This list was originally written for Taste of Cinema – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-great-thriller-movies-you-may-not-have-seen/
There is something very distinct to the adrenaline gained from a film. Whether it drags you closer to the edge of your seat, sees sweat beads begin to emerge on your forehead or just bring your heart rate to a consistent thump as opposed to a gentle tapping, there is something so wonderful about a film that is able to get under our skin and make us care to a point of feeling so involved that we feel the very same tension as the characters. So, let’s get to celebrating ten of these films…
1. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002)
To start off with some style, let’s first discuss the wonderful mystery/thriller that is Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale. Considering that the film opens with a grand and mocking set piece centred around a screening at the Cannes film festival and that it only gets better from there, it may be needless to say that this is a damn fine film, and it helps that it also contains much of De Palma’s most meticulous direction for one of his most interesting stories to date.
Femme Fatale is a bizarre film, one that sees De Palma take his admiration for Hitchcock to a new place as he meddles with a delirious story that becomes increasingly odd as it hurtles towards its absolute jawdropper of a finale. It might be his most exciting film, and it boasts many all-time best De Palma moments, so it is a must watch for that alone!
2. Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984)
The debut feature of the now widely recognised Coen Brothers (Joel is the only director credited, but many have said that Ethan co-directed as usual for Blood Simple), Blood Simple is one of the greatest examples of a low budget thriller done right. Using its small scale to add to the wonderful sleaze that comes with the seedy setting and characters, Blood Simple would prove to be one of the strongest debuts (one that, if you ask me, the Coen Brothers never managed to match!) the film quickly proves itself to be a vision of an America in Hell – a world where no one gets away scot-free and nobody is as innocent as they may seem – ushering in (or at the very least, making a huge contribution to) the beginning of the neo-noir genre.
It’s a cold-blooded thrill ride, making use of shadows and location in such a stunning way that it’s really hard to believe that this is a debut feature after all. The performances across the board are brilliant, and the use of ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ by the Four Tops is one of the best needle drops in 80s cinema. A total stunner – do see it!
3. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
Andrea Arnold’s name became much more recognisable after her two follow-ups to Red Road, Fish Tank and American Honey, however it seems that she may have made her finest and most affecting film first. Fish Tank is another excellent example of gritty British realism (taken from the Kitchen Sink era and reinvented to fit with contemporary issues – though they’re sadly very similar, little has changed), but Red Road is a truly chilling film in ways that Arnold hasn’t yet managed to reach again. The film is about Jackie, a CCTV operator who spots an old, familiar face from a past she’s trying to forget.
Taking the blueprint from Hitchcock’s Rear Window (again, updating it to make it contemporary) and running into some of the darkest scenes of recent memory, Arnold’s feature length debut takes a real step up from the short films that preceded it and boldly announced the arrival of a great new director. It’s a shame she’s never reached such dizzying heights again, but she has been successful in every film to date, with the majority of her audience enjoying each project.
4. Ricochet (Russell Mulcahy, 1991)
Maybe the most overlooked on this list in spite of its considerable box office success at the time of release, Ricochet is a brilliant small scale thrill ride that sees Denzel Washington give one of his most frantic performances opposite a deranged John Lithgow who will stop at nothing to ruin (and end) his life after Denzel was responsible for arresting Lithgow.
Mulcahy’s pacing here is absolutely breakneck in a way that few other thrillers can compare (Out of Time, another overlooked Denzel-starring thrill ride also comes to mind, though), and the film thrives on being small scale rather than being ashamed of it, which is where many smaller scale films fall to pieces. It’s simple and it knows it, wearing this simplicity much like a boy scout badge whilst brewing up some seriously exciting moments throughout thanks to the witty script and the brilliant situations written into it. It’s honestly pretty breathtaking, and less demanding than most films – it makes for a wonderful time.
5. Ronin (John Frankenheimer, 1998)
Featuring one of the greatest car chasing sequences of all time and starring the likes of Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and Sean Bean, it’s really a wonder that a film like Ronin could slide under the radar as it has. From John Frankenheimer, director of great thrillers from the mid 50s all the way to the year of his death, 2002, Ronin is an exhilarating ride that is about a group trying desperately to recover a mysterious briefcase that has landed in the hands of terrorists.
It’s a film that knows exactly what it is and is proud to be that way in the same way as Ricochet does, another excellent smaller-scale thriller that knows what it wants to do and only focuses on fulfilling its one purpose, focusing on the stunts and the twists and the goosebump-inducing, heart stopping jolts of energy. Ronin is just another great film to add to Frankenheimer’s colourful career, and one that deserves to be seen much more than it has been up to this point.
