Sex. Blood. Darkness. Cold sweats. A killer soundtrack.
More than just the disparate elements of a properly good night out, these are some of the crucial ingredients of a great thriller movie. The Oxford Dictionary describes an experience which thrills as one from which intense excitement, emotion or pleasure is derived. Clearly, any movie designed to thrill should hit those marks.
For as long as I can remember, I've always been drawn to this genre, but what is it about the thriller that speaks to me and so many millions of others? Looking at seven classic thrillers, mostly drawn from the 21st century, but beginning with the godfather of the genre, I'll break down their individual elements to try and unravel the greatest mystery of all: what's inside the DNA of a great thriller movie?
If there's one thing scarier than seeing something you shouldn't have, it's being seen seeing it. Alfred Hitchcock was not so much a master of the suspense thriller as the immortal overlord of it, his influence still felt in every modern day movie that seeks to elicit thrills. When your œuvre includes the likes of North By Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds and Dial M For Murder, it's tough to pinpoint any one movie as a career highlight, but for me Rear Window (1954) is Hitchcock's crowning glory.
In Rear Window, Jefferies (James Stewart) is recuperating from a broken leg in his apartment when he witnesses a crime. Or at least, he thinks he's witnessed a crime, the suspicious disappearance and probable murder of his female neighbor at the hand of her husband. Of course, he has precisely zero evidence beyond his own gut feeling, and everybody from his police detective friend to his beautiful casual girlfriend writes the story off as the fantasy of a man with too much time on his hands.
It's a superb example of one of the most reliable and effective thriller devices: Forcing your protagonist to prove that he's not going insane. In this case, it's the intensity with which Jefferies's obsession with his neighbor takes hold, his need to prove that a crime was committed, that derives Rear Window's thrills. That it also succeeds as a comedy, romance and a still-unrivaled triumph of set design only serves to highlight that Hitchcock was, and remains, the G.O.A.T.
The best line in the movie? Jeff asks his girlfriend, who by now has been drawn into the mystery with almost equal enthusiasm, why the murderous neighbor would have killed a dog. It's to Grace Kelly's immense credit that she replies with a straight face, "Because it knew too much?"
If the hero's unswerving belief that something is amiss forces you to question their sanity, only to discover they were right all along (as with Rear Window), that can be flipped to equal effect. In Darren Aronofsky's relentlessly dark psychological thriller Black Swan (2010), ballet pro Nina (Natalie Portman) is a technical perfectionist too bound up in inhibition to unleash the more daring, more visceral dancer hidden deep within.
Her attempts to shake off her jealous, overbearing mother and embark on a long-overdue sexual odyssey seem to hint that Nina has what it takes to embody both the white and the black swan, but in Black Swan there's a fine line between reality and illusion, and the film's third act is a masterclass in building dread. How long can a person under the most intense pressure cling to the last vestiges of sanity? The fact that its primary environment, the cold, vast rehearsal space of a dance studio, is so alien to the majority of the audience also adds to the feeling that typical rules don't apply, and therefore that a neatly-wrapped ending may be out of the question.
Ultimately, Black Swan thrills precisely because it challenges us to root against its hero — only in madness can Nina become the dancer she was always destined to be. The immense final scene is pretty much as good as it gets, and the adrenaline rush lingers long after the credits have rolled.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Apologies in advance to purists who don't entertain the notion of American remakes, but I'm talking here about David Fincher's take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) — although, technically, I'd argue that it's less a remake of the Swedish film, more a faithful adaptation of Stieg Larsson's superb page-turner.
Location is one of the more subtle means by which a movie can thrill, and few wring a greater sense of discomfort and distrust from their geographical surroundings than Dragon Tattoo. At least half of the story takes place on Hedeby, an island village separated from the Swedish mainland by a road bridge — the same bridge which was blocked on the fateful day Harriet Vanger went missing.
