Cinema is the perfect art form to tell psychological thriller stories. Movies are immersive experiences that can allow viewers to understand or feel the sorts of emotions that fictional characters are going through on screen. When there's a combination of great filmmaking, strong acting, and expert writing, it's easy to forget you're watching a movie sometimes, and this can make film one of the most engrossing mediums out there.
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When a psychological thriller gets all these things right, it's a genre that can allow audiences to see the world in an entirely different light. The following movies all put viewers in the shoes of characters who are tortured, challenged, or simply struggling with some kind of emotional burden. They may not be easy watches all the time, but they are ultimately empathetic, immersive and compelling looks at characters who struggle with identity, personal feelings and sometimes even telling what's real and what isn't.
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1 'Decision to Leave' (2022)
Decision to Leave combines a variety of genres and tones to create one of 2022's boldest and most unpredictable movies. It follows a detective investigating a mysterious death, and despite the deceased's man's wife being a suspect, he begins to harbor feelings for her that throw his life into chaos.
With crime, mystery, thriller and romance elements all thrown together into one movie, Decision to Leave is a dizzying and intentionally disorientating film. Given the main character is torn between so many different thoughts and emotions, the chaotic story and variety of tones reflect his psychological state well. It's a complex movie with an intricate narrative and heavy themes, making it one of the most intense psychological thrillers in recent memory.
2 'Shutter Island' (2010)
Though Martin Scorsese is best known for his mob movies (and, in recent years, speaking out against the MCU), he's excelled at making non-crime movies, too. Shutter Island is evidence of this, as it's a psychological thriller/drama about a U.S. Marshal losing his grip on reality whilst investigating the disappearance of a patient from a high-security psychiatric hospital.
Things start simple enough, but the film gets progressively stranger and more twist-filled as it goes along. It's an unpredictable movie where every time the protagonist gets blindsided or shocked, the audience feels it too, making it a truly immersive mystery/thriller film.
3 'The Trial' (1962)
Orson Welles will always be most well-known for directing, writing, and starring in Citizen Kane, but that 1941 classic is far from Welles' only great movie. Case in point is The Trial, which captures the nightmarish writing of famed author Franz Kafka on film better than just about any other movie released either before or since.
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It follows a hapless and incredibly unlucky man named Josef K., who one day finds himself arrested for a crime he's sure he didn't commit. Worst of all, no one seems willing - or able - to tell him what the crime actually was. It's a nightmarish and consistently gripping film, and succeeds at immersing viewers in the story and making them feel the dread and horror that The Trial's main character does.
4 'Possession' (1981)
Few horror films from the 1980s are as unsettling as Possession, which was once considered so shocking it was temporarily banned in the UK. It follows a couple whose marriage is falling apart in a damaging, sometimes violent manner, with both husband and wife descending into madness due to the waking nightmare that their lives have become.
Viewers won't likely want to find themselves experiencing what the characters in Possession feel, but the film takes its audience on that harrowing journey regardless. Beyond being an effective horror movie, it's also one of the most intense movies ever made about a relationship breakdown, making it a difficult - yet undeniably impactful - watch.
5 'The Batman' (2022)
The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is often shown as a tortured, broken man, but rarely to the extent seen in 2022's The Batman. It's a superhero movie that emphasizes character drama and the psychological toll of being a vigilante over action scenes, with a slow pace and fewer fight sequences/explosions than you might expect.
It's an approach that works wonderfully though, with the character arc given to Bruce Wayne over the film's nearly three-hour runtime being a powerfully emotional one. It's ultimately more hopeful than most psychological thrillers, but certainly goes deeper into the tortured mind of Bruce Wayne/Batman than most Batman films go.
6 'Vertigo' (1958)
Considered by some to be Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo is a methodically-paced mystery film that's heavy on intrigue and psychological drama. It follows a detective who takes on a private investigation for an old friend, and ends up getting incredibly involved with the case, with it eventually consuming his life.
It's an incredibly dark (and sometimes uncomfortable) look at love, desire and obsession, and easily one of the most striking thrillers from the 1950s. It still feels impactful and haunting to this date, and does an eerily good job of presenting its protagonist's gradual descent into paranoia.
7 'Brazil' (1985)
Brazil is a 143-minute-long nightmare that you can't wake up from until the end credits roll. You might not want to, given it's an imaginative and darkly funny look at a future society that's been ruined by technology and bureaucracy, but its intensity and relentless pacing do make it an intentionally exhausting watch in many ways.
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Its protagonist, Sam Lowry, is flawed, yet still unfairly treated by the world around him, plagued with bad luck that gets him in one unfortunate situation after another. Few movies sustain the feeling of a particularly anxious cinematic fever dream for as long as Brazil does, making it just as effective a psychological thriller as it is a darkly comedic work of science-fiction.
8 'Last Night in Soho' (2021)
While Baby Driver represented a partial shift away from comedy for filmmaker Edgar Wright, it still had a lightweight, comedic edge to many of its scenes. Wright's follow-up, Last Night in Soho, hardly had any comedic relief, and was instead a surprisingly intense psychological thriller/horror movie about a young girl who finds herself inexplicably able to travel back to London during the 1960s.
It's light on horror at first, but does become increasingly suspenseful and tense as it goes along. It reveals the dark side of a time in history that's often viewed through rose-tinted glasses, and works as a psychological thriller by showing how learning the truth about London at this time affects the film's protagonist. Wright proved himself to be a fairly good horror director with Last Night in Soho, and time will tell whether it ends up being a genre he returns to again.
9 'Donnie Darko' (2001)
One of the definitive cult classics of the 2000s, Donnie Darko follows a teenager whose life becomes increasingly bizarre after he narrowly avoids dying in an accident. He begins to experience mysterious visions that change his behavior and outlook on life drastically, with strange consequences unfolding because of his actions and newfound psychological state.
Donnie Darko's well-known for being a perplexing and intense movie that's nevertheless enjoyable to watch, thanks to the interesting characters, memorable dialogue and excellent 1980s soundtrack. It's surprisingly accessible, considering its surreal visuals and sometimes confounding narrative, making it a good entry point for viewers who want to explore the psychological thriller genre.
10 'Taxi Driver' (1976)
An uncomfortable and dark movie anchored by a fiercely committed performance from Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver follows one of the most well-known - and tortured - protagonists in film history: Travis Bickle. He's an ex-Vietnam War veteran who feels alienated from the world and lives with insomnia, leading him to begin working as a taxi driver in New York City, meeting a wide array of different people in the process.
Through its visuals, lead performance and frequent use of introspective narration, Taxi Driver is a strikingly effective character study. Travis Bickle is a flawed and often morally questionable individual, particularly when he begins to lash out at society in the film's second half. Despite this, the film wants viewers to understand Bickle; not necessarily like him or agree with his outlook on life, but see where he's coming from, and get a sense of why he becomes compelled to do certain things. This makes Taxi Driver a difficult and often anxious watch, but it remains a remarkably compelling and uncompromising film, and one of Martin Scorsese's very best directorial efforts.
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