indie crime drama Emily the Criminal. She plays the eponymous Emily, an LA millennial who resembles many people in her generation. She works hard, cuts back on costs by having roommates, and makes her student loan repayments like clockwork. But she is still drowning in debt, a situation perpetuated by a felony-assault conviction that scares off potential employers. Her low-wage job at a catering company doesn’t even cover the spiraling interest on her repayments, and she is faced with the certainty of sliding deeper and deeper into debt no matter how much of her paycheck she puts toward it. When a coworker tells her about a “dummy shopper” job that pays $200 an hour, she reluctantly becomes part of a criminal organization that buys luxury goods with stolen credit cards. 

    Unlike many good guys who break bad, Emily is not exhilarated by her new line of work even though she excels at it. She is tense, inscrutable, and ruthlessly practical. She starts taking bigger jobs, begins a relationship with her supervisor, and never makes the same mistakes twice. She’s still looking for a normal job, but her aptitude for taking risks and getting away with them seems to awaken something in her. By the end of the movie, she has revealed that her assault conviction was not bad luck or the result of self-defense; she lashed out at an ex-boyfriend, and her only regret is that she hadn't gone far enough to scare him out of going to the police. In this light, her reluctance to throw herself into a life of crime has more to do with restraint than fear, and when she finally realizes she can be a criminal without suffering the consequences, she takes to it as if she'd been born for it. She is the only person in the credit card fraud scheme to escape, and when she begins a new life in Mexico running her own dummy shopper racket, it seems as though the pieces of her life have finally fallen into place.

    24 votes

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  • 2
    102 VOTES

    The Coen Brothers love dropping normal people into extraordinary situations, and Fargo is one of their most extreme examples. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) needs cash. Locked into a life of drudgery in Minneapolis, he devises a scheme to hire a pair of conmen to kidnap his wife and extort a hefty ransom from her wealthy father, Wade (Harve Presnell). Once the plan is set in motion, however, Jerry pitches a business opportunity that interests his father-in-law. Believing that Wade has agreed to pay him handsomely for the idea, Jerry tries to call off the kidnapping, only to discover that it’s too late. 

    Like any amateur criminal who’s never attempted to break the law, Jerry is out of his depth the moment he begins. He doesn’t know the first thing about extortion or kidnapping plots. In fact, the scheme wasn’t even his idea in the first place. The movie highlights the sunny deference of Upper Midwest culture. For Jerry, this disposition borders on delusion. He convinces himself that his wife will be treated courteously by her kidnappers and returned unscathed, and that the scheme itself will be carefully contained without long-term consequences. He is guilty of breaking the law, but even more guilty of wishful thinking. In his uncluttered, optimistic mind, criminal behavior isn’t inherently bad if it’s done for a good reason by a person who means well. He is disabused of this conviction by the end of the movie, but not before trying to outrun his problems. Crime, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart. 

    102 votes

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  • There are a lot of career criminals in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, but Ed (Holly Hunter) isn’t one of them. She’s a police officer who falls hopelessly in love with H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) while taking his mugshot. Hi leaves his life of crime behind him to forge a respectable path on the straight and narrow, they get married, and everything seems destined for a happily-ever-after. Then Ed learns she’s infertile, and Hi’s criminal record prevents them from adopting. Desperate to have children, and with no other option, Ed orders Hi to kidnap one of the “Arizona Quints,” a brood of newborn quintuplets born to a local furniture mogul. Their one-off transgression escalates when Hi’s prison buddies come calling, his boss gets suspicious of their newborn’s origins, and Hi’s gunslinging motorcycle-riding caveman of an enemy sets his sights on another kidnapping. 

    Hi is a prolific convenience store burglar with a talent for getting caught, but Ed is as straight-laced and by-the-book as they come. That is, at least until she falls for Hi and they catch the baby bug. Ed doesn’t turn to crime out of greed. She and Hi live blissfully in a trailer in the Arizona desert, content with little, aspiring to nothing more than a loving family. In this way, Ed is no different from any other person wishing for a child, except that she and Hi have fewer options due to financial constraints and his rap sheet. As matters spiral into deeper layers of criminality, Ed never enjoys the role she plays in breaking the law. Raising Arizona is a comedy with a happy-ish ending, but Ed’s pain and conflicted conscience are real.

