Top 20 Psychological Thrillers
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
Prepare yourself for a journey deep into the darkness of the mind. For this list, we're taking a look at the most intense, dramatic and emotionally draining films in the psychological thriller genre. Our countdown includes "Shutter Island", "Taxi Driver", "Joker", "Fight Club", "Donnie Darko", and more!
Top 20 Psychological Thrillers
Prepare yourself for a journey deep into the darkness of the mind. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Psychological Thrillers.
For this list, we’re taking a look at the most intense, dramatic and emotionally draining films in the psychological thriller genre. These films could also deal with characters suffering from severe mental trauma or illness. Considering that we just might be getting into the roots of why these films are so troubling, a spoiler alert is in order!
#20: "Shutter Island" (2010)
Okay, so we're not going to pretend that the ending twist of Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" wasn't a bit predictable, but the journey was certainly tense and stylish enough to make it all worthwhile. Based on a 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, the film centers on a U.S. Marshal attempting to unravel a mystery, although it may be his sanity that’s really unraveling. The premise of a mysterious, remote mental hospital dealing with a missing patient is perfectly suited for the disturbing characters and thrilling twists we’d expect from the genre, making for a satisfying entry to Scorsese’s filmography.
#19: “The Machinist” (2004)
Christian Bale earned notable praise and awards for his portrayal of a troubled industrial worker whose sleep deprivation and resulting rapid weight loss results in hallucinations, paranoia and near insanity. It’s startling how dramatic Bale’s physical form changes almost before our eyes in “The Machinist,” due to the actor’s frightening commitment to the role. Bale’s character Trevor Reznik eventually takes on the appearance of a walking corpse, developing sores and lesions on his body, in addition to the emaciation. “The Machinist” may not know if he’s awake or asleep, but the audience is certain of how uncomfortable and creepy this film truly is.
#18: "Don't Look Now" (1973)
This film isn't a violent or exploitative affair, but rather one that explores themes of grief, loss, and regret in a disturbing fashion. "Don't Look Now" was released in 1973, but continues to win fans today, thanks to the film's atmosphere and one-of-a-kind shock ending. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a married couple who are inconsolable after losing their daughter, who drowns while the two are making love. This drives home the guilt they feel as a direct cause in her death, while director Nicolas Roeg utilizes sharp editing techniques, color, and music in a way that feels both disorienting and dreamlike to the viewer. Finally, the "out of nowhere" ending delivers that sharp, final shock that audiences will never forget.
#17: “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990)
Personal loss, post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorder all afflict the troubled lead character of director Adrian Lyne’s disturbing film, played with tragic conviction by Tim Robbins. The titular Jacob seems to have developed multiple personalities after suffering the loss of his child, not to mention the after-effects of serving in the Vietnam War, and goes through much of the movie wondering exactly what is real and what isn’t, as all of his neuroses reach a boiling point. It’s a film that remains thought provoking and frightening to this day.
#16: “Joker” (2019)
Martin Scorsese is without a doubt a master of the psychological thriller and his influence can be found in every crevice of “Joker,” channeling “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Director Todd Phillips used the film to explore heavy topics like gun violence, lower class struggles, and mental health through the eyes of an iconic villain. The result was a captivating character study, as well as a harrowing reflection of our world. In a career highlight performance, Joaquin Phoenix molds Arthur Fleck into a chilling menace with the theatricality of Alex DeLarge, the tragic nature of Norman Bates, and the lasting appeal of his comic book counterpart.
#15: "Donnie Darko" (2001)
Surprisingly, this cult classic has actually improved with age. Writer/director Richard Kelly’s film is full of surreal imagery and dense, some might say "obtuse" storytelling that nevertheless lends itself to repeated viewings. Moreover, the psychological implications of lead Jake Gyllenhaal's disturbing visions of annihilation make us want to keep watching, in order to try and uncover the reasoning behind all of bizarre set pieces and cinematography. What's up with the bunny? Is the world actually going to end? Does Donnie make it out alive? Watch the film and find out for yourself.
