It sometimes seems like true cinematic thrillers have gone out of fashion lately. Perhaps the genre has been taken over by television and true crime documentaries. Those are great, but sometimes you want a suspenseful, fictional story in two hours or less. Luckily, HBO Max has a ton of thrilling movies for you to watch or rewatch as many times as you want. The following entries represent just a small sampling of thrillers the streaming service currently has to offer.
If you’re looking for more movies to keep you in suspense, check out our rundown of the 25 Best Thrillers of the 21st Century.
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen and Joel Cohen
Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh
Blood Simple was the world’s introduction to the Coen Brothers, and they come out the gate swinging. The film has all their hallmarks, already formed. Its characters are dumb, but likable folks who get in over their heads and run directly into disaster. Even this early on, the Coens display a great eye for detail and ear for dialog. The film is a pleasure just to listen to. And also, there is all that crazy Coen violence, which can be funny and horrifying at the same time. On top of all that, the film boasts a super early Frances McDormand performance as well.
The Devil’s Advocate
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writers: Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Craig T. Nelson
Why did it take Hollywood so long to make a movie where Al Pacino plays the devil? And he’s a lawyer? Sounds like a perfect movie. And you know what? It’s pretty darn close. The Devil’s Advocate actually tells the story of Keanu Reeves’ Kevin Lomax, a Florida attorney who gets a job working for Al Pacino. But, as we already know, Al Pacino is the devil in this movie, so it’s all about whether Lomax gives up his morals to join him or does the right thing. It’s actually a little bit more complicated than that, but no spoilers. And does it even matter? You come to this movie for Al Pacino’s gigantic performance as Satan and Keanu Reeves’ delightful take on a Southern accent. And when it comes to those two things, the movie delivers in a big way. The rest is just gravy.
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Cast: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. McGinley
Or Se7en, if you prefer. More than anything, you come to Seven for the yucks. The film, though it doesn’t actually show you much, is disgusting. It tells the story of a serial killer who murders his victims in accordance with the seven deadly sins. He does this with great aplomb and creativity. Maybe too much creativity. His efforts are hounded by an old school cop (Morgan Freeman) and a young hotshot (Brad Pitt), neither of whom really make much headway in catching the bad guy. The film is scary and grimy, looks gorgeous and has a great soundtrack, and if you don’t already know how it all ends, consider yourself lucky for the experience you still have ahead of you.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Robert Towne
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston
Chinatown remains one of cinema’s gold standard screenplays for a reason. It’s a detective story filled with twists that adhere to genre tropes but also twists that definitely challenge expectations. And at the center of it all, a classic Jack Nicholson performance at the top of his game. Like a lot of detective stories, Chinatown keeps adding layers to its story until it becomes hard to remember what thread you’re even following at the moment and yet it stays consistently entertaining throughout. If you want a really wild night, pair it up with Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen
Reservoir Dogs put Quentin Tarantino on that map, and even if he hadn’t blown the world away with Pulp Fiction or his amazing films to follow, we’d probably still remember his name just from this movie alone. All the elements are so perfect. That cast, the location, the needle-drops, the non-chronological storytelling, the violence… it’s shocking this was someone’s first movie, and yet it’s small enough that it would have to be. We remember it more now for its humor and famous ear torture scene, but Reservoir Dogs has a solid line of dread running through it from the beginning to the bitter end. Even the opening Madonna discussion has that scary moment when Mr. Pink reveals he won’t tip.
The Lady Vanishes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty
HBO Max has a lot of older Alfred Hitchcock films from his black and white, pre-Hollywood, spy era. They are all pretty good, but among them, The Lady Vanishes is extra special. The film focuses on a train ride during which one passenger, a nice old lady, has seemingly ceased to exist. It’s up to a duo of travelers to solve the mystery. Face it, there’s nothing better than watching people solve a seemingly impossible puzzle while onboard a train. It also helps that the conclusion ends up being worth the wait conceptually and super fun as well.
Dog Day Afternoon
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Frank Pierson
Cast: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, Penelope Allen, James Broderick, Lance Henriksen
Dog Day Afternoon offers so many different kinds of entertainment. On the surface, it’s a tense story of a bank robbery turned into a media event. But it’s also very funny and tragic. Furthermore, it’s a great New York film. Al Pacino’s central performance drives the film, but Dog Day Afternoon also offers us one of our precious few John Cazale performances, and on top of that there are many great character actors who appear in the film. For extra fun, when the film ends you can go on Wikipedia and read all about the real-life events that inspired it.
