10 Great Chekhov Gun Moments in Movies

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10 Great Chekhov Gun Moments in Movies

Chekhov’s gun theory dictates that if there is a set-up in a story in the first act, it should be resolved by the third act in a traditional three-act structure story. The theory is named after the Russian author Anton Chekhov, who coined the term when he suggested that a gun introduced in the first act of writing should be fired by the third act. The trope is very popular among genre films, especially in thrillers and murder mysteries, where the set-up can work as a clue so that the audience can join the dots before the final reveal or conclusion.

One of the most famous examples of the theory is in the film Die Hard, wherethere are several examples of Chekhov’s gun. For instance, in a scene in the first act, Holly turns down a framed photo of her and John and by the third act, Hans Gruber identifies the cowboy through the photo. However, it is not necessary that the set-ups always pay off, and sometimes can subvert the audience as well. That is known as a red herring, which is also commonly used in the thriller genre. Here are 10 Chekhov gun moments that have the most satisfying payoffs.



10 The Irishman – Gun Shot


The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, is based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses which was written by Charles Brandt. It is based on the confession made by Frank Sheeran who was the mafia hitman of his allegedly infamous murder. The film is a biopic of Frank, played by Robert De Niro, following his life as a war veteran and later working under the Buffalino crime family. The film is told through Frank, who is old and lives in a nursing home. He reminisces about his life as a gunman throughout his military life and then the mafia. He talks about how he got in touch with Russel Buffalino for contract killing. There is a shot of a gun being fired through a man’s head as Sheeran recalls his past. Later, the film shows the story behind killing the same man by reenacting the same scene again.

The set-up pays off as one is introduced to the murder in the first act by concealing the identity of the victim and the murderer. When the story finally reveals the men behind the crime, it explains the guilt and remorse driving the story and the motives of the lead protagonist

Related: 20 Other Movies Every Martin Scorsese Fan Should See

9 Parasite – The Painting

CJ Entertainment


Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a social thriller that satirizes class in South Korean society through a poor family that infiltrates into a rich family to be employed as unrelated individuals for different job positions. Ki-woo is the son of the Kim family who poses as the English tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Park family. Choi Yeon-gyo, the mother of the Park family, shows Ki-woo around the house and the paintings hanging on the wall. One of the framed artworks is done by her son, Da Song, to which Ki-woo suggests that she hire an art therapist for her son. This was a ploy to get his sister Kim Ki-jung employed in the family as an art therapist named Jessica. The artwork is shown as an amateur work of a human figure scribbled by the Da Song, which is believed to have abstract potential by his mother.

Later, it is revealed that his eerie artwork was a foreshadowing of the mysterious individual Da Song saw in real life. The abstract nature of the painting only adds to the horror once the subject of the painting is revealed.

8 Knives Out – Knife

Knives Out 2019
Lionsgate Films

Knives Out, directed by Rian John, is a classic whodunit thriller that is inspired by popular murder mysteries like Clue and Agatha Christie novels. The film is centered around the alleged suicide of Harlan Thrombey on his 85th birthday. Detective Benoit Blanc receives an anonymous invitation from a member of the family to investigate the puzzling unnatural death of the patriarch. Knives Out reintroduced the popular genre of murder mystery, which blends social commentary with comedy.

The film enjoyed commercial and critical success because it balanced all the popular tropes enjoyed in the genre, which was missing in popular cinema in the recent decade. Every clue and setup is in plain sight and, in the film’s case, in the name itself. There are knives in major turning points of the film, including the scene where Thrombey slits his own neck with a knife. It is hardly a surprise when the murder weapon is revealed to be a knife in the final murder attempt in the third act, but it is how the knife saves a life that makes this instance of Chekhov’s gun stand apart.

7 Shaun of the Dead – Winchester Rifle

Shaun of the Dead
Still from Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead, directed by Edgar Wright, is a zombie movie that has gained cult status. The movie follows the dull life of an electric salesman in London and his equally aimless friends. Their life turns into an adventure when they have to fight a zombie apocalypse. This is the most literal use of Chekhov’s gun, as a gun is introduced in the first act of the film when Shaun asks Ed if the Winchester hanging on the wall is real. Ed believes it works, as he assumes the landlord to be a part of the North London Mafia. Later, the gun is fired in the fight scene. The film is filled with set-ups that seem missable, but eventually pay off for the quirky mood of the film.

