Thrillers come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from films like Shadow of a Doubt to The Silence of the Lambs. Thrillers are interchangeable, sometimes dipping their toes in other genres such as action, horror, mystery, fantasy and western. But one thing any great thriller should have, is the audience’s attention. An effective thriller needs to be able to grab the audience from the get go, then it can decide whether to put the viewer through a two-hour nightmare or let it burn slowly until it’s climactic final scenes.
This list focuses on thrillers that perhaps the neutral occasional film viewer may never have come across. These films are rarely in the conversation of “best thrillers”, let alone be anybody’s favourite films as they get lost and forgotten the moment the words “The Godfather” or Kubrick are brought into conversation.
Whether the films on this list had poor marketing, or were released in the shadow of a heavy hitter, or for some reason (blame the uncertainty of film fate) just didn’t hit audiences as intended, they still remain great thrillers and deserve attention.
1. Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997)
Kurt Russel stars as Jeff Taylor, a man from Boston who’s travelling to California with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), in their new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Somewhere in New Mexico, they almost collide with a rough pickup truck driven by an equally rough driver. Later, at a gas station, the driver of the same pickup truck confronts Jeff, who although attempts to remain cool, retaliates with hostile words. The couple then resume their journey until their Jeep breaks down on a vacant road. Amy accepts a ride from a passing trailer truck to a nearby diner to call for help as Jeff stays with the Jeep. With closer inspection, Jeff discovers that someone (most probably the angered truck driver) has tampered with the car’s battery. Upon fixing them, Jeff drives to the diner, only to discover that Amy is in fact not there, and not only that, but no one has seen her…That is when the film truly begins its crazy course.
The film was co-written by Sam Montgomery and Jonathon Mostow, as well as being directed by Mostow. From the moment that Jeff arrives at the diner and discovers Amy’s disappearance, an imaginary countdown begins as the film becomes tenser, more uncomfortable and twisted. Like a true nightmare, it unfolds in ways you don’t expect and just keeps going until the very end. Not only that, but it’s filled with flawless acting from Russel himself, J.T Walsh, M.C Gainey, Jack Noseworthy and Kathleen Quinlan.
2. A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998)
Michael Douglas stars as Steven Taylor, successful Wall Street financier who discovers that his wife is having an affair with David, an artist (Viggo Mortensen). After investigating him and following him around, Steven offers David a large amount of money to kill her in a perfectly planned revenge scheme…But if you’ve watched Hitchcock’s 1954 Dial M for Murder, which this film is based on, then you know it’s not going to be perfect.
The screenplay was written by Patrick Smith Kelly, based off Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder. The film was directed by Andrew Davis who also directed the hit film, The Fugitive 5 years prior. Much like its predecessor, the film excels through its twists and turns caused by its incredibly well written characters. Michael Douglas shines as he always does, but its villainous roles like this that really show audiences how great of an actor he is. With films such as Wall Street and Falling Down, he’s no stranger to throwing away his good guy face and putting on his equally charming yet deadly mask.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen both alert the audience that they’re part of the new face of Hollywood actors that are going to rule cinema in the upcoming years. With Great Expectations and Shakespeare in Love being released in the same year as A Perfect Murder, Paltrow was rapidly moving up to stardom, ultimately winning an Oscar in the following year. Mortensen had a similar situation to Paltrow, in the 90’s he had solid roles in equally solid films such as Boiling Point, Carlito’s Way and Crimson Tide, and eventually reach stardom with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings in 2001.
3. A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood, 1993)
Set in 1963, Texas, Robert “butch” Haynes (Kevin Costner) escapes prison with Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) and they both break into a suburban house ala The Desperate Hours. The house they break into belongs to a devout Jehovah’s Witness woman with three children. As things get heated, mainly due to Terry’s animalistic and violent urges, the two prisoners flee the house after taking one of the young children, the eight-year-old Phillip (T.J Lowther) with them to aid their escape. The trio soon becomes a duo when Butch kills Terry after attempting to harm the boy. With the dead weight gone, Butch and the young boy hit the road.
The film was written by screenwriter/director John Lee Hancock and directed by the great Clint Eastwood who also stars as Texas Ranger Red Garnett who attempts to hunt Butch down. The film excels in everything that ultimately makes a great thriller drama: It has a range of excellent performances, from Eastwood himself to Costner, to Laura Dern and even the young T.J Lowther.
It also has many greatly written set pieces and scenes full of tension and drama. But what really makes it special, is that it has heart…Something that some filmmakers are weary of adding to their thrillers. But it doesn’t deviate the tension or the lower the stakes or make the action scenes any less exciting. Instead, it makes you care about the characters, even when you shouldn’t. Not only it makes you care, but it makes you remember them.
The tender friendship that Butch has with Phillip is so beautiful and delicate that it’s contrasted with the thriller and at times violent surrounding. The film ultimately projects a cycle of love and father figures (or lack of). Garnett cares for Butch, just like he cared for him years before when he arrested him for petty theft, he doesn’t want to see Butch dead or behind bars, and Butch cares for this fatherless boy he’s gotten to know.
4. Revenge (Tony Scott, 1990)
Revenge is one of Tony Scott’s films that stand out in his filmography. The film is one of his most violent, dirty yet sexy, and at times, very Peckinpah influenced. Scott takes away the glam from previous films like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2 and True Romance, and leaves us with a gritty sun soaked but blood-stained thriller. The film follows retired US Navy pilot, Jay Cochran (Kevin Costner), who travels to Mexico to hang out with his successful yet corrupt businessman friend, Tibey Mendez (Anthony Quinn). That’s where he meets the beautiful Miryea (Madeleine Stowe), Tibey’s wife. As the two begin an affair, Tibey discovers this and sets out to get revenge on both of them.
The film has many plot points and turns, and much like most of Scott’s films, they never have a dull moment. The film feels sweaty, it makes the viewer anxious and the scenes unravel in the most entertaining ways. The film almost feels like a mix of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, in the best of ways.
5. Cop Land (James Mangold, 1997)
Sylvester Stallone stars as Freddy Heflin, the Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, a town populated by New York City police officers, mainly led by Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel). But when he discovers exactly how corrupt the town is, he forms a plan to expose the very people you’re supposed to trust. The film is written and directed by James Mangold, being one of his most personal films as he based the location on his own hometown of Washingtonville, New York, a town which most of its residents were retired or current working police officers.
The film is filled with great actors and equally great performances from Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Frank Vincent, Peter Berg, John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty and many, many more. But if there is a shining star in the film, it has to be Stallone, and not only due to his performance, but due to the fact he needed a role like this desperately. The 90’s were proving difficult for him, and with flop after flop, he needed a hit as bad as his character needed justice. It’s clear in the film, that struggle, that motivation in the third act, it’s the character but it’s also Stallone fighting back, letting the world know he’s back.
The film unfolds in exciting ways, never having a dull moment as its laced in thrilling action set pieces just as much as cleverly written dialogue heavy scenes. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how much backstory and baggage the characters in the film not only have, but drag with them in every scene. In some scenes, the tension is so thick, it’s so awkward that its uncomfortable to watch…And that’s what makes it stand out.