Director Guillermo del Toro once described suspense as being about the withholding of information: either a character knows something the audience doesn’t know, or the audience knows something the character doesn’t. That’s a deliciously simple way of describing something that some filmmakers often find difficult to achieve: keeping viewers on the edges of their seats.
The best thrillers leave us scanning the screen with anticipation. They invite us to guess what happens next, but then delight in thwarting expectations. We can all name the great thriller filmmakers of the past – Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Brian De Palma – but what about the current crop of directors? Here’s our pick of the filmmakers who’ve made some great modern thrillers this decade – that is, between the year 2010 and the present.
Jeremy Saulnier – Blue Ruin, Green Room
To think there was once a time when Jeremy Saulnier was seriously quitting the film business.
“To be honest,” Saulner told us back in 2014, “Macon and I had really given up on our quest to break into the industry and become legitimate filmmakers. So what we were trying to do with Blue Ruin was archive our 20 year arc and bring it to a close. Really just revisit our stomping grounds and use locations that were near and dear to us and build a narrative out of that.”
Maybe this personal touch explains at least partly why Blue Ruin wound up getting so much attention in Cannes in 2013, signalling not the end of Saulnier and his star Macon Blair’s career, but a brand new chapter. But then again, there’s more than just hand-crafted intimacy in Saulnier’s revenge tale; there’s also its lean, minimal storytelling and the brilliance of its characterisation. Blue Ruin is such an effective thriller because its protagonist is so atypical: sad-eyed, inexperienced with guns, somewhat soft around the edges, Macon Blair’s central character is far from your typical righteous avenger.
Green Room, which got a general release in the UK in 2016, explores a similar clash between very ordinary people and extraordinary violence. A young punk band shout about anarchy and aggression on stage, but they quickly find themselves out of their depth when they’re cornered by a group of bloodthirsty neo-Nazis. In Saulnier’s films, grubby, unseemly locations are matched by often beautiful locked-off shots. Familiar thriller trappings are contrasted by twists of fortune that are often shocking.
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049
Here’s one of those directors who can pack an overwhelming sense of dread into a single image: in Sicario, his searing drug-war thriller from last year, it was the sight of tiny specks of dust falling in the light scything through a window. That single shot proved to be the calm before the storm, as Villeneuve unleashed a salvo of blood-curdling events: an attempted FBI raid on a building gone horribly awry. And this, I think, is the brilliance of Villeneuve’s direction, and why he’s so good at directing thrillers like Sicario or 2013’s superb Prisoners – he understands the rhythm of storytelling, and how scenes of quiet can generate almost unbearable tension.
Another case in point: the highway sequence in Sicario, where Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is stuck in a traffic jam outside one of the most violent cities in the world. Villeneueve makes us feel the stifling heat and the claustrophobia; something nasty’s going to happen, we know that – but it’s the sense of anticipation which makes for such an unforgettable scene.
Prisoners hews closely to the template of a modern mystery thriller, but it’s once again enriched by Villeneuve’s expert pacing and the performances he gets out of his actors. Hugh Jackman’s seldom been better as a father on the hunt for his missing child, while Jake Gyllenhaal mesmerises as a cop scarred by his own private traumas.
In elevated sci-fi Arrival Villeneuve imagines what first contact might really look like, building tension and even terror from what to humans is the unimaginable. In Blade Runner 2049 he upends the sci-fi noir weaving a mystery that upfolds for the audience just moments ahead of our protagonist, throwing us into the action. His next will be the remake of Dune and we can only imagine what this sandbox will allow him to achieve.
Lynne Ramsay – We Need To Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here
Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin may be the most effective psychological thriller of recent years. About the difficult relationship between a mother (Tilda Swinton) and her distant, possibly sociopathic son (Ezra Miller), Ramsay’s film is masterfully told from beginning to end – which is impressive, given that the source novel by Lionel Shriver is told via a series of letters. Ramsay takes the raw material from the book and crafts something cinematic and highly disturbing: a study of guilt, sorrow and recrimination. Tension bubbles even in casual conversations around the dinner table. Miller is an eerie, cold-eyed blank. Swinton is peerless. One scene, in which Swinton’s mother comes home in the dead of night, is unforgettable.