#14: "Crash" (1996)
In the world of cult cinema, there's messed up, and then there's David Cronenberg messed up. The Canadian-born writer and director carved a career out of creating disturbing, devilish, and downright disgusting examples of what would become known as the "body horror" genre. "Crash" may not be as well-known as some of his other titles, but this 1996 effort is an equally bizarre journey into the world of trauma survivors who become sexually aroused by car accidents and their physical aftermath. "Extreme" doesn't begin to describe the implications of "Crash's" sexual deviancy/fetishism vs. accidental violence; it simply must be seen to be believed.
#13: “Funny Games” (1997)
Director Michael Haneke is behind both iterations of this thriller, with the original 1997 version of “Funny Games” seeing an updated version starring Tim Roth and Naomi Watts only a decade later. Both films follow a family who is tormented by a duo of disturbed young men while on vacation in a remote house by a lake. Abuse, humiliation and violence are only some of the agonies the family suffers through during their ordeal. The thugs even break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, manipulating the film’s narrative in a manner that parallels our own perverse obsession with violence and the media.
#12: "Gone Girl" (2014)
Is it unfair to refer to writer/director David Fincher as one of the masters of the psychological thriller? We don't think so, as evidenced by this excellent entry from the man's filmography, "Gone Girl." Fincher didn't write this effort, but instead adapted a screenplay by the author of its source material, Gillian Flynn, yet "Gone Girl" still seems very much indebted to Fincher's sense of style. The austerity of the film's cinematography boosts the performances of its A-list cast, which includes Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, and Neil Patrick Harris, while "Gone Girl's" classic murder mystery tropes are elevated from an excellent script. Twists, turns, and one truly horrifying death scene make "Gone Girl" a psychological thriller that will definitely stick with you.
#11: "Nightcrawler" (2014)
What would you do to make a buck? The moral implications of this question and more are asked in "Nightcrawler," the feature debut from writer/director Dan Gilroy. The film hinges upon star Jake Gyllenhaal’s deeply committed performance as Louis Bloom, a small-time crook who films nighttime crimes and accidents, selling the stories to local news outlets. Gyllenhaal is captivating in the film, portraying Bloom as hungry and desperate, to the point of obsession, and this is reflected in his stark and gaunt visual appearance. Gyllenhaal always looks like he hasn't slept in days, with the physical effects of his role directly impacting how we view his character. We know he's an amoral bloodsucker, yet we can't stop watching him right to the very end.
#10: “Memento” (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s career was only just beginning when he delivered the marvelous mind-melting experience simply known as “Memento.” Guy Pearce plays a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia after the murder of his wife. Pearce’s character Leonard is then forced to permanently tattoo key phrases about his life onto his skin in order to piece together the mystery, while at the same time coming to terms with his innermost secrets. The film is best enjoyed through multiple viewings, as that way, we can get a firmer grasp on Nolan’s complex, yet satisfying noir-inspired tale of identity.
#9: "Mulholland Drive" (2001)
We defy anyone to uncover the mysteries behind "Mulholland Drive" upon their initial viewing. We've grown accustomed at this point to question reality in almost everything done by writer/director David Lynch, yet "Mulholland Drive" just might be one of the man's finest efforts. This is thanks not only to the epic and layered performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, but also the film's near perfect script. Lynch has always loved to venture below the dark, seedy underbelly of "The American Dream," and this time sets his sights firmly on the Hollywood fantasy. The results are a stunning and entrancing work, one that hits us psychologically and emotionally in a way few other films have since its release.
#8: "Rebecca" (1940)
"Rebecca" isn’t the most well-known film from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but this Best Picture winner certainly deserves more attention from modern audiences. Although it’s based on a novel by English author Daphne du Maurier, "Rebecca" still feels "Hitchcockian" in its execution, with themes of romantic jealousy, grief, and obsession surrounding its leads, Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Fontaine plays the second wife of the widowed Olivier, whose first spouse still seems to loom over his entire existence, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. We're not going to spoil the ending here, but trust us when we say that you will NOT see it coming.
