The need to be thrilled is in our DNA, no matter how much we try to resist it. Year after year, thriller movies continue to break the box office, fuelled on by hordes of thrill-seeking revellers, all in search of that crucial adrenaline rush, that film that will overwhelm the senses and leave you gaping at the screen. Good quality thrillers are somewhat hard to come by however (especially on Netflix), so we thought we’d compile you a list of some of the most thrilling films Netflix has to offer.
10. Layer Cake (2004)
One of the coolest thrillers to come out of the UK, Layer Cake is a masterclass in complex story-telling and tension-building. Daniel Craig’s unnamed protagonist is a high-end coke dealer who’s intent on retiring, but is then predictably dragged back into the criminal underworld by a mob boss who wants him to find his missing daughter.
Things begin to escalate in gloriously dramatic fashion when a million ecstasy tablets go walking and the undeserving man gets caught between some Serbian war criminals and a few unsavoury London gangsters. It makes perfect sense that Craig was cast as James Bond almost solely on the basis of this film, as he manages to maintain an enviable suaveness through all the ensuing chaos.
9. Battle Royale (2000)
This bloody epic could be one of the most unsettling, entertaining films ever made. A class of Japanese students are taken to a remote island, where (to their horror) they’re taken prisoner, fitted with explosive collars and forced to murder each other until just one survives.
Battle Royale is a wonderful satire on discipline and human morality, but it is also a gleefully brutal, almost voyeuristic exploitation film. In his last film, veteran director Kinji Fukusaku brings both the audience and characters onscreen to near breaking point, as the unfortunate pupils are steadily picked off by their cruel abductors. It shouldn’t be this much fun to watch a group of innocent teenagers get killed in elaborate ways, but it is.
8. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)
The paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Cold War is communicated perfectly in this film, and we see none of the glitz and glamour that defined some of the more popular spy thrillers of the 60s. Disenchanted, alcoholic spy Alec Leamas (played wonderfully by Richard Burton) is tasked with gaining information on the communists in East Berlin by approaching them as a defector. Leamas doesn’t seem to care much about the task ahead, and he approaches the mission and his own life with a recklessness and sense of detachment that only makes things worse for him.
This seems to be one of the more realistic spy thrillers of the time in its portrayal of spies as being mere pawns in a much bigger game being played by their governments. The film is shot in stark black and white that gives it a further ‘coldness’ and makes us empathise with the sense of moral desolation felt by Leamas.
7. Fargo (1996)
The Coen Brothers bring us to the snowy, peculiar world of Fargo, North Dakota, where an insincere car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is plotting an elaborate kidnap scheme that concerns his own wife and her wealthy father. Of course, he wants nothing to do with the kidnapping, so enlists the help of the most unusual crime duo he can find (hilarious, disturbing performances from Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare).
Of course, every action has its consequences, as the Coens so cleverly demonstrate time and time again. The hugely likeable Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is the only truly honest character we meet, and she becomes utterly determined to seek out the truth in the shady chain of events we see unfold. If you haven’t seen Fargo, make it your priority- it’s rare that a film will make you feel such an equal measure of warmth and discomfort.
6. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
This adaptation of the famous Arthur Conan Doyle novel was produced by Hammer films and stars two of the famous company’s regulars, Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville). It has the same brooding atmosphere as their Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations, due in large to the beautiful set pieces and haunting soundtrack that define Hammer’s productions.
Sherlock Holmes finds himself on the eerie moors investigating the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who has died in similar circumstances as his ancestor, Hugo Baskerville. Along with the dependable Watson (André Borell), Holmes desperately tries to defend the sole living Baskerville from the otherworldly forces of evil working against his family. Cushing is extraordinary in the role- he embodies Sherlock Holmes in a way that is still yet to be surpassed (even by Cumberbatch).
5. Blue Ruin (2013)
Blue Ruin is a quietly disconcerting indie thriller was financed through crowd-funding, on a budget lower than a million dollars. One couldn’t tell that it was made so cheaply, with wonderful cinematography, brutally realistic violence and an overall consistency with higher budget thrillers. In his debut film, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier tells the story of Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a mysterious vagrant who learns that his parents murderer has been released from prison.