6 The Social Network – Erica Albright

The Social Network break-up scene
Sony Pictures Releasing

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, which goes behind the scenes of the founding of Facebook. The film opens with Mark Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, which leads him to vent out on his blog demeaning Albright. He goes on a misogynist spree and starts Facemash, a campus website that allows users to rate female students on their physical appearance. Mark is on an innovative high after the success of Facemash as he is invited to work on Harvard’s exclusive social network, Harvard Connection, which eventually becomes Facebook. He gradually becomes an indifferent, power-hungry technocrat as he makes new friends and loses old ones while establishing his tech empire.

The film implies Mark is over his ex-girlfriend’s rejection and has re-invented himself through Facebook. However, as he is confronted with the legal implications of his indifference towards his friends, the film ends with Mark sending a friend request to Erica implying Facebook was his way of coping with his breakup. The Social Network shows how Chekhov’s gun can also be used as an emotive tool to reveal a character’s inner inhibitions. Aaron Sorkin won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his inventive screenplay of the film.

5 The Shawshank Redemption – Poster

The Shawshank Redemption Returns to Theaters for 25th Anniversary in September
Columbia Pictures

The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Daramount is a film about prison harassment and freedom which is based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption written by Stephen King. The film follows Andy, played by Time Robbins, who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and is sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank State Penitentiary. He is befriended by Red, played by Morgan Freeman, who also serves a life sentence in the same prison. Andy is regularly harassed by his prison mates and finds solace in his friendship with Andy. Red arranges a poster and a rock hammer for Andy, which becomes integral to Andy’s life in prison, revealed in the third act of the film.

The film follows Andy’s moments of trauma and rebellion over two decades in prison, and the audience is kept unknown of his secret endeavors until it is revealed to be one of the most satisfying third-act in movie history.

4 The Fifth Element – Matches

Gaumont Productions

The Fifth Element is a science fiction thriller film directed by Luc Besson which is set in the future. Korben Dallas, played by Bruce Willis, has to save Earth from an extra-terrestrial attack. Dallas looks for his matchboxes to light his cigarette, only to find several empty boxes. He finally finds out with two match sticks left. He uses one and keeps the other one in his pocket. Korben is trying to give up his smoking, which adds more tension to the saved match stick.

Later, when Rudy Rhod needs a fire to set off the firestone to save them from the aliens, Korben remembers the last match on his box. What seemed like a tiny detail in the film turned out to save the day, which makes the end of the film an enjoyable watch.

3 Toy Story 3 – The Claw

Toy Story 3
Walt Disney Pictures

The Toy Story franchise revolves around a group of toys that belong to Andy that come to life when no human is around. The first two films explore the personality quirks of each toy as they stick together as a family. Toy Story 3 follows Woody, Andy’s favorite toy voiced by Tom Hanks, coping with his separation from Andy as he prepares for college. Woody finds himself in a daycare center, which is havoc for its internal politics of the bullying toys and the unruly children who play in the day center. Andy’s friends plan an escape but unfortunately, fall into an incinerator that approaches a flame. The aliens, who are obsessed with claws, come to the rescue because of their obsession with an industrial claw. The aliens remained minor characters in the series and were only marked by their longing for a claw. The third film gives the film an entertaining end, with the aliens finally getting a deserved limelight as they save Woody and his friends.

2 The Shining – Charles Grady and the Photograph

Jack Torrance, The Shining is actually hell
Warner Bros. 

The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick is a horror film which is based on the novel of the same name written by Stephen King. Jack Torrance takes his family to the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains, where he will be the winter caretaker. He is told by his manager that a previous caretaker named Charles Grady had killed his family and himself in the hotel. This not only sets the tone of the film, but also foreshadows the actions awaiting in the film. Later, a framed photograph from the 1920s showing a man that looks like Torrance reveals who Jack really is.

Chekhov’s gun here works more to provoke the genre of horror, where the hotel has absorbed the ghosts of its past residents and their crimes. There are several other instances of Chekhov’s gun, such as when the ominous sound that plays when Danny and his mother walk in the maze and later Danny finds himself running away from his father in the maze in a similar eerie background score.

Related: 12 Movies Stanley Kubrick Almost Directed

1 Ghostbusters – Don’t Cross the Streams

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man GHOSTBUSTERS iv
Columbia Pictures

Ghostbusters is a supernatural comedy film directed by Ivan Reitman where three parapsychologists start their own ghost removal service. The team finds a gateway to a parallel dimension that would invite new ghosts to New York. They set out to save the city. The Ghostbusters are given a stern warning by Ego Spengler to not cross the streams which would end their lives. When they are faced with a giant Stay-Puft marshmallow man attacking them, all four of them cross the streams flowing from their guns, which saves the city. The film remains to be a cult classic for Bill Murray’s deadpan humor and unconventional approach to horror where the ghosts do not seem scary at all.

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