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The 5 best thrillers to watch on Netflix this January

Baby, it’s cold outside — so get your blood pumping with these great thrillers

Aubrey Plaza stares defiantly past the camera with a slight smirk on her face in Emily the Criminal Image: Vertical Entertainment

Greetings Polygonauts! Welcome to our regular roundup of the best thrillers to watch on Netflix, wherein the Polygon curation team dutifully combs through the library of the streaming service to bring you the good stuff.

What makes for a great January thriller? We’re smack-dab in the middle of winter, which means there’s equal amounts of frost, rain, hail, and chilly winds nipping at the backs of our necks as we try to bundle up. We’ve got apocalyptic android action fare, exhilarating racing dramas, thrilling heist epics, and riveting murder mysteries to get your blood pumping during this frigid month.

Here are some thrilling suggestions for your January viewing pleasure.

Den of Thieves

Gerard Butler as “Big Nick” O’Brien in Den of Thieves. He has a goatee and drives a car with two other men in it, all wearing tactical police garb. Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Year: 2018
Run time: 2h 20m
Director: Christian Gudegast
Cast: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr.

January’s been a great month to be a fan of Gerard Butler movies. The king of the January blockbuster is back with his most January movie yet, the extremely fun and exquisitely titled Plane. We talked to Butler and his co-star Mike Colter on how the action was filmed and what makes the movie so darn fun.

While you’re in the mood, why not check out arguably the best movie of Butler’s recent string of action outings? The 2018 heist movie Den of Thieves has been described by many (including myself) as “dirtbag Heat,” and with good reason. Like the classic Michael Mann heist movie, it’s set in LA, with a major bank-robbing showdown between cops and robbers. Like Heat, it has a sprawling cast — while not as prestigious as the likes of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, guys like Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson Jr. give their all. But the star of the show is Butler as the dirty, constantly drunk detective “Big Nick” O’Brien.

The directorial debut of former rap music video director Christian Gudegast, the movie features a pounding score by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, and is edited by frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Joel Cox. That brings a professionalism and sheen to this fun thrill ride, which helps elevate it to one of the most memorable heist thrillers of the post-Ocean’s era. Also, it came out five years ago this week, which means there truly is no better time to watch Den of Thieves. —Pete Volk

Emily the Criminal

Aubrey Plaza as Emily stands by her car trunk, glaring at a prospective buyer in Emily the Criminal Image: Vertical Entertainment

Year: 2022
Run time: 1h 37m
Director: John Patton Ford
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke

Emily the Criminal is not a thriller in the way that some others on this list are. The beauty of the thriller genre is that it encompasses everything from taut, brutal capers to horror movies; it’s about people surviving the apocalypse, psychological or otherwise. Emily the Criminal is on the smaller side of this, almost more pure drama. And yet it contains shades of every type of thriller narrative here, the genre at both its most remote and specific. As Emily descends into the criminal underworld to help alleviate the crushing burden of student loans, it’s at once a desperate power grab at the end of the world, a caper constantly threatening horrific consequences whether she succeeds or not. As Emily, Aubrey Plaza manages to find new shades of her persona, turning jadedness into a spiky suit of armor. In the past that might be played for laughs. But with Emily, there’s little hope for happy endings. All we can do is survive. —Zosha Millman


A woman in futuristic armor hides behind a concrete pillar holding a rifle. Image: Netflix

Year: 2022
Run time: 1h 38m
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Kim Hyun-joo, Kang Soo-yeon, Ryu Kyung-soo

We’re making a rare exception here, as we (ed. note: Pete and Toussaint) haven’t seen JUNG_E yet (but Polygon’s review dug it). But it’s the new sci-fi thriller from the director of Train to Busan, Psychokinesis, and Hellbound — all of them bangers. That makes it exceptionally easy to get excited about JUNG_E.

In JUNG_E, an AI researcher hopes to find an end to a postapocalyptic war by cloning a legendary mercenary into a robot. That mercenary? Her mom. Sign us the hell up. —PV

The Pale Blue Eye

Two men sit in a study room (Robert Duvall, Harry Melling) while a man stands with his hand resting on a table (Christian Bale). Photo: Scott Garfield/Netflix

Year: 2022
Run time: 2h 8m
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson

It’s January — which means it’s cold outside, at least for the heartland of North America (climate change-induced seasonal drift notwithstanding). You don’t need some regular-ass, perennial thriller to watch. Nah, you know what you need? A stone-cold, cruel-as-the-depths-of-winter-ass thriller. You’re gonna get that with the new gothic horror mystery from Antlers director Scott Cooper. Christian Bale stars as Augustus Landor, a retired (i.e., too old for this shit) detective who is hired to investigate a rash of brutal murders at the West Point military academy in New York. No one wants to help him; that is, with the sole exception of a skittish young cadet with a poetic disposition by the name of (DUN DUN DUN) Edgar Allan Poe. Doesn’t that sound cool (pun half-intended)? Hell yeah it does. —Toussaint Egan

From our review:

The movie doesn’t have much use for the most meta dimension to the story: the fact that the real Poe helped invent modern detective fiction. (Granted, leaning too hard on that idea could have been insufferable.) Cooper and Bale seem more comfortable with Landor’s brand of melancholy, informed by the absence of his wife and daughter, as well as some of the odd, unexpected pauses Bale takes in some of his line deliveries. At times, the movie feels like it’s having fun in spite of itself. So it’s perfect, in a way, that Edgar Allan Poe keeps turning up to jolt his own story back to life. —Jesse Hassenger


A race car careens along the curve of a race track as an adjacent race car crashes beside it. Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Year: 2013
Run time: 2h 3m
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde

We’re in the brief period between Formula 1 seasons (although Formula E just started, motorsport fans), and the fifth season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive docuseries premieres Feb. 24. What better way to pass the time than watching one of the best Formula 1 movies ever made?

Ron Howard (who most recently directed the underrated true story thriller Thirteen Lives) really delivered with Rush, a heart-pounding depiction of the excitement of motorsport and also a deep character study about the different kinds of personalities that can end up as top-tier athletes. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are excellent as racing legends James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Hemsworth perfectly embodying Hunt’s party-animal attitude while Brühl shines as the reserved, hyper-focused Lauda. It’s one of the best sports movies ever made, and there’s no better time to watch it. —PV