6. Deadbeat At Dawn (Jim Van Bebber, 1988)
You can never, and I mean never, have enough low budget sleaze… but let’s not limit the power of Deadbeat at Dawn before examining it a little more. Deadbeat at Dawn is great in a lot of the ways that films with higher budgets aren’t allowed to be. It shifts in mood and genre, it features some of the most gritty and harsh fighting sequences put to film and is just so boudin its approach to a typical gang crime action thriller. It’s as freewheeling and entertaining as it is gory and gritty, and it remains so painfully overlooked that its honestly a real shame to see.
Van Bebber’s brilliant mixing and merging of genres, from exploitation to crime to action and horror, is exhilarating and makes the film so much more exciting than those which choose to take far less risks. Arrow Video also recently gave Deadbeat at Dawn something of a revival by putting it out on their DVD and Blu-ray line, so now you can see the sleaze in a pretty great transfer! No more excuses to skip it!
7. Raising Cain (Brian De Palma, 1992)
John Lithgow’s second, third and fourth appearance on this list (he manages to juggle three, yes three(!), roles at once here and makes them all separate enough that there’s no confusion) appear in one of Brian De Palma’s wonderful masterpieces Raising Cain. Now this is what a real thriller looks like! De Palma has always been stylistic whilst also thrilling his audience, since his time with the Movie Brats in the early 1970s all the way to his most recent film, Domino, released last year, and Raising Cain is one of his absolute best works.
As usual, Raising Cain sees De Palma lift ideas and stylistic traits from his filmmaking idol Alfred Hitchcock and place them into a more modern and grimy setting, this time focusing on similar ideas to those explored in Psycho (1960) as Lithgow’s villain struggles with split personality disorder. The set pieces here, especially the grand finale that is a total showstopper of a sequence, are second to none (De Palma has always proved a master of carefully thought out set pieces, from The Untouchables to the opening of Femme Fatale) and De Palma’s terrific awareness of how to position his characters and camera are just so impressive – if ever a director knew how to block a sequence and position his performers, it’s him.
The film is a genuine joy to watch just because of how orchestrated it feels, like sitting back and watching the most elegant magician perform a best-of montage of their favourite tricks whilst making it look easy. To put it simply, Raising Cain is one of the greatest thrillers ever to be produced, and it may not even be De Palma’s crowning achievement despite that! It has to be seen to be believed, which makes it a shame that it remains a film with a cult following rather than one with a large amount of mainstream recognition.
8. Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977)
Whilst Paul Schrader’s script for this one may sound like nothing more than your typical revenge film, Rolling Thunder is much more complex than it may sound. There is something very ahead of its time in the harsh and jagged cutting (of both sound and image, surprisingly), and the film is certainly helped by focusing intently on the lingering psychological effects of the Vietnam war (something typical of the Schrader scripts of the ‘70s), lifting the revenge plot a grade above the majority of its contemporaries.
John Flynn’s direction is clear and to the point, sharpening the plot through the eerie visuals just as leading man Major Charles Rane (played by William Devane) sharpens his hook. It’s a cold, harsh throwback revenge film – if you’re a fan of the genre, this is one of its overlooked peaks.
9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)
The final film from filmmaking master and veteran Sidney Lumet (known for a range of incredible films – 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, etc.) is a sobering one. Lumet was never known for being bombastic by any means, but Devil (yes, we’ll be shortening the title) sees Lumet strip back his craft more than ever before to bring about a distinctly striking realism that adds an immeasurable amount of impact to the film.
Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring their absolute A game – both may give career best performances here, but both are excellent actors, so it is hard to say exactly – and bring their sleazy characters to life in this brilliant tragedy that takes inspiration from all of those usual Greek tragedies surrounding fate and family. Everything that can go wrong most certainly does, making for a sharply kicking gritty drama/crime thriller that will most likely make you feel pretty terrible afterwards… but in all the right ways.
10. Revenge (Tony Scott, 1990)
Tony Scott is one of the absolute greats of the thriller genre – he always was. Practically all of his films, to some extent, are deeply entrenched in the traits of the thriller genre in terms of both his style (which is thrilling in and of itself), but Revenge stands out as one of the clearest examples. Scott’s output during the 1990s is especially formally thrilling thanks to Scott’s consistent attempts to push film as far as it can possibly go (he’d realise his full vision in the 21st century as digital filmmaking opened doors previously kept firmly locked, even with a lost key), and Revenge proves as a great example of all things thrilling in the movies.
With its slow burn leap of faith that goes off course from Scott’s other work to date, Revenge makes for a more chilling film that one would initially expect, and it functions as a great stage for Kevin Costner to give one of his best performances as the leading man who finds himself the perpetrator of the action that actually calls for the revenge, rather than the victim. Revenge is a wonderful diversion from many of the more tired traits of revenge thrillers, and it makes for one of the best action/thriller films of the 1990s because of its willingness to try different ideas whilst still staying within the boundaries of what the genre can be or do. It’s incredible, and one of Scott’s greatest, and most overlooked, films.