    75 votes

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  • 4
    97 VOTES

    John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington) is faced with an unbearable dilemma: his son needs a heart transplant, but neither his insurance nor his savings will cover it. These days, a person in this gut-wrenching predicament might turn to crowd-funding, but this wasn’t a viable option in 2002, even though, as the plot progresses, it’s clear the general public is on John’s side. Faced with the rapidly deteriorating health of his child and inconsolable distress of his wife (Kimberly Elise), John decides the only way forward is to take the hospital hostage (at gunpoint, no less) until the higher-ups agree to give the boy his life-saving transplant. Crowds and television crews gather outside the hospital as a police negotiator (Robert Duvall) tries to persuade John to surrender. He becomes a folk hero and the people in the streets chant his name even as he uses a member of law enforcement as a human shield. 

    It’s not a subtle film, but if there’s one scenario in which this level of irrationality can be excused, it’s the potential death of a child. Ask any parent whether they would hold a hospital at gunpoint if it would save their kid’s life and probably all of them would say yes. Does this make up for the heavy-handed proselytizing about the inadequacies of the American healthcare system or the constant reminders that everyone in the entire world thinks John is totally justified in what he’s doing? Probably not. Most critics thought the script was so overbearing that it undermined its own argument, but its basic point is indisputable: Most parents would do whatever it takes to save their child, whatever the consequences.

    97 votes

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  • Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough role as Ree Dolly in 2010’s Winter’s Bone is a preview of her later star-making role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games franchise. Ree lives with her family deep in the poverty-stricken Ozark Mountains. With a mentally ill mother and a father in prison for cooking meth, she is responsible for her two young siblings. Their fragile livelihood becomes even more precarious when their dad skips bail and they find out he posted their home as collateral. If he doesn’t turn up, the family will be evicted. Without any leads to her father’s whereabouts, Ree sets out on a perilous journey to track him down, confronting violent relations and hostile strangers along the way.

    Ree is tough as nails from the opening moments of Winter’s Bone, gutting squirrels and chopping firewood to keep her family afloat. But as she ventures deeper into the Ozarks and turns over more clues to her father’s disappearance, she is forced to become one of the battle-scarred people she’s questioning. Her determination and resilience help her withstand a brutal beating at the hands of her relatives, countless threats, and carefully coordinated lies. When she's finally led to her father’s body by the women who attacked her, Ree wields the chainsaw that gives her proof of his death for the authorities. By the end of the movie, she's still a teenager trying to hold her family together, but the lengths she will go to accomplish this responsibility have been laid bare.

    79 votes

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  • 6
    61 VOTES

    Logan Lucky

    Steven Soderbergh is known for constructing charming crooks and thrilling heists in the Ocean’s franchise and Out of Sight, but in his 2017 indie, Logan Lucky, he pivots from gentlemen cons to regular joes who are desperate for cash. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) gets fired from his job working in the tunnels under the Charlotte Motor Speedway for having a bad leg. He’s also faced with the threat of losing his young daughter to his ex-wife and her wealthy car dealership-owning husband. Tired of a curse that’s been hanging around the Logan family for decades, Jimmy decides to make his own luck and hatches a plan with his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), to rob the speedway.

    Jimmy isn’t a natural conman, but he is smarter than people give him credit for, and he's prepared to go the distance to finally rebalance the scales in his family’s favor. In contrast, the man he and Clyde enlist to construct an explosive device is a casual felon with a serious record. Joe Bang (played with maximum everything by Daniel Craig) knows what he’s doing, but needs to be sprung from prison first. By his mere presence, Joe makes it crystal clear that the Logan brothers are not real crooks and certainly aren’t destined for the life he leads. Jimmy and Clyde pull off the improbable caper with as much style as any orchestration conducted by George Clooney in the Ocean’s franchise, but their motivation is spiritual liberation as well as financial. In the end, they give enough of the money back to stop an FBI search, but keep enough to land on their feet and restart their law-abiding lives from a sure footing.

    61 votes

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