Her follow up You Were Never Really Here (2017) is a blistering noir in the vein of Taxi Driver which saw Joaquix Phoenix star as a traumatised ex-military guy turned private investigator specialising in missing kids. It’s a bleak character study and a mesmerising descent into hell peppered in PSTD nightmares, a thriller that’s more disturbing than out and out thrilling and all the more tense and accomplished for it.
Morten Tyldum – Headhunters, Passengers
All kinds of thrillers have emerged from Scandinavia over the past few years, whether on the large or small screen or in book form. Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters is among the very best of them. The fast-paced and deliriously funny story of an art thief who steals a painting from the wrong guy, Headhunters launched Tyldum on an international stage – Alan Turing drama The Imitation Game followed, and the Sony sci-fi film Passengers came next (it might have had some problems with it’s politics but the strange nightmare of being stuck for eternity in space with a stranger was pretty palpable). It isn’t hard to see why: Headhunters shows off Tyldum’s mastery of pace and tone, as his pulp tale hurtles from intense chase scenes to laugh-out-loud black comedy.
Joel Edgerton – The Gift
Granted, Joel Edgerton’s better known as an actor, having turned in some superb performances in the likes of Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty and Warror. But with a single film – The Gift, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in – Edgerton established himself as a thriller filmmaker of real promise. About a successful, happily married couple whose lives are greatly affected by an old face from the husband’s past, The Gift is an engrossing, unsettling movie with superb performances from Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as well as Edgerton.
A riff on the ‘killer in our midst’ thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s – The Stepfather, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and so on – The Gift is all the more effective because of its restraint. We’re never quite sure who the villain of the piece is, at least at first – and Edgerton’s use of the camera leaves us wrong-footed at every turn. The world arguably needs more thrillers from Joel Edgerton.
If you haven’t seen The Gift yet, we’d urge you to track it down.
David Michod – Animal Kingdom
The criminals at play in this true-life crime thriller are all the more chilling because they’re so mundane – a bunch of low-level thieves, murderers and gangsters who prowl around the rougher parts of Melbourne, Australia. Writer-director David Michod spent years developing Animal Kingdom, and it was worth the effort: it’s an intense, engrossing film, for sure, but it’s also a believable glimpse of the worst of human nature. Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver play villains of different kinds; the latter a manipulative grandmother who looks over her brood of criminals, the former a spiteful thief. Crafting moments of incredible tension from simple exchanges, Michod launched himself as a formidable talent with this feature debut.
His follow up, The Rover, was a strange but effective dystopian road movie (or sorts), while comedy drama War Machine was a change of pace – Michod’s proven himself as a director to watch but Animal Kingdom will be a tough debut to top.
Ben Affleck – The Town, Argo
Affleck’s period drama-thriller Argo won all kinds of awards, but we’d argue his earlier thrillers were equally well made. Gone Baby Gone was a confident debut and an economical adaptation of Dennis LeHane’s novel. The Town, released in 2010, was a heist thriller that made the most of its Boston setting. One of its key scenes – a bank robbery in which the thieves wear a range of bizarre outfits, including a nun’s habit – is masterfully staged. He may have passed on directing and starring in The Batman but Warner’s loss could be our gain if Affleck returns to smart, character-driven thrillers like these.
Anton Corbijn – The American, A Most Wanted Man
The quiet, almost meditative tone of Anton Corbijn’s movies mean they aren’t necessarily to everyone’s taste, but they’re visually arresting and almost seductive in their rhythm and attention to detail. Already a celebrated photographer, Corbijn successfully crossed over into filmmaking with Control, an exquisitely-made drama about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn took a markedly different direction with The American, a thriller about an ageing contract killer (George Clooney) who hides out in a small Italian town west of Rome. Inevitably, trouble eventually comes calling.
Corbijn’s direction remains gripping because he doesn’t give us huge action scenes to puncture the tension. We can sense the capacity for violence coiled up beneath the hitman’s calm exterior, and Corbijn makes sure we only see rare flashes of that toughness – right up until the superbly-staged climax.
A Most Wanted Man, based on the novel by John le Carre, is a similarly astute study of an isolated yet fascinating character – in this instance, the world-weary German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann, brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tragically, the film proved to be one of the last before Hoffman’s death in 2014.