The implication that the Vangers, and by extension the island itself, are hiding the secret of Harriet's fate makes the prospect of spending time there a chilly one, but also opens up the possibility that nature itself may have claimed the missing girl's life. Is the water more trustworthy than the corrupt, wealthy Nazis it surrounds? Consider too that some of Sweden's oldest racists, once at the fore of their country's industry, have retreated to this sparse, snow-covered village miles from anywhere, and suddenly it occurs that Mikael Blomkvist has swapped sleek, liberal Stockholm for the very place where evil resides, hiding in plain sight.
Not since the Coens' Fargo has location acted as a character in its own right to such thrilling effect. Underscored by a soundtrack from Trent Reznor which is at turns aggressively electronic and beautifully ethereal, its clever use of setting is just one of the reasons The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is such a masterpiece.
David Fincher is particularly adept at adapting thriller novels for the big screen, as demonstrated by his Dragon Tattoo follow-up, Gone Girl (2014). Based on the New York Times bestseller by Gillian Flynn, a book which is the very definition of an airport novel (sexy, mysterious, impossible to put down until you really have to because a flight attendant named Heather is on the hunt for the one passenger who failed to achieve the basic goal of boarding the plane), Fincher's film demonstrates the effectiveness of an unusual narrative framing device in building tension.
In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is feeling the heat. The police in the Missouri town he moved back to after losing his job in NYC suspect Nick had a hand in the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). Amy was the inspiration for a fictional version of herself in a series of sickeningly cute children's books named Amazing Amy, written by her parents (the adult Amy despises the whole thing, obviously), and so the case receives some serious media coverage, and the world decides that Nick is guilty, largely because he looks far too smug not to be. Nobody embodies smug better than Ben Affleck. It's a casting masterstroke.
Anyway, the device in question employs flashbacks to contrast Nick and Amy's previous life in New York — when they were a little younger, a little richer, and a whole lot more in love — with the miserable existence they've carved for themselves in Missouri. (Gone Girl does a stellar job of making Missouri seem like hell on earth. Presumably tourism took a hit thereafter.) Entries from Amy's diary narrated in her own voice give us a chilly insight into the couple's marriage, imploring us to buy into in the psychological (and possibly physical) abuse received at the hand of her husband.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and it's that uncertainty, the possibility that Amy is an unreliable narrator, that Gone Girl taps into — is Nick the wolf in sheep's clothing or, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, an innocent man falsely accused?
When the twist reveals itself (sooner than expected, just to remind you that this is a Fincher movie and sure, you might think you know what's going on, but you're wrong), the tension is ramped up a thousand degrees. Still, it's the flashbacks that make Gone Girl a winner, and once the present reaches peak fucked-up-ness (that would be the bedroom scene), you'll wish you could vacay back to Amy and Nick's perfect past.
If flashbacks are an effective but sometimes overused framing device, Nocturnal Animals, which doesn't hit theaters until November, has a much fresher trick up its custom-fitted sleeve. This revenge thriller from fashion designer Tom Ford, who also happens to be ridiculously good at filmmaking, tells the story of Susan (Amy Adams), a rich but unfulfilled art gallery owner whose glossy Los Angeles life is disrupted when her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a struggling would-be writer whose dreams she crushed two decades earlier, sends her the completed manuscript of his first novel, also titled Nocturnal Animals.
As Susan begins to read, the manuscript plays out in parallel with her real life, contrasting the sleek and vapid surfaces of LA with violent, sun-hazed Texas, where the novel's protagonist, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), seeks revenge on the dangerous thugs who abducted his wife and daughter during a late-night road trip. Susan takes Tony's thirst for vengeance as a metaphor for their own relationship, dragging up the past to disturb her present.
Also of note is that Susan is an insomniac (hence why Edward nicknamed her a "nocturnal animal"), which is a useful narrative detail when you want to pile some serious psychological pressure on your heroine — lack of sleep, much like the romantic sins of a history not forgotten, will always catch up with you.
Nocturnal Animals hits theaters November 18.
