Capsule reviews of thriller movies

Here we’ve preserved Lillian Crawford’s short and sweet reviews of action thriller that have been moved from their original streaming platforms. You can find their current streaming homes by clicking each title.

American Beauty (1999)

While many have retrospectively criticised American Beauty, it still holds up as an intense examination of American suburbia. The film features a magnificent performance from Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham, along with two striking supporting performances from Thora Birch as her daughter Jane and Mena Suvari as her best friend. A deeply uncomfortable watch in many ways, the three female leads retain their strength and are still worth celebrating.

Argo (2012)

Sometimes true stories can be even more thrilling than fiction, and Ben Affleck’s 2012 Best Picture winner certainly proves the rule. Chris Terrio adapted the film’s screenplay from a number of sources, including two books by CIA operative Tony Mendez which detailed the story of the “Canadian Caper”. That event saw Mendez lead the rescue of six American diplomats from Tehran under the guise of a crew shooting a science-fiction film called Argo during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis.

Arrival (2016)

Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 science-fiction drama is based on a short story by Ted Chiang which explores the nature of communication and translation. The film stars Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks who is tasked with deciphering the symbols of an alien species which has arrived on Earth, appearing in the film alongside Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg. The film also features one of the final scores of the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson which is worth the price of admission alone.

Baby Driver (2017)

A shift in gear for British director Edgar Wright, Baby Driver moves across the pond to the Hollywood crime thriller genre. The movie stars Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver who lives with his headphones in, synchronising each and every movement to a vibrant and eclectic pop soundtrack. With supporting performances from Eiza González, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx, Wright’s balletic symbiosis of sound and vision is worth watching.

Boiling Point (2021)

Few of the films on this already very tense list quite reach the breathless heights of Boiling Point. Directed by Philip Barantini, the film is an extension of his 2019 short film starring Stephen Graham as a chef in a restaurant kitchen and Vinette Robinson as his sous. The thrills are heightened by the decision to show the narrative in a single shot, much like 2014’s Birdman, building to an unbearable finale.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Director Paul Greengrass knows that the most thrilling stories are ones that actually happened. For his 2013 film Captain Phillips, Greengrass restaged the events of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking in which the ship, captained by Richard Phillips, was taken hostage by Somali Pirates. It features impressive performances from Tom Hanks and BAFTA-winning Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Abduwali Muse. The thrills come from the unbearable tension between the two men, and the constant fear that one will finally snap.

The Client (1994)

Directed by Joel Schumacher and with a cast led by Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, The Client is a tense legal thriller about the traumas left upon two boys after they witness a suicide and become involved in a murder case. The film is based on the novel of the same title by celebrated American crime author John Grisham, following a simple yet engaging narrative thread. It’s particularly worth seeking out for Sarandon’s Academy Award-nominated performance.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

George Clooney’s directorial debut is an unusual spy film from 2002 penned by one of Hollywood’s most outlandish screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman. It’s a fictionalised version of the life of game show host and producer Chuck Barris, played here by Sam Rockwell, based on his 1984 ‘unauthorised autobiography’ in which he claimed to be an assassin for the CIA. With a supporting cast including Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and Clooney himself, we’ll never know if Barris really was a spy.

The Courier (2020)

Released in 2020, English director Dominic Cooke’s spy thriller The Courier tells the true story of a businessman called Greville Wynne who was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne opposite Merab Ninidze playing the Russian spy Oleg Pendovsky to whom he becomes a message conduit. It’s particularly worth seeing for its sizzling score by Abel Korzeniowski, and a powerful sequence including a tense staging of Swan Lake.

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

Netflix is limited in its selection of thrillers directed by women, but this gem from Shamim Sarif can be found if you look for it on the site. The film is an adaptation of Sarif’s own novel of the same title set in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. It stars Rebecca Ferugson as Katya, who lost her parents under Stalin’s rule and now spies on the Kremlin elite Sasha (Sam Reid) for the Americans. The film also features a swelling score by Rachel Portman that’s not to be missed.

Doubt (2008)

The thrill of investigation is a common theme in films on this list, including this 2008 drama written and directed by John Patrick Shanley based on his own play for which he won a Pulitzer and a Tony. Set in a Catholic elementary school, Doubt sees Sister James (Amy Adams) tell Sister Aloysius (Meryl Steep) that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been giving a suspicious amount of attention to their only Black student, leading to an intense investigation.