#7: "Fight Club" (1999)
David Fincher returns once again to our list, this time with a film that's very much of its time, while also serving as one of the most popular flicks from the late nineties. "Fight Club" was based upon the book from Chuck Palahniuk, and practically drips with a grimy style and throbbing, electro-industrial soundtrack. Fincher's film questions the status quo of 9 to 5 white-collar America, as well as our own feelings of discontent and self-worth. "Fight Club" was violent and controversial, yet endlessly quotable and quick-moving, with plenty of memorable moments and one of the most iconic ending sequences of its time. Don't blink, and don't believe your eyes, because "Fight Club" loves to play tricks, right until the very last frame.
#6: “Black Swan” (2010)
Obsession and perfection are just two of the themes which rear their heads here in director Darren Aronofsky’s troubling tale of a beautiful, but mentally fragile dancer who is determined to be cast in the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Nina Sayers is magnetic as we follow her relationships with her sexually aggressive instructor, her emotionally abusive mother and a devious understudy. Aronofsky’s combination of gorgeous cinematography, A-list acting and legitimately cringe-worthy frights make this a psychological thriller for the ages.
#5: “Se7en” (1995)
We’ve covered Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and “Fight Club” already, but we wouldn’t have gotten there without talking about this 1995 masterpiece. This rough and gritty police procedural follows two detectives on the hunt for a deranged serial killer who is using the Seven Deadly Sins as inspiration for his slayings. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play the rookie and veteran detectives respectively, and both deliver great performances as the corpses begin piling up, thanks to the psychopath’s imaginative handiwork. Sloth, Lust, Pride... “Se7en” does not hesitate to reflect humanity’s darkest desires back at us, in all of their grim reality.
#4: “American Psycho” (2000)
Author Bret Easton Ellis published the source material novel for this film back in 1991, detailing the life of a psychotic businessman and serial killer by the name of Patrick Bateman. Christian Bale appears for the second time on our list in the titular role, delivering a performance that earned the actor both critical and commercial praise in what many agree is one of his greatest roles. The film’s murder set pieces are often punctuated by Bateman’s appraisal of ‘80s pop music, while in later scenes he delivers dialogue so brutal and biting that it somehow makes this violent and satirical movie-watching experience perversely quote-able.
#3: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Audiences may have first danced with Brian Cox as the devilish Doctor Hannibal Lecter in 1986 with Michael Mann’s masterpiece “Manhunter,” but it was Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the brilliant but deranged Lecter that remains in fans’ minds. Director Jonathan Demme struck gold when he helmed 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” a story of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling and her search for the disturbed serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Cox and Hopkins both play Lecter with the expected level of class and wit, but it’s the latter’s iconic declaration of his preferred dinner accompaniment that truly gave audiences chills.
#2: “Vertigo” (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock was known as “The Master of Suspense,” and delivered on this title time and time again with a bevy of cinematic classics. Before Hitchcock graced us with the presence of one Norman Bates in “Psycho,” however, he first told us the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective with a crippling fear of heights, and a mysterious woman who may not be all she seems. In 2012, “Vertigo” earned the honor of toppling “Citizen Kane” as the “Greatest Film of All Time” according to Britain’s distinguished “Sight and Sound” magazine, and with good reason, for this psychological thriller possesses a near perfect amount of character depth and plot twists to keep audiences guessing right until the very end.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
"The Prestige" (2006)
"Falling Down" (1993)
"Cape Fear" (1991)
#1: "Taxi Driver" (1976)
There are few characters in cinema as tragically damaged as Travis Bickle, the frightening anti-hero in director Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, "Taxi Driver." Paul Schrader's dark and creepy script highlights Bickle's crumbling mental state, as he delivers long monologues on rainy New York nights about "washing away" what he views as the scum of the city. The adult theaters of 1970s Times Square serve as the perfect backdrop as Bickle dates a political volunteer, becomes obsessed with an underage prostitute, and eventually cracks under the pressure of his inner demons. De Niro is magnetic during the film's final, ultra-violent climax while New York almost serves as a character unto itself, underscored by exquisite cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's iconic jazz score. This one deserves all the praise.