“Genre” is a nebulous concept, and no genre is as nebulous as the thriller. What one viewer may deem too scary, planting it firmly in the realm of horror, might not even raise the heart rate of another viewer. For the purposes of this curating a few brilliant thrillers, we’re defining one as anything fast-paced, psychologically intense, and/or mysterious, but not overtly scary or violent.
Whether you’re too scared to watch horror movies or are looking for something to get your pulse racing that isn’t going to give you nightmares, we’ve rounded up our favorite thrillers that you can currently stream, from classics like David Fincher’s Zodiac to overlooked gems like Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor.
There’s nothing inherently frightening about Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Rather, the film ramps up a feeling of dread as Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a listless aspiring novelist, reunites with a childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Through her, he’s introduced to the affluent Ben (Steven Yeun), who becomes an object of both curiosity and jealousy for Jong-su. Strange details abound, such as the fact that Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s on a trip, and Jong-su finds no trace of a cat at her apartment. When Hae-mi suddenly disappears, things only get stranger. —Karen Han
Burning is streaming on Netflix.
Darren Aronofsky’s trippy thriller about a New York Ballet Company production of Swan Lake is psychologically and visually intense. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a shy, ambitious ballerina who convinces the company’s artistic director to cast her in the lead role, the Swan Queen. Nina strikes up a friendship-slash-rivalry with a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), but soon starts to hallucinate an evil doppelganger, and finds unexplained injuries on her body. Aronofsky is known for drawing disturbing, ambiguous allegories in his films, and Portman’s portrayal of an artist destroying herself for perfection is one of his tightest metaphors to date. —Emily Heller
Black Swan is streaming on Hulu.
Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller about a Elon Musk-type tech CEO, Nathan Bateman, (Oscar Isaac) who invites an employee, Caleb Smith, (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct a Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a new AI he developed, is one of those movies that you want to rewatch immediately after the credits roll. It’s mesmerizing to watch Nathan, Caleb, and Ava manipulate each other, especially as Caleb starts to learn more about Nathan’s plans to wipe Ava’s memory and “upgrade” her after she passes Caleb’s test. (Hint: if you’re squeamish, look away when Caleb picks up a razor.) Science fiction has been exploring humanity’s hubris in creating artificial intelligence since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein created the genre, but Garland’s take on the modern Prometheus is a sleek update for the smartphone era. —EH
Ex Machina is streaming on Netflix.
The Game is full of so many twists and turns — and twists of those turns and turns of those twists — that it might make your head spin. A successful, yet lonesome businessman Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is gifted a personalized “real-life game” by his estranged brother, who promises it’ll change his life. The titular game begins pretty harmlessly, but then starts to grow increasingly more personal, delving into his inner demons and repressed memories. But it’s all just for fun, isn’t it? Nothing is real? Or is it? — Petrana Radulovic
The Game is streaming on Hulu.
Joel Egerton wrote, directed, and stars in The Gift, a psychological thriller about a couple, Simon and Robyn Callem (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who randomly run into one of Simon’s old school buddies, Gordo (played by Egerton). Though he seems friendly, Simon tells Robyn that Gordo is making him uncomfortable. Gordo stops by the Callem’s house unannounced while Robyn is alone, bringing specifically thoughtful gifts like koi for their fishless pond. A later twist reveals why Simon and Gordo are acting so strange, but near the end of the movie Egerton adds another layer of deception on top of that one, playing with the cliches of the genre while delivering a satisfying twist ending. —EH
The Gift is streaming on Netflix.
A Quiet Place
John Krasinski’s movie about a family defending themselves from armored monsters with hypersensitive hearing is billed as a horror movie, but if my mom can watch it, so can you. —EH
A Quiet Place is streaming on Hulu.
John Cho stars as a father investigating his teenage daughter’s disappearance in Searching. That title is a double entendre — the movie takes place entirely through a computer screen (i.e. he’s searching for his daughter and searching on the web). The gimmick is an update on the found footage format (also used to great effect in the underrated 2014 horror, Unfriended), and could easily get old. But Searching never loses its momentum, thanks in large part to Cho’s super-expressive face, which manages to convey grief, anger, frustration, and hope through a “webcam.”
Searching is streaming on Hulu.
A Simple Favor
Who said thrillers can’t be funny? Director Paul Feig is best known for his work in comedy (Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks), but A Simple Favor walks a fine line between black comedy and campy drama. Based on a 2017 novel, A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a mommy blogger who befriends the stylish (she wears so many incredible suits!) and mysterious Emily (Blake Lively). When Emily goes missing, Stephanie becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to her and starts to suspect Emily’s husband, Sean, even though she’s sleeping with him. Though A Simple Favor obviously has fun with some Gone Girl-style tropes, it’s more homage than satire. —EH
A Simple Favor is streaming on Hulu.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Starring young Matt Damon and Jude Law as con artist Tom Ripley and trust fund kid Dickie Greenleaf, The Talented Mr. Ripley adapts Patricia Highsmith’s suspenseful novel of the same name. When Tom is mistaken for one of Dickie’s friends from college, he quickly inserts himself into Dickie’s life of leisure. But when their relationship — and repressed attraction — turns sour, Tom murders Dickie and begins impersonating him. As Netflix’s queer-focused Twitter account said in a 24-tweet thread about the film, “The Talented Mr. Ripley is the ultimate psychological thriller about boyfriend twins, gay villainy, and the ramifications of suppressed queer desire.” —EH
The Talented Mr. Ripley is streaming on Netflix.
Based on the book by Robert Graysmith (and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the author himself), Zodiac recounts the search for the infamous “Zodiac Killer.” The film follows Graysmith as he becomes more and more obsessed with the investigation, and co-stars Mark Ruffalo as proto-Columbo Dave Toschi, and Robert Downey Jr. as the journalist Paul Avery. The real-life case remains unsolved, and the film — mildly spicy take incoming — remains David Fincher’s best film.
Zodiac is streaming on Netflix.