Paul Greengrass – Green Zone, Captain Phillips
Mention Greengrass’ name, and the director’s frequent use of handheld cameras might immediately spring to mind. But time and again, Greengrass has proved a master of his own personal approach – you only have to look at the muddled, migraine-inducing films of his imitators to see how good a director Greengrass is. Part of the filmmakers’ visual language rather than a gimmick, Greengrass’ camera placement puts the viewer in the middle of the story, whether it’s an amnesiac agent on the run (his Bourne films) or on a hijacked aircraft (the harrowing United 93). While not a huge hit, Green Zone was an intense and intelligent thriller set in occupied Iraq. The acclaimed Captain Phillips, meanwhile, was a perfect showcase for Greengrass’ ability to fuse realism and suspense; the true story of a merchant vessel hijacked by Somali pirates, it is, to quote Greengrass himself, “a contemporary crime story.”
John Hillcoat – Lawless, Triple 9
We can’t help thinking that, with a better marketing push behind it, Triple 9 could have been a much bigger hit. It has a great cast – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus, Anthony Mackie and Aaron Paul as a group of seasoned thieves, Kate Winslet cast against type as a gangland boss – and its heist plot rattles along like an express train.
Hillcoat seems to have the western genre pulsing through his veins, and he excels at creating worlds that are desolate and all-enveloping, whether his subjects are period pieces (The Proposition, Lawless) or post-apocalyptic dramas (The Road). Triple 9 sees Hillcoat make an urban western that is both classic noir and entirely contemporary; his use of real cops and residents around the film’s Atlanta location give his heightened story a grounding that is believable in the moment. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the scene in which Casey Affleck’s cop breaches a building while hunkered down behind a bullet-proof shield. Hillcoat places us right there in the scene with Affleck and the cops sneaking into the building behind him; we sense the claustrophobia and vulnerability.
Hillcoat explained to us in an interview that this sequence wasn’t initially written this way in the original script; it changed when the director and his team discovered how real-world cops protect themselves in real-world situations. In Triple 9, research and great filmmaking combine to make an unforgettably intense thriller.
Jim Mickel – Cold In July
Seemingly inspired by such neo-Noir thrillers as Red Rock West and Blood Simple, 2014‘s Cold In July is a genre gem from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are). Michael C Hall plays an ordinary guy in ’80s America who shoots an intruder who breaks into his home, and becomes drawn into a moody conspiracy that takes in crooked cops, porn and a private eye (who’s also keen pig-rearer) played by Don Johnson. Constantly shifting between tones, Mickel’s thriller refuses to stick to genre expectations. In one scene, after Hall shoots the burglar dead, Mickel’s camera lingers over the protagonist as he cleans up the blood and glass. It’s touches like these that make Cold In July far more than a typical thriller.
Martin Scorsese – Shutter Island
As a filmmaker, Scorsese needs no introduction. As a director of thrillers, he’s in a class of his own: from Taxi Driver via the febrile remake of Cape Fear to the sorely underrated Bringing Out The Dead, his films are full of suspense and the threat of violence. Shutter Island, based on the Dennis LeHane novel of the same name, saw Scorsese plunge eagerly into neo-noir territory. A murder mystery set in a mental institution on the titular Shutter Island, its atmosphere is thick with menace. Like a combination of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Adrian Lyne’s cult classic Jacob’s Ladder, Shutter Island’s one of those stories where we never know who we can trust – even the protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
David Fincher – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl
After the trial by fire that was Alien 3, David Fincher found his footing in the ’90s with such hits as Seven and The Game. In an era where thrillers were in much greater abundance, from the middling to the very good, Seven in particular stood out as a genre classic: smartly written, disturbing, repulsive and yet captivating to look at all at once. Fincher’s affinity for weaving atmospheric thrillers continued into the 2010s, first with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a superb retelling of Stieg Larsson’s book which didn’t quite find the appreciative audience deserved, and Gone Girl, an even better movie which – thankfully – became a hit.
Based on Gillian Flynn’s novel (and adapted by the author herself), Gone Girl is both a gripping thriller and a thoroughly twisted relationship drama. Fincher’s mastery of the genre is all here: his millimetre-perfect composition, seamless touches of CGI and subtle yet effective uses of colour and shadow. While not a straight-up masterpiece like the period thriller Zodiac, Gone Girl is still a glossy, smart and blackly funny yarn in the Hitchcock tradition. If there’s one master of the modern thriller currently working, it has to be Fincher.