Underrated Movies Based On Real-Life Crimes

Over 4.6K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Underrated Movies Based On Real-Life Crimes
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Vote up the true-crime movies that deserve more attention.

The following underrated true crime movies are guaranteed to keep you hooked. Actual crimes have influenced movies for decades. They're tricky to pull off, because if done without sensitivity, they can be exploitative or sensationalistic. That, in turn, proves disrespectful to the victims. Doing it right, on the other hand, sheds important light onto the mindset of criminals and the devastating impact of the crimes. 

Each of the following films handles its true story properly. They have strong performances, deft direction, and, perhaps most importantly, carefully crafted screenplays that try to provide illumination. Many of them are directly based on real events, whereas a couple were merely inspired by something that actually occurred. No matter which approach is taken, these compelling movies are perfect the next time you want to delve into a true crime story. 

  • 1
    3,472 VOTES

    The Movie: Several years before becoming a household name with The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson made one of the best true-crime movies of the '90s. Heavenly Creatures stars Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as teen girls in New Zealand who strike up an intense friendship. Indulging in fantasies and pretending they’re real is an everyday activity for them. That leads to murder when their parents feel the bond is becoming unhealthy. Anchored by stunning, nuanced performances from the two leads, Heavenly Creatures expertly depicts how these girls get dangerously lost in fantasy, to the point that they practically dissociate from the real world. This is a picture that gets under your skin.

    The Real-Life Story: In 1954, adolescents Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme really did strike up this kind of friendship. Pauline's mother came to believe that things were becoming too intense between her daughter and Juliet. Aside from the indulgence in fantasy that included belief in a “fourth world” paradise, another concern was that there might be a sexual element to their friendship. (This was a time when same-sex relationships were viewed with less understanding than they are today.) When she tried to separate them, the girls beat her to death with a brick. Even more shocking, forensic evidence suggested one girl held the woman's head down while the other pummeled her. The kicker to the story is that, after serving time for the murder, Juliet grew up, changed her name, and became best-selling mystery author Anne Perry.

    3,472 votes
  • 2
    1,719 VOTES

    The Movie: Bully is an exceptionally difficult film to watch, but it's one that has great power if you can handle the tough material. Nick Stahl plays Bobby Kent, a troubled teen with sociopathic tendencies. He's often physically aggressive with best friend Marty (Brad Renfro) and he sexually assaults girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner). Because of all the abusive behavior he inflicts, Marty and Lisa decide that the only way to make it stop is to eliminate Bobby. They soon enlist several others to join the cause. The sequence in which the group carries out the murder is graphic and horrifying. Bully's real power, though, is in depicting the moral lapses that allow these kids to take such an extreme measure. It's a stunning portrait of disaffected youth. Unpleasant subject matter limited box office appeal, leading to a box office total of about $1.4 million, despite a rave 4-star review from critic Roger Ebert

    The Real-Life Story: The true story behind Bully began in a Florida Pizza Hut when seven teens plotted to get rid of Bobby Kent. On July 14, 1993, they lured him to a secluded canal, where two of them distracted him while another snuck up behind, stabbing him in the neck with a knife. As he lay bleeding, one of them beat him with a baseball bat and somebody else slashed his throat. The group tossed Bobby's body into a marsh. One of the culprits, Derek Dzvirko, grew a guilty conscience, going to the police a few days after the event and leading them to Bobby's remains. Because of the ages of everyone involved, the case made national headlines. Adding to the shock value was the fact that three of the teens never even met Bobby Kent. They were simply into the idea of helping to murder someone. All seven of the offenders received jail time - and they were all unrepentant for their offenses.

    1,719 votes

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  • The Movie: Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) was born to a white father and an Aboriginal mother. Because of that, he's never been fully accepted by white society. Making matters worse, the British rule Australia in the 1900s, enacting more than a few racist policies. Jimmie finds himself facing all kinds of racist attitudes after he marries a white woman. That pushes him to the edge, leading to him embarking upon a killing spree. This exceptionally well-reviewed film from director Fred Schepisi offers a fascinating look at historical racism in Australia, in addition to true insight on the progenitors of violence. It's a smart picture about a tough subject, and one that never quite made a splash with domestic audiences. 

    The Real-Life Story: The real Jimmie's last name was Governor, but other than that the details are pretty much the same as in the film. Jimmie married a 16-year-old white woman and grew tired of people harassing her for wedding him. The last straw came when he was insulted by members of a family for whom his wife performed housework. He responded by killing almost everyone in the clan with a tomahawk. This, in turn, spurred him to go on a killing spree with his brother Joe that lasted for over two months. They killed people who had crossed them in some way. Authorities pursued him, and at one point he was shot in the mouth by a hunter. That weakened him, allowing for capture. Once apprehended, Jimmie was tried and sentenced to death by hanging.