Fight Club (1999)

A melange of mean, snarky metaphors frenetically come together to mock Gen X emasculation in David Fincher’s most entertaining movie. Brad Pitt and Ed Norton are two sides of the same toxic coin, but tone is king here: the Dust Brothers’ chaotic, adrenaline-pumping soundtrack is the perfect background music for Norton’s sardonic, pissed-off narration. Seems it is ok to talk about Fight Club, on this list at least.

Free Fire (2016)

While Ben Wheatley now seems committed to big-budget projects like The Meg sequel, Free Fire is a more original project. The black comedy action film stars Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, and Cillian Murphy as a group entangled in an arms deal which results in a bloody shootout between two teams of people. Largely set within the confines of a single warehouse, it is a wild and raucous ride.

Gone Girl (2014)

The second thriller from David Fincher on this list is an adaptation of the 2012 bestselling novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, who adapted the book for the screen herself. Set in Missouri, Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), who turns out to not quite be the person everyone thinks she is. Pike puts in a powerhouse performance, as do Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the film’s biting score.

Heat (1995)

A dogged cop and a career criminal come to respect each other, and best of all they’re played by mob movie alums Al Pacino and Robert De Niro: finally facing off after their characters tragically could never appear together in the Godfather films. Michael Mann’s blood-pumping heist classic has been recently re-acclaimed as one of the genre’s greatest of all time, so it’s about time you watched its steely gray storytelling for yourself to find out why.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Watch on Prime Video

My favourite scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture-winning war drama is its denouement, where rattled sergeant Jeremy Renner returns to civilian life and stands, bewildered, in a supermarket aisle full of identical-looking products. But the whole film is impeccably crafted, with the knowledge that one wrong move could suddenly end the lives of characters we come to closely understand. An appropriately tough movie about a tough subject.

JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone’s epic biopic of President John F. Kennedy is often cited as one of the finest works of the genre. The film focuses on the president’s assassination in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, exploring an investigation carried out by district attorney Jim Garrison who believed that Oswald’s act was part of a broader conspiracy. While the theoretical aspect led to much controversy, it remains an interesting work of speculative fiction.

Focus (2015)

There are plenty of crime thrillers on NOW, but one of the most entertaining is Glenn Ficarra’s 2015 drama. Focus stars Will Smith as a career con artist who decides to show a younger woman (Margot Robbie) the ropes in his classy world of criminality, swindling an all-star supporting cast including BD Wong in a brilliantly suspenseful hustle at a football game. It all comes to a sinister head in the end, with twists and turns aplenty along the way.

The Handmaiden (2016)

There aren’t many non-Anglophone thrillers on Netflix, but amongst the handful available, The Handmaiden is surely the best. Directed by Park Chan-wook, the film translates the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters from Victorian Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule, with Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong among the cast. The film is also a fascinating exploration of sapphic desire and kink which drives its thrilling narrative.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Don Siegel’s 1956 adaptation of Jack Finney’s science-fiction novel The Body Snatchers is a melting pot of genre. The thrills come when an extraterrestrial invasion begins in the fictional California town of Santa Maria as large seed pods appear, containing clones of the inhabitants. One of the few films on NOW preserved by the Library of Congress, be sure to check out this classic alongside the more recent releases.

The Italian Job (1969)

Another great film in the suspenseful caper genre with some terrific Mini car-chase action is Peter Collinson’s 1969 classic The Italian Job. Michael Caine’s performance as Charlie Croker is one of the actor’s most iconic, leading a gang in a heist to steal a cache of gold bullion being transported through Turin. Co-starring Benny Hill and Noël Coward, and scored by Quincy Jones, the film will no doubt leave you hanging quite literally on the edge of your seat.

