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The best thrillers to watch on Netflix this January

Cold-blooded killers, vengeful salarymen, and twisty mysteries

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall aiming a pistol over the shoulder of a man in The Equalizer 3. Photo: Stefano Montesi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Greetings, Polygon readers!

It’s a whole new year, brimming with possibilities and exciting new releases on the near horizon. Naturally, that means there’s also a whole new batch of thrillers to watch on Netflix this month. We’ve pored over the streamer’s library and hand-picked the most chilling, thrilling, and seasonally appropriate movies for you to watch while bundled up at home.

This month’s picks include a quasi-slasher action-thriller starring Denzel Washington, a Korean revenge-thriller classic from Decision to Leave director Park Chan-wook, and an award-winning crime drama starring Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon. Here’s our list of the best thrillers to watch on Netflix in January.


Editor’s pick: The Equalizer 3

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall holding a knife in The Equalizer 3. Image: Columbia Pictures

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, David Denman

What if a revenge thriller, but filmed like a slasher?

That’s the basic sell for The Equalizer 3, the first all-the-way-good movie in the otherwise fun Denzel Washington action franchise. The movie opens by walking you through a house littered with bodies, staged in a way where it seems like Michael Myers came through, only to reveal a calm Robert McCall (Washington) waiting on the other side of the carnage.

This continues throughout: Director Antoine Fuqua and legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson make great use of light and shadow to play up how terrifying McCall is (if you get on the wrong side of him). And Denzel, naturally, is more than up for the task, outclassing many of his peers in the burgeoning “completely unstoppable badass” genre by scaring the absolute piss out of his foes.

The story’s compelling, too: McCall has settled in a quiet town in Italy, where he’s been embraced by the community and has started to find some semblance of peace. The Mafia has other ideas, however, and McCall has to step in to set things straight for his newfound home.

As a bonus, the movie reunites Denzel with his Man on Fire co-star Dakota Fanning. And if The Equalizer 3 gets you to watch that great movie again (Man on Fire is streaming on Max), that’s just a two-for-one. —Pete Volk


Oldboy

Choi Min-sik as Dae-su Oh holding a gagged man hostage with a knife and hammer in Oldboy. Image: NEON

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung

To say that Oldboy was a watershed moment for Korean cinema’s global reach would be an understatement. The critical and commercial success of Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller, which earned the Grand Prix award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and earned over $15 million worldwide at the box office, paved the way for the international success of movies and shows like Parasite and Squid Game. The film was recently re-released in theaters with a 4K restoration in honor of its 20th anniversary, and with its recent addition to Netflix’s library, now is as perfect a time as any to experience this modern classic.

An electrifying blend of Hitchcockian horror, Fincher-esque violence, and a devastating finale worthy of a Greek tragedy, Oldboy is one of the most important thrillers of the early 2000s. If you somehow haven’t seen it already, you absolutely should. —Toussaint Egan

Mystic River

Sean Penn as Jimmy Markum being held back by a group of police officers in Mystic River. Image: Warner Home Video

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon

In Clint Eastwood’s 2003 crime drama, tragedy begets tragedy. Mystic River follows the story of three men: Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), a police officer whose pregnant wife has mysteriously left him; James “Jimmy” Markum (Sean Penn), an ex-con and neighborhood store owner; and David Boyle (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar father haunted by his experience of being abducted as a child.

When James’ daughter is found dead, the investigation brings the lives of these three men together as secrets, lies, and unprocessed trauma come to a boiling point. Both Penn and Robbins won Oscars for their respective performances, but the truth is that nearly everyone delivers a terrific performance in this film. What stood out the most to me during my latest rewatch is how unresolved grief metastasizes into misunderstanding, how an inability to communicate creates barriers within a community that eventually tear it apart from the inside. In other words: tragedy begetting tragedy. —TE

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