Director/Writer: Brian De Palma
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn, Peter Coyote, Gregg Henry
Is Brian De Palma the king of suspense? It’s hard to say, but he’s definitely the king of cinematic set-pieces that celebrate the artifice of filmmaking while also illustrating its dynamic possibilities. He’s truly one of the greats and Femme Fatale will probably remain his last big successful outing. The film is an erotic thriller but explaining the plot is not something that can be done in half a paragraph. Suffice to say, Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas are very good looking and get up to all kinds of shenanigans. The film is endlessly entertaining, all building up to a twist ending so ridiculous you just have to love it.
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: William Goldman
Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan
Artists have to appreciate the fans who support them, but it’s also okay if they do so from afar. That’s the general moral of this story about a crazed fan who captures her favorite author after he suffers a horrific car accident. In a move that definitely predicted the internet, she keeps the author locked up until he writes a sequel to her favorite book series. She also has to approve the storytelling decisions. When he acts up, she punishes him severely. You probably already know how she goes about that as it’s one of the film’s most famous moments. Misery is terrifying. From the fan’s perspective, though, it is something of a love story.
The Little Things
Director/Writer: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer
Do you ever revisit ‘90s thrillers and say to yourself “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to?” If so, you might be interested in The Little Things, which is literally a script from the ‘90s made into a feature film today. Like some ‘90s thrillers, it even stars Denzel Washington. The film focuses on two cops (Washington and Rami Malek) who are hunting down a serial killer. Jared Leto is also in it as their main suspect, but surely that casting is too obvious for him to be the killer? Or is it? This was written in the ‘90s after all. All joking aside, it’s always worth watching Denzel Washington do his thing and this newer film is no exception.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: David Peoples and Janet Peoples
Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
It’s possible that watching 12 Monkeys these days might hit too close to home. It is, after all, set in a future where humanity has been wiped out by a virus. Nevertheless, the performances and storytelling here are too good to pass up. It’s one of Brad Pitt’s first roles where he really gets to put aside his pretty-boy persona and freak out. Meanwhile, it’s one of Bruce Willis’ better quiet performances. This is a time travel movie, which makes it more science fiction than anything, but the dreadful suspense is pronounced enough to count it as a thriller. Will Bruce Willis be able to save the world from annihilation? He’s usually pretty good at that, but this is not your average film.
No Country for Old Men
Directors/Writers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
If you see a suitcase full of money, leave it alone. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) doesn’t heed this advice and now we have No Country for Old Men, a film featuring one of the most terrifying hitmen of all time in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. All these years later, the Coen Brothers are still obsessed with lovable idiots who get in over their heads. But they are seasoned pros by this point and it really shows in this film, which contains strong humor and heavy themes, but also hits you over the head with suspense and bloodshed.
Director/Writer: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Mark Pellegrino
Mulholland Drive takes David Lynch’s penchant for dream logic to a whole new level, but the heartbreak and loneliness that drives its central story cuts through all the logical questions the film inspires. And it’s also occasionally horrifying. The film does make sense, by the way, and once you’re done watching it, you get to spend the whole next day reading articles and watching YouTube videos breaking down the entire story, which is fun in its own, special way. Or you could just live with the mystery as David Lynch intended. Either way, Mulholland Drive is a thriller everyone should experience at least once. But probably twice.
Director/Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
There’s just so much going on in Jordan Peele’s second film, Us, the story of a middle-class family on vacation who gets invaded by their own doppelgängers. The film is, of course, about a lot more than that, but the synopsis will suffice for those who haven’t yet seen this suspenseful meditation on class and privilege in America. Like Peele’s first film, Get Out, Us uses its high concept to probe deeper issues, but also like Get Out, it is entirely effective as a thrilling piece of cinema. From scene to scene, you’ll never know where the film is going to go next.
The Wages of Fear
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Writers: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérome Geronimi
Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter Van Eyck
One of the classic thrillers, The Wages of Fear offers a very simple premise. For desperate men must drive highly sensitive truckloads of nitroglycerine 300 miles over treacherous terrain. The trip is worth too much money to refuse, but just a couple good bumps will cause their payload to explode, killing them in a ball of fire. To call the film tense does it a disservice. Every mile these guys drive could be their last, and if you think an uneven dirt road filled with potholes is the worst they come up against, you haven’t seen enough movies. This was later remade by the great William Friedkin as Sorcerer in the 1970s. Together they make for a truly white-knuckled double feature.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Lukas Heller
Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett
A macabre story of sibling rivalry unlike any other, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stars Bette Davis as Jane, the older sister to Joan Crawford’s Blanche. Jane was a child star who fell out of fashion while her sister’s career took off. Now, many years later, Jane takes a lifetime of anger and jealousy out on her wheelchair-bound sister. The film has long become a camp classic somewhat overshadowed by the on-set rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still scary. Bette Davis’ manic makeup alone is likely to keep you up at night.
Our handy, extensive guide is updated weekly with all-new picks.
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