Four Psychological Thrillers You Must See Before You Die

One of the most challenging and dubious task for a thriller is to present the viewer with a disturbing fact that pushes the characters to their limits physically, morally, and psychologically.

Played out sometimes in a non-linear fashion, some psychological thrillers are purposely meant to disorientate the audience and mirror the revolutions going on in the protagonists’ head as they frantically try to figure out what has happened and track down those that are responsible. Psychological thriller is in fact a complex – if still quite nasty – study of the nature of love, revenge and the inner recesses of the mind. Check-out these four psychological thrillers:

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

One of those that merges meticulously into horror, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is an astonishingly tight, atmospheric thriller, one that takes the thought of an unthinkable event (later mirrored in The Omen) and amplifies the terror surrounding it, creating one of the most disquieting films in the canon in the process. Elevated into greatness mostly through Polanski’s virtuoso direction (something he would later perfect in Chinatown), Rosemary’s Baby is helped immeasurably by a scattergun star performance from Mia Farrow as the titular Rosemary, whose growing paranoia about the fate of her baby begins to control her life.

The Shining (1980)

Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation is regularly cited as as one of the most iconic films ever made, and it’s true that the picture is chock-full of famous film moments: “Here’s Johnny”; “Red Rum”; the flood of blood pouring out of the elevator; “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”; the closing shot, which confounds our comprehension of the ending. One of the most influential horror films of all time, the film is also an exhausting psychological thriller, both in the dramatic drop in Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) sanity, and in the audiences understanding of it. Notable also for its troubling shoot, in which Kubrick well and truly put his stars (Shelley Duvall, who plays Wendy Torrance, in particular) through the proverbial wringer, The Shining is a true classic of the genre, and the emotions it conjures – excitement, confusion, fear, even hate – are the byproduct of a film essential to a list like this.

Insomnia (1997)

Darker and weirder than the Nolan remake (a fine film in its own right), Insomnia is the quintessential Scandinavian psychological thriller. Insomnia is an early example of Scandinavian Noir, and the film that more than most helped pave the way towards the now prominent genre. Starring Stellan Skarsgård as a troubled cop who begins to suffer from the title infliction in a town with a 24-hour daylight cycle, the film is a clever inversion of the typical Noir trappings, with night becoming light but proceedings staying just as shady. Part police-procedural, part character study, Insomnia is a detached and chilling affair, something amplified by its icy, unforgiving setting and by Skarsgård’s opaque, almost characterless performance. The film also inverts the traditional cop vs. killer scenario, with the killer actually discovering the cop’s crimes and misdeeds to turn the story on its head.

The Pledge (2001)

Sean Penn’s The Pledge is an underseen, undervalued film, a masterwork were it not for one or two odd directing choices. Some meagre faults aside, The Pledge is magnificent, with Nicholson playing a cop convinced a child-murder case he worked on wasn’t solved, despite the ‘killer’ confessing before killing himself. Obsessed by his idea, and driven by the pledge he made to the girl’s mother, Nicholson’s Jerry Black concocts a plan to find the real killer, which ends up lasting years to send Black spiraling into madness. A film deserving of a bigger fan-base, The Pledge should be regarded as a classic, not only in the realm of psychological thrillers, but in general, too. The closing scene, which sees a virtually insane Nicholson muttering to himself years down the line – his clothes dusty, the garage he bought early on in the film derelict – is a devastating portrait of a man driven to madness by his obsession. (It hasn’t been mentioned anywhere that I can find, but The Pledge is a definite influence on Prisoners, both in their tales of young girls gone missing and in the aforementioned prisoner-suicide scenes, which are nearly identical.)

That’s all folks!

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