    1,585 votes
  • 4
    2,146 VOTES

    The Movie: A Cry in the Dark tends to be remembered for a specific line of dialogue - “The dingo's got my baby!” It has been the subject of multiple pop culture spoofs, most notably on Seinfeld. In reality, there's nothing funny about it. Meryl Streep plays Lindy Chamberlain, a woman charged with murdering her own 9-week-old infant while on vacation in the Australian outback with her husband Michael (Sam Neill). Lindy insists that she saw a dingo drag the baby away in its mouth, but neither the authorities nor the jury believe her. The film offers another riveting performance from Streep, as well as a compelling look into a case that rocked Australia for years. Unfortunately, that single line of dialogue has changed the perception of A Cry in the Dark. It deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated for the hard-hitting drama it is. 

    The Real-Life Story: The movie pretty accurately captures the actual story. Lindy Chamberlain became the most hated woman in Australia after she was convicted of murdering baby Azaria. She maintained her innocence throughout. Although sentenced to life in prison, she was released after three years when a piece of the baby's jacket was found near a dingo's lair. That it was found at all was a total fluke. The body of a British tourist was spotted at the base of Uluru, a large sandstone formation. In the process of retrieving that body, a search team found the piece of the jacket. Michael, who was convicted of being an accessory to murder, was released as well, once this occurred. In 2012, a medical examiner confirmed the cause of death, permanently exonerating the couple. Nevertheless, they spent years being called baby-killers and sitting behind bars. 

    2,146 votes
  • 5
    1,649 VOTES

    The Movie: A few years after his breakout debut Boyz N the Hood, director John Singleton made the historical drama Rosewood. It didn't get a lot of attention, which is a shame because it tells an important story. Set in 1923, the film stars Don Cheadle and Ving Rhames as citizens of the titular Florida town. Almost all of the people who live there are African-American. On New Year's Day, a lynch mob from a nearby white community shows up looking for trouble, so they have to lead the charge in protecting the town and the families within it. Jon Voight co-stars as a white grocery story owner who lends a hand. Singleton infuses Rosewood with equal parts passion and urgency, creating a movie that has a lot to say on the subject of racism, then and now.

    The Real-Life Story: The true story of Rosewood did indeed begin on January 1, 1923, when a 22-year-old white woman named Fannie Taylor claimed to have been beaten by a Black man. Her husband James assembled a band of white locals, along with some KKK members, to search for the individual. That led them to Rosewood, where they began beating and torturing people in an effort to get information. A gun battle eventually broke out, and within a day, newspapers began reporting the story, This led even more white aggressors to flood Rosewood, where they set buildings on fire, then shot people as they ran out of the burning structures. The mobs pulled back after a couple days, but not before having wiped out the entire town. Although legal proceedings occurred, the jury - who heard from mostly white witnesses, not the Black citizens themselves - declined to hold anyone accountable. 

    1,649 votes

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  • 6
    1,183 VOTES

    The Movie: Crime generally isn't funny, but Richard Linklater's Bernie found one so bizarre and unlikely that it lent itself to comedic treatment. Jack Black stars as Bernie Tiede, the assistant undertaker in a small Texas town. By all accounts, he's a pillar of the community. Bernie has an especially close relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a widow known for her nasty temper. No one understands why Bernie likes her. When Marjorie is slain, her body shoved into a freezer, he becomes the prime suspect. Interestingly, everyone in town rallies to his defense. The film finds humor in the quirky personalities of its central character, as well as the offbeat idea that the town's residents are okay with him offing a woman nobody cared for. Anchored by Jack Black's winning performance, Bernie is a kooky crime flick that takes a nice low-key approach.

    The Real-Life Story: The town of Carthage, TX was not exactly rocked when the body of Marjorie Nugent was found at the bottom of a freezer. Even the fact that she'd been dead for months didn't raise a lot of eyebrows. Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede confessed to shooting her four times in the back, but that also barely raised a fuss. In fact, townspeople argued that Bernie was actually a pretty good guy, despite this heinous crime. The local preacher went so far as to deliver a sermon about how Bernie needed “support” through his ordeal. In jail, local women baked cakes and pies for him to enjoy. What caused such compassion for a killer? Part of it was due to the fact that Bernie had taken about $500,000 of Marjorie's money, which he donated to the local church and handed out to people in need. As for the slaying? Marjorie was mean to him, too, and he simply reached his boiling point.

    1,183 votes

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