I Saw The Devil
There's something delicious about the prospect of getting revenge. Perhaps it has roots in the fact that real, life-destroying revenge usually comes with major consequences, and for most us enacting it will only ever be a fantasy. Only those with zero inhibitions, and arguably a loose grip on their own sanity, go out of their way to wreck somebody else's life, rendering those characters exciting, clearly operating on a different plane of morality to those around them.
I Saw The Devil (2010) is a Korean revenge thriller which follows Soo-hyun on his one-man mission to solve the mystery of who murdered his fiancé. It transpires that the killer also happens to be a cannibal, because this movie was made in South Korea and they really like to be triply-sure you're going to be grossed out to the max. Sometimes straight-up kills and gore are just a little too vanilla, you know? Once he has that intel, the two men engage in a cat-and-mouse chase, and eventually Soo-hyun tracks the killer down, creating an elaborate torture set-up with a guillotine, a rope, a door... and a child. It's pretty sick, and I like to imagine it was written by an advanced Korean computer, the alternative being that there's an actual human out there, somewhere, having these thoughts.
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, famously warned to "dig two graves" before embarking on a journey of revenge, and most revenge stories use the idea that their protagonist will be so broken by the act of revenge that they'll realise when it's too late they were better off without it. Zero graves trump two. But what's different about I Saw The Devil is that director Kim Jee-woon isn't using Soo-hyun's story as a cautionary tale against the pursuit of vengeance.
When he walks away from the house in the movie's final scene, having subjected his enemy to the most unimaginable torture, Soo-hyun begins to cry, and then the credits roll. Will he be able to live with himself? Will he be imprisoned for his crime? Would it even matter if he was, now that he avenged his fiancée's murder, or was it a hollow victory? We never find out. The thrill of I Saw The Devil is the pursuit, the hero's propulsive need to hunt the villain, to see him suffer, to see the life expire from him, to feel some sense of closure. It's that rare and tantalizing thing: Revenge without consequence.
If, for some entirely unjustifiable reason you haven't actually seen Fight Club, stop reading now. It's bad form to spoil a great movie without advanced warning, and I'd rather not be that guy. But you're here, you've done your homework, and I presume you know your shit.
Of all the classic thriller tropes touched on in this article — the hero under pressure, descent into a black psychological abyss, the use of location or flashbacks to build tension, and the all-consuming thirst for revenge — none is as genre-defining as the twist. A thriller movie lives or dies by the quality of its twist, the knowledge that crucial facts have been withheld, simmering away beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed at the point of maximum impact. Fight Club (1999) packs what might be the greatest twist of all time.
Because timing is everything and David Fincher is a pro, the director spends a solid 90 minutes building this world, a grungy, seedy downtown neighborhood forgotten by time and gentrification, seemingly existing in a bubble independent of the sleek, beige high-rise offices and IKEA-furnished apartments which have come to define modern America. Edward Norton's unnamed narrator is an everyman so disillusioned with his life that the prospect of hanging out with cancer patients at support groups is the only thing that elicits any trace of emotion (even if it's fake). When he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), he begins to reject society's drab, consumerist values, and together they form something real, something tangible: Fight Club.
There's a borderline homoeroticism to the way the two men interact, the narrator ranting neurotically in the bathroom while Tyler scrubs himself in the tub with the soap he sells by day. Their relationship, Durden's sheer magnetism, is both a red herring and a clue — you're so distracted by the possibilities of what they could create together, how far this self-destructive bromance can last before everything spins wildly out of control, that it doesn't even occur to question why these two men would ever be drawn to one another in the first place. The answer, of course, is that these two men were only ever one man, an unguessable twist that seems painfully obvious from the moment it's unleashed.
Once the twist is out there, it's easy for a thriller to lose its momentum. Fight Club does not lose momentum. Instead it builds to a bizarre, and bizarrely beautiful, crescendo, the narrator watching on calmly as skyscrapers fall to the ground, a complete rejection of the meaningless capitalism which drove his subconscious to create Tyler Durden in the first place. It's strangely optimistic, considering an entire city is literally collapsing into ash.
Yep, there's no currency more valuable than the twist — and when it comes to cinema, nothing gets my heart beating quite like a good thriller.