Killer Joe (2011)

The playwright Tracy Letts brilliantly brought the British in-yer-face theatre style to America with this darkly comic thriller which he adapted from his 1993 play. His 2011 adaptation was directed by William Friedkin, and stars Matthew McConaughey as a police detective with a side job as a contract killer. It’s a gripping story about the nitty-gritty of insurance-related crime, with supporting performances from Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, and Gina Gershon.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Many of the best thrillers pull from works of classic literature. For this psychological thriller, director Yorgos Lanthimos pulled from the ancient Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripedes to tell a chilling tale about a cardiac surgeon (Colin Farrell) who introduces a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan) to his aloof and repressed family. The film competed in the main competition at Cannes, and features a terrifyingly varied soundtrack of classical works including several by the great Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

Last Night in Soho (2020)

Another thriller from Edgar Wright is this polarising psychological horror co-penned with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The film spectacularly recreates Soho in its 1960s heyday, patronised by the likes of Cilla Black and playing host to James Bond premieres, while hiding a seedier underbelly. Featuring the final performance of Diana Rigg and terrific lead turns from Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, the film also features a soundtrack of sixties showstoppers.

The Lure (2015)

Some films defy genre classification altogether, although “thriller” certainly comes into the hybrid of horror and musical that is The Lure. Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, the Polish film is about two mermaids who perform for patrons in a nightclub, inspired by Smoczyńska’s own formative experience in a club. One of the mermaids falls in love with a man and chooses legs over her voice, a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Little Mermaid. It’s a very unique and mesmerising trip.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

All four Matrix films are available on NOW, but the latest instalment might just be the most thrilling. The first in the franchise to solely be directed by Lana Wachowski without her sister Lilly, the film revives the world of The Matrix with a more overt queer subtext than the last three films. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprise their roles as Neo and Trinity, showcasing developments in cinematic technology and stunning fight choreography.

Nightcrawler (2014)

For his 2014 thriller, writer and director Dan Gilroy turned to the life and work of stringers, or freelance news photographers. For this film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis “Lou” Bloom who spends night after night on the streets of Los Angeles filming violent events before selling the footage on to a local TV news station. It’s a stirring and disturbing film about the connection between unethical journalistic practices and the demand of consumers, blurring the lines between reality and fiction in its own production process.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

One of the more prestigious thrillers available on NOW is the Coen brothers’ 2007 Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men. The film is based on the 2005 novel of the same name by modern literary titan Cormac McCarthy, set in the desert landscape of West Texas in 1980. With a terrifying lead performance from Javier Bardem as hitman Anton Chigurh opposite Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, you’ll never look at a cattle gun the same way again.

Old (2021)

A master of suspense to some, oft mocked by others for his dramatic final twists, the films of M. Night Shyamalan are always unique. Adapted from a Swiss graphic novel entitled Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peters, Old follows a group of holiday-makers including Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps as they realise the beach they have found is rapidly ageing them. There’s a campiness to the set-up, and the much-anticipated twist doesn’t disappoint.

Panic Room (2002)

No library of thrillers would be complete without some David Fincher, and several of his films can be found on NOW. His 2002 film Panic Room is one of his greatest and most suspenseful, set largely within the title chamber where a mother and daughter played by Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart hide from a group of burglars who invade their home, played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam. Might need your own safe space after this one.

Pig (2021)

Pig-knapping might not seem like the most gripping premise for a thriller, but writer-director Michael Sarnoski crafts it into a gripping and heartbreaking tale. The film stars Nicolas Cage as a truffle hunter in Oregon who will do anything to save his cherished foraging pig after she is taken from him. With some of the most suspenseful conversations about restaurants ever committed to film, this 2021 drama is an indie treat. Just remember to bring tissues.

Prisoners (2013)

Denis Villeneuve has a remarkable grasp of tension, drawing the most thrilling aspects from the stories he tells. Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, focuses on the search for two girls who are abducted in Pennsylvania, and how one of their fathers takes the hunt into his own hands when the police fail to rescue them. The film has a remarkable cast of actors adept in the genre, including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano.

Scarface (1983)

Inspired by the 1932 Howard Hawks gangster classic, Brian De Palma updates the story to a contemporary crime drama about Cuban drug lord Toby Montana. Featuring a powerhouse performance from Al Pacino opposite Steven Bauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film uncovers the seedy underbelly of Miami drug culture with bloody effect. It also features an excellent original soundtrack composed by Giorgio Moroder.

