Morally ambiguous characters and nail-biting suspense is what draws us back the thriller genre again and again. Good characters can make or break a movie: The more complex and troubled they are, the more interesting the film becomes. Therefore, psychological thrillers are the perfect way to delve deep into the consciousness of our (often anti-heroic) protagonists, exploring the murky depths of the human psyche. There’s a lot of them out there, so here we’ve compiled a handy list of the ten best psychological thriller movies to watch.
10. Gone Girl (2014)
Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl follows Ben Affleck as the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance. Nick (Affleck) is a successful writer, living the perfect image of a happy marriage. But when Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, his blissful ignorance starts to slip. The police, the media and everyone surrounding Nick begin to push the walls further and further in on him, until he is forced to face the dark truths of the past (and present).
Both a critical and commercial success, Gone Girl showers viewers in questions and riddles. Themes of betrayal, crime, gender and the superficial nature of the media make David Fincher’s adaptation a timely tale on the psychological impacts modern life threats. Gone Girl is an ingeniously suspenseful thriller with some incredible, award-nominated performances.
9. Mulholland Drive (2001)
It takes a while to realise you’re watching a psychological thriller with David Lynch’s cult favourite Mulholland Drive. Uncannily optimistic wannabe actress Betty leaves the midwest with a dream of LA success. But the dream is soon spoiled with the arrival of an amnesiac woman, recently involved in a car crash.
Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring star as a blonde and brunette investigator duo trying to figure out the woman’s identity before the car accident. Lynch interweaves seemingly unrelated storylines and obscure scenes in his usual, unnerving auteur style. But pay close attention to these details, as what appears to be irrelevant may prove vital pieces of the puzzle later on.
Despite the initial assumption that a missing prisoner is the focus of Shutter Island, it soon becomes clear there’s more to this gripping thriller than meets the eye. Leonardo DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, investigating an escape from a prison for the criminally insane. But when violent migraines, intrusive nightmares and paranoia begin to seep into Daniel’s mind, it becomes more of a psychological investigation than a physical one.
Martin Scorsese litters the film with subtle clues and enigma codes, building up a wall of tension before the big finale. Is it really a planned conspiracy against Daniels, or just a state of neurotic delusion?
7. The Machinist (2004)
The first thing you will undoubtedly notice when watching The Machinist is Christian Bale’s body. Or rather, the lack of it. Weighing a jaw-dropping 7.8 stone (six months before filming Batman Begins), Bale plays skeletal insomniac Trevor Reznik, who uses weight loss as a coping mechanism. A coping mechanism for exactly what is not made clear until the final few moments.
Until then, Trevor is tormented by hallucinations and post-it notes that randomly appear on his fridge without a trace. Bleaching his hands, scrubbing tiles and starving himself are all forms of Trevor’s twisted penance, trying to navigate the answers without a clear sense of what is real and what is fake.
The mother-son relationship gets a darkly unique spin in Lynne Ramsay’s dramatic thriller. Although Kevin is a deeply disturbed, intelligent and manipulative young boy, it’s really his mother whose psyche we explore.
Plagued by the undeserved hostility of her son (who we watch grow from a misbehaved toddler to a conniving teen, played by Ezra Miller), Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) has no one to turn to. It seems she is the only one who sees her son’s fussy tantrums for what they really are: sociopathic warning signs. Ramsay gets to the core of Eva’s mental conflict (wanting to connect with her son while punishing his sinister outbursts) with symbolic cinematography; precise framing and popping red colours foreshadowing Kevin’s bloody capabilities.
5. Memento (2000)
As the movie that granted Christopher Nolan’s claim to fame, Memento harbours an unreliable protagonist who undergoes frequent memory loss every fifteen minutes. Waking to a body chock-full of tattooed reminders, Leonard (Guy Pearce) must try and catch his wife’s murderer using only the clues he left for himself the day before.
In a backwards tale of murder, revenge and betrayal, Nolan sets the foundation for a complex filmography, later impressing with the equally mind-boggling movies Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). The debilitating severity of Leonard’s amnesia, coupled with his determination to seek justice, make Memento one unpredictable journey through the labyrinth of Leonard’s troubled mind.
Ballet is a notoriously difficult art, taking its toll both physically and mentally on its dancers. So, it’s no surprise when Nina (Natalie Portman) suffers severe psychological damage when trying to land the lead role in “Swan Lake”.
Perfecting every move, muscle and breath of her performance, Nina undergoes incredible strain to prove herself against the competition. Lily (Mila Kunis) threatens Nina’s career (which is to say, her life) with her natural talent for the role. Director Darren Aronofsky depicts the downward spiral of Nina’s growing obsession with elements of the supernatural; her paranoia and desperation bringing the Black Swan closer to her than anticipated.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Boasting one of the biggest plot-twists in history, The Sixth Sense blurs the line between thriller and horror with its psychologically disturbed 11 year-old protagonist who “can see dead people.” Starring Bruce Willis and the young Haley Joel Osment, director M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of a young boy who seeks the help of child psychologist Dr. Crowe when tormented by supernatural visitations.
The mental anguish of both the boy, Dr. Crowe (dealing with his own marital issues) and even the ghosts themselves are explored with intriguing suspense. Shyamalan treats the spirits with sensitivity rather than fear, appearing to the boy with harmless desires to fulfil their unsolved problems back on Earth. Sixth Sense ends up being less of a ghost story, and more of a story on the human experience.
Director Dennis Villeneuve shows us the psychological damage of a crime investigation on both the father, investigating officer and prime suspect in his thriller hit Prisoners. Hugh Jackman plays the father of kidnapped daughter Anna, who responds to the incident with booze and obsessive searching.
Disregarding his morals, Jackman turns on the accused (but freed) driver of a suspicious van (played by Paul Dano), torturing him despite his lack of evidence. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a workaholic whose pent-up emotions have manifested into excessive blinking – becomes equally desperate to solve the case. Villeneuve toys with our emotions, never making it clear whether the illegally abused suspect (with the IQ of a child) is innocent or guilty.
1. Donnie Darko (2001)
When a teenage boy begins hallucinating a giant, demonic rabbit named Frank, you know you’re dealing with a seriously psychologically disturbed character. A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko in what was his breakthrough role, starring alongside Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze.
Richard Kelly directs this dark fantasy tale, that would later become a cult classic amongst film buffs and teenagers alike. Donnie is told the world will end in 28 days, soon before a jet crashes into his home. Reality becomes questionable in Kelly’s eerie depiction of suburban life, concluding on a plot twist that will have viewers puzzled for days.