He goes out seeking revenge, forced to adapt to new, terrifying circumstances that spiral out of control as he gets caught in a bloody vendetta with the killer’s family. Blue Ruin succeeds most in the build-up of tension, made even more unnerving by long, drawn-out silences that are punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Evans isn’t exactly a warm or likeable character, but we find ourselves rooting for him through all his questionable choices, for the simple fact that we feel like we’re actually there with him.
4. Downfall (2004)
Any film that involves Adolf Hitler, let alone focuses on his very humanity, is bound to be a bit intense. Downfall follows Hitler in the last days of the Second World War, when the Red Army were closing in on Berlin and a defiant Hitler remained in his bunker as thousands of Russians and Germans died outsides. Bruno Gatz looks and behaves uncannily like Hitler, and portrays him in all his detestable but fascinating complexity.
We all know what happens, but this doesn’t stop Downfall from keeping us utterly captivated throughout and confronted with a number of moral questions. Even if they never made another film about Hitler, it wouldn’t matter much, as this already covers so much ground and deals with the sensitive subject matter with such dignity. The fact it was made by a German team and is entirely in German makes it even more refreshingly honest and authentic than most war films.
3. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck has had a few successes with his directing work, the most recent example being Argo. His strongest work so far however, has been the neo-noir masterpiece Gone Baby Gone. Starring his younger brother Casey Affleck and set in their hometown of Boston, it concerns a private detective who’s investigating the case of a missing girl. It is a familiar premise, in which a private dick uncovers a city’s unpleasant criminal underbelly, but there’s a reason that film noir hasn’t aged. We still can’t help but be thrilled by all the grisly elements the Affleck brothers display here; formula doesn’t matter much when we’re desperate to know what’s coming next.
It places itself in a modern context by examining how our society deals with child molesters, the kind of subject material that wasn’t so readily discussed in film noir’s 40s/50s heyday. “It is an ugly, unfair world” is the prevalent message of most noir however. Two veteran actors add a maturity to the film, with Ed Harris as the forceful Detective Remy Bressant and Morgan Freeman as Jack Doyle, a police captain who lost his daughter in a horrific manner and so takes any affront on children very personally. This film is heartbreaking in a number of ways, as it deals with a corruption of innocence that happens too often in the world. There should be more films like this, to unite us in our despair at this happening.
2. Chinatown (1974)
Another masterful neo-noir, from over 40 years ago. Chinatown concerns shady government dealings in Los Angeles, which private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson, in one of his defining roles) is thrust into when he’s asked by a mysterious woman to tail her husband, the chief of the LA Department of Water and Power. Gittes soon becomes more involved, and more curious than he probably should and is forced to confront the corruption manifesting itself around him. As well as Nicholson, there are unforgettable performances from Faye Dunaway (as the mysterious man’s wife) and John Huston (as her wealthy father).
It isn’t just the acting that makes this a near-perfect film, everything from the momentous plot to the evocative soundtrack (beautifully composed by Jerry Goldsmith) make it something that lingers in the memory long after you’ve seen it. When you hear the word Chinatown, you’d normally imagine New York’s Chinatown or somewhere similar, but after watching this (which features hardly any shots of Chinatown) the word can only conjure the sweaty, uncertain Californian world that Roman Polanski so expertly crafted here.
1. No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen Brothers truly outdid themselves with this outing, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dark thriller novel. It’s a twisted tale of fate and morality that follows three very different men and their entwining paths. While out hunting, all-American everyman Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the scene of a drug shootout, and finds two million dollars. Meanwhile, one of the most menacing onscreen incarnations in recent memory, hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has just escaped custody (the opening scene will brutally demonstrate this) and becomes tasked with retrieving this money. Tommy Lee Jones, as the cynical but kind-hearted Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, gives the film a real humanity and makes us consider how living in modern times may make the elderly feel.
As a petrifying game of cat and mouse ensues, both Moss and Chigurh utilise their best resources and survival instincts and prove a worthy match for one another. We fear for what happens onscreen because it’s all part of a huge chain of events and their consequences, ideas that the Coen brothers have frequently explored and that give their films a unique realism. The peculiarity of this film also defines it- the concept of a man who uses a cattle gun as a weapon, and decides the fate of his victims through a coin toss, is so weird and unsettling that it feels even more real. Chigurh confronts his victims with cold, unflinching mortality, but even more worryingly, he leaves it up to chance.