Serpico (1973)

One of the most-celebrated thrillers available on NOW is this 1973 drama directed by Sidney Lumet and featuring a Golden Globe-winning performance from Al Pacino. He plays Frank Serpico, a real whistleblower who instigates the investigation of corruption within the New York City Police Department by the Knapp Commission. Of all the films starring Pacino on the streaming service, this is undoubtedly one of his finest performances.

Shutter Island (2009)

Netflix hosts a number of Martin Scorsese thrillers, with Shutter Island perhaps one of his lesser-known outings in the genre. Based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, Leonardo DiCapro plays Teddy Daniels, who investigates the titular psychiatric facility after a patient goes missing. Most chilling is the film’s classical soundtrack, ranging from Mahler and Penderecki to Ligeti, Cage, and Max Richter.

Side Effects (2013)

Steven Soderbergh is notable for his works across an array of genres, including several thrillers available to stream on NOW. One of his finest and lesser known is Side Effects from 2013, starring Rooney Mara as a woman prescribed experimental medication by psychiatrists played by Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s a tense look at the impact of placebos and real new drugs, with a stellar turn from Mara in the lead.


Spotlight (2015)

While Spotlight looks like standard true-crime fare, director Tom McCarthy managed to make an intense and compelling film. It follows The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team as they investigate reports of widespread child sex abuse in the Boston area by Catholic priests, taking on the power of the Church itself. It features an ensemble cast including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

There are few better writers of popular spy thrillers than British author John le Carré, among whose works The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the best. Released in 1965, the film adaptation was directed by Martin Ritt and stars Richard Burton as MI6 agent Alec Leamas, a faux defector tasked with soiling the reputation of an East German intelligence officer. It’s an essential precursor to later adaptations of Le Carré’s work.

There Will Be Blood (2008)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first collaboration with actor Daniel Day-Lewis is an epic and brooding adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. While Day-Lewis took the Oscar for Best Actor, it is his co-star Paul Dano who gives the most mesmerising performance as a priest attempting to reckon with the oilman upturning his way of life in Southern California. The film also features one of Jonny Greenwood’s first scores, a haunting soundscape which makes the film’s tension utterly unbearable.

A Time to Kill (1996)

John Grisham novels often make for a sturdy basis of pulpy American crime thrillers, and A Time to Kill is no exception. Directed by Joel Schumacher, who also directed the film adaptation of The Client, the legal drama stars Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Matthew McConaughey. The film was controversial for its depiction of laws surrounding the death penalty and the right to self-defence, making this a controversial but engaging thriller to seek out.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky is an English-language remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes. Penélope Cruz reprises her role from the original film alongside Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, and Kurt Russell in the story of a magazine publisher who awakes in an alternate reality after his lover kills herself. It’s a bizarre and perplexing film which has developed a stronger following in years after its release.

V for Vendetta (2005)

Brilliantly navigating the line between intense thriller and political satire, Lana and Lilly Wachowski created something unique with their adaption of the 1988 DC Vertigo Comics limited series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The film was the directorial debut of James McTeigue, and paired Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman in the lead roles of anarchists facing up to a totalitarian regime in the United Kingdom. It heralded much of The Wachowskis unsung post-Matrix work which is well worth a revisit.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Another adaptation of a thrilling best-seller, this time a novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin brought director Lynne Ramsay into the mainstream. It’s a tightly composed chamber piece, with a jaw-dropping central turn from Tilda Swinton as a crumbling matriarch struggling to maintain her marriage to a husband played by John C. Reilly, and to support her psychopathic son, played by Ezra Miller. The way it all falls apart will haunt you long afterwards.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers’s modern take on the folk genre is commonly classified as horror, but its slow-moving escalation of tension slots firmly into the thriller category of films. Set in the 1630s, the film centres on a Puritan family living on a New England farm when the eldest daughter, a formidable debut from Anya Taylor-Joy, becomes enchanted by the Devil. Helped by a groundbreaking score from Mark Korven, it will have you squirming at the edge of your seat.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

There are plenty of controversial thrillers on Netflix, and Zero Dark Thirty is no exception. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the film dramatises the hunt for Osama bin Laden by the CIA following the 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11. Jessica Chastain plays the fictional intelligence analyst Maya, with a supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, and Jennifer Ehle, as she discovers the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed on May 2 2011.