Of all the genres of contemporary cinema, perhaps “thriller” is the most slippery. Is there really a difference between a thriller and film noir? Are thrillers just horror or action movies with more middle-brow aspirations? What’s the difference between a suspense movie and a thriller anyway?
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart infamously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it,” — and perhaps the same thing is true of thrillers. Although there are some obvious key themes (the capriciousness of truth, the indefatigable nature of human cruelty) and motifs (shadows, dreams, crime, paranoia, conspiracy, suspicion), thrillers are more than the sum of their parts.
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Rather than trying to define thrillers, perhaps it’s best to work backward: what are the best movies often considered to be examples of thrillers — and how do they help set the parameters of the genre? Like a good thriller protagonist, let’s embark upon an investigation:
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Johnathan Demme’s masterpiece sits on the border between thriller and horror, and it’s one of the few movies in the latter category to ever win Oscars. In terms of gore and violence, there isn’t too much — but the subject matter is rather grisly: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enlists the help of incarcerated cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in the hopes of hunting down a depraved serial murderer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine). While the gruesome hunt would be engaging enough, Demme uses this bloody backdrop as a way to explore gender dynamics and the trauma-worn emotional life of the film’s protagonist. Criticisms around the film’s handling of trans issues are well-deserved, but the story is actually far more subtle than the latest wave of critics give it credit for.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Paul Verhoeven’s movies tend to sit on the edge of so-bad-it’s-good and actually artful genius — as all the best examples of camp do. Although the film garnered a kind of proto-virality over one particularly lascivious scene involving Sharon Stone, there’s more to this movie than a pair of lewdly spread legs. Released in 1992, Basic Instinct was quite ahead of it’s time as far as depictions of sex go — and it’s high art aspirations had New York Times critic Janet Maslin offering the compliment of comparing it to Hitchcok’s oeuvre. But, like all of the best movies ever made, Basic Instinct was also rather divisive: Roger Ebert, by contrast, described it as “like a crossword puzzle. It keeps your interest until you solve it. Then it’s just a worthless scrap with the spaces filled in.”
Early 00’s nostalgia is at an all-time high and there’s a certain retro goofiness to this bizarre mystery story. Nonetheless, Memento is probably the only mainstream movie to ever be told entirely backward in a narrative gesture that cleverly mirrors the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia. The aesthetic might not hold up, but the avant-garde gesture underneath the movie’s somewhat silly conceit is almost preposterously ambitious for a mainstream movie. Somehow, the story provides a satisfying conclusion, too.
A movie so excellent the Academy got over its widespread xenophobia to sing its praise! Although it functions perfectly well as a completely unhinged mystery — with a number of truly unexpected twists! — Parasite is also a poignant semi-Marxist commentary on the difficulties of escaping poverty and the class resentment increasingly fomenting in the underground. Bong Joon-ho had made a series of absurdly amazing movies before mainstream critics realized his genius, but Parasite is his best work yet.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s deeply inaccessible nightmares are some of the most divisive movies in cinema history with enthusiasts praising his unabashed embrace of surrealism and his detractors simply claiming that nothing he creates makes any damn sense. It’s true that Mulholland Drive doesn’t exactly have a coherent plot, but if you can embrace the logic of dreams there’s something gorgeously maddening about Lynch’s menacing cosmology. No one could dispute the noir-inspired beauty of Lynch’s cinematography, nor could anyone argue with Naomi Watts’ power as an actress — playing both a naive actress who stumbles upon criminal enterprises from beyond this world and a broken-down mirror-world version of the same character.
Lady Vengeance (2005)
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South Korean revenge films are basically their own sub-genre of thriller and Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance is one of its most underappreciated entries. This movie is technically the third in a (very!) loosely related trilogy — and although it will inevitably be compared to its more popular cinematic siblings (Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), it definitely holds its own. After being released from prison, the protagonist begins a labyrinthine hunt for the murderer that may or may not have framed her, but she won’t emerge from her quest without considerable blood on her hands. Featuring perhaps one of the strongest makeup looks in cinema history, the movie is a sanguine fantasy that is not for the squeamish.
Where to Stream: Vudu
Stephen King’s meta-textual short novel about a literary fanatic who captures her favorite author and holds him hostage for her own (sexual?) gratification was turned into an excellent and darkly suspenseful movie by director Rob Reiner. Kathy Bates became an unlikely horror icon after turning in this deeply deranged performance and the film’s foot-breaking climax is one of the most viscerally nauseating moments ever captured on film. Fun fact: Misery has the rare honor of being the only Stephen King movie to ever garner an Oscar win.
Critics claimed that Nicholas Winding Refn’s moody neo-noir was an amateurish example of style over substance, but Drive’s growing cult of followers counter that style is substance when it’s done right. Neon-drenched brutalist landscapes, minimalist existential dialogue, elegant and overstated costuming, and an Italo-disco-influenced soundtrack provided by Johnny Jewel’s cabal of witchy women elevate what was unfortunately advertised as a rather average action movie into the realm of high art.
Hitchcock created the blueprint for what would go on to define the thriller genre, and although his more popular or critically beloved movies like Rear Window and Psycho certainly could have earned a spot on this list, Spellbound’s dream sequences — guest directed by none other than Salvador Dali — give a magical quality to this creepy little whodunnit. There’s more than one avant-garde twist here: the two frames of red that pop up at the movie’s conclusion represent an early example of experimental usage of color in mainstream cinema.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps Kubrick’s least appreciated movie — turns out stories involving underground and ultra-opulent Satanic sex cults aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. The real-life tension between the soon-to-be-divorced Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is played up in this story about the danger of unrequited lust. Kubrick’s expectedly beautiful cinematic eye is on full display, and Kidman’s notorious monologue about her eroticized memories of a sexual encounter she wished she had pursued is somehow melancholic, disturbing, and heart-wrenching all at once.
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