Could one define a genre solely as a “thriller?” Would it be more appropriate to categorise it under “suspense” or “drama” instead? Or is a film referred to as a “thriller” by the emotions it draws from the audience? After all, a movie can be suspenseful without truly evoking an emotional reaction from the viewer, as many films in the action genre could attest.
And a drama may bring a viewer to tears but not necessarily to feeling tension. Perhaps a film from any genre could be considered a “thriller” if it draws from the viewer a visceral reaction where the viewer becomes truly invested in–and concerned about–the fate of the characters involved, and where the artifice of film transcends the medium’s inherent artificiality.
The films detailed in this list, then, match that criteria: through skillful editing, taut and clever scripts, solid performances, and ingenious plotting, all of these movies are solid thrillers from the early 21st century that will keep a viewer engaged throughout and left guessing until the end. More importantly, the characters written for these films are ones worth investing a few hours to follow and feel concern for; and ultimately, whether they’ll survive their ordeal.
1. Frailty (2001)
An FBI agent is visited by Fenton (Matthew McConaughey), who claims that his recently deceased brother Adam was the “God’s Hand” serial killer that the agent has been tracking. Fenton tells the story of he and his brother’s lives under the guidance of their religious fanatic father (the late Bill Paxton), who claims that he’s being told by God to destroy demons on Earth that take the form of regular people, and which specific people they are.
They grow up assisting their father in his ritualistic murders, with Fenton strongly doubting his father’s divinity while Adam grows increasingly convinced that he also sees the same demons his father does. When Fenton brings the agent to the rose garden where he buried his brother, a reveal and a vision that Fenton has throws the entire narrative–and the divinity of his father–into question.
Frailty was Paxton’s directorial debut, and he creates a tense atmosphere throughout. Largely told in flashback, a device that keeps the audience engaged (and horrified) as the young sons are subjected to their father’s unrelenting abuse and violent murders all in the name of God. It’s a dark thriller whose twist ending makes what proceeded it all the more disturbing.
2. Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
An illegal immigrant named Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in London, where he drives a cab during the day and at night mans the front desk of a hotel, which is the home to a multitude of immigrants. One night, while responding to a call about a clogged toilet, Okwe finds a human heart as the cause of the backup.
It’s revealed that the owner of the hotel runs an operation where immigrants trade organs for passports, and who then pressures Okwe (who was a doctor in his home country) to perform operations for him. Okwe refuses, but when another immigrant–a Muslim woman who works off the books to keep her status as a legal immigrant in the country–that he’s befriended falls into a dire situation, he reconsiders the offer–while also planning for both of their escapes.
A film that focuses on the plight of both legal and illegal immigrants and the extreme exploitation they are prone to, the tension in Dirty Pretty Things comes from the audience despairing that these innocent characters are being pushed into dangerous situations and forced into compromising positions that defile their beliefs just because of their immigration status.
Set in a First World country, these immigrants–who just want to work and lead lives of dignity–are forced to live on the fringes, hiding in the shadows while trying to stay in the light.
3. One Hour Photo (2002)
Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams) is a lonely older man who lives a solitary life. Working as a photo developer in a chain store, the only true connection he seems to be able to make with other people is through the photos of their lives that he develops. He becomes fixated on one family in particular who seemingly have an ideal life.
Sy runs off extra copies of their family photos for himself and pretends that he’s an uncle of the family; he posts the pictures around his apartment; and he makes a connection with the young son of the family.
As his obsession with the family grows, Sy discovers something in a set of photos dropped off by a customer about the father that shatters his idealized view of the family. Already a man who has suppressed a long-brewing resentment towards the world around him, Sy decides to take revenge on the man who has the family he always wanted.
This was music video director Mark Romanek’s feature film debut, and it’s shot in a detached, almost clinical style that adds an air of menace to even mundane shots of the retail store, apartment, and diner where Sy spends his solitary life, while also highlighting the distance between Sy and the world around him.
Romanek finds a balance between making Sy a sympathetic character to the audience while also framing him as a potentially unhinged man. This is also greatly due to Williams’ controlled performance of the deferential and polite Sy, who sadly wants nothing more than a real connection to the people whose lives he sees in photographs that he’ll never appear in.
4. Open Water (2003)
An overworked couple take a vacation to the Caribbean to reconnect. Upon a group scuba diving excursion, the two decide to swim away from the group. While separated, the dive master mistakenly counts the same couple twice as the group boards the boat to go back to land. When the couple re-emerge, the find the boat gone and they are stuck out in open water.
While they initially assume the boat will come back to rescue them, hours pass. While at first the couple fight and experience exhaustion, the situation worsens when they realize sharks are starting to circle. The film continues as the couple are stung by jellyfish, bitten by sharks, and struggle to survive.
This is one of those thrillers that continues to ratchet up the horror of a hopeless situation. What makes it so affecting is how the couple are regular people who work, fight, and are trying to enjoy a vacation; the viewer can easily see themselves in such a dire situation.
Shot for only $500,000, the minimalist approach and simple storyline gives the film a focus and intensity as you watch a couple, stranded in a hopeless situation, are forced to watch helplessly as their partner falls into worse and worse conditions. It’s a visceral and affecting thriller–if you can brace yourself to watch the whole film through to its dark conclusion.
5. The Machinist (2004)
A machinist named Trevor (Christian Bale) is suffering from a debilitating case of insomnia: he has lost a shocking amount of weight, has become unkempt, and begins to exhibit bizarre behavior. While distracted by a co-worker named Ivan, Trevor causes an accident that takes the arm of another worker.
While he tries to explain that he was distracted, nobody at work has any recollection of the supposed co-worker that Trevor claims was the cause. Trevor tries to find Ivan, who nobody’s ever seen or heard of, while also interacting with the few people in his life. As he becomes obsessed with finding Ivan, Trevor begins to fear that he’s losing his mind–and maybe he is.
The Machinist is a dark psychological thriller, shot in a washed-out palette of blues and grays that reflects the exhaustion and confusion of the insomniac Trevor. But the stand-out element here is Christian Bale’s intense performance as the emaciated and highly unstable machinist. As the film unravels along with Trevor’s mental state, Trevor struggles to keep his grip on reality, only to find that he (and the audience) may not have been seeing things clearly this whole time.