A good movie experience is nothing without the puzzles, mysteries, and action-packed sequences to keep your brain working and your heart racing. Crime thrillers or detective films give these elements justice.
These movies evoke different emotions. They can motivate you to solve mysteries on your own and frustrate you at the same time. Their storylines can be quite a challenge to follow, although they too can be engaging and engrossing.
Detective films hook us for various reasons. It could be the plot twists, the nature of the investigation, or the personalities of the characters involved. We get wrapped up with every new lead, new red herring, or possible new casualties. The anticipation to see a case solved compels us to finish an entire run regardless if there may be any weakness in the storytelling.
These films can be fictional or based on true accounts. Regardless, plenty of detective movies have left an impression among viewers whether it’s because of the unpredictable plot or the charismatic lead, or both. And below are some of those films that have left an impressive mark on cinema.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The FBI is on the hunt for a serial killer whose gruesome method involves skinning the victims’ corpses, mostly women. Clarice Starling, a trainee, is asked to get into the mind of the killer through one of its own.
She questions the once-revered psychiatrist and self-confessed cannibal Hannibal Lecter, who’s been in jail for 8 years. However, in order to crack the case and find clues about the killer’s identity, Clarice must first learn to gain Hannibal’s trust even if it means opening up to him emotionally.
Hannibal is a master manipulator. Clarice must tread carefully and match his wits if she wants to succeed and not fall under his trap.
Anthony Hopkins is a master at his craft and his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is one for history books. His calculative, menacing character sparks fear and authority even behind bars.
This film is a gripping and disturbing detective thriller through and through. It hooks you with bated breath as you watch Clarice interact with a madman in her desire to solve the case and gain the respect of her male FBI counterparts.
Director: Jonathan Demme – Screenplay: Ted Tally – Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Scott Glenn, Brooke Smith – Run Time: 1h 58m
This neo-noir crime thriller follows the trail of a hunt for a serial killer who patterns his gruesome murders on the seven deadly sins. The victims are killed accordingly: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath.
Two detectives team up to track and put the elusive “John Doe” behind bars. With the bodies piling up, they must put a face to the killer and capture him before it’s too late. However, the cunning serial killer outwits them in the end.
This star-studded detective film never sways from the plot. It is well-written and engaging all throughout.
The suspense, drama, and action are smartly interwoven to create an unpredictable story with a surprising twist. It starts out as a cat-and-mouse chase detective story that quickly turns into a modern-myth about good vs. evil.
Director: David Fincher – Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker – Cast: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cassini, Daniel Zacapa – Run Time: 2h 7m
The Departed (2006)
A remake of the 2002 Hongkong film Internal Affairs, this crime thriller infiltrates the world of Irish-American organized crime. It is a spy film wrought in a disaster of epic proportions.
Two men play according to their parts for the sake of intel: one infiltrates a mob run by Frank Costello and the other the state police. They become deeply consumed by their double lives as they share information one after the other.
However, they soon realize that they are treading on dangerous grounds when a third mole threatens to expose their identities. Trust and friendship become a risk as each man race against each other to uncover the identity of the third spy.
Martin Scorsese never fails to grip viewers with this movie’s intense storyline and unpredictable plot. This detective film is riddled with twists and turns that you never know just how it ends.
As with other spy movies, The Departed needs a keen and meticulous eye in order to keep abreast with the double crosses and to distinguish one character from the other. Regardless, the crazy action sequences can very well make up for the confusion.
Director: Martin Scorsese – Screenplay: William Monahan, Alan Mak – Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson – Run Time: 2h 31m
The film revolves around Leonard (Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator who suffers from short-term memory loss approximately every five minutes. On top of that, a past trauma renders him unable to form new memories.
He uses Polaroid photos and tattoos to remember things. The last memory he has is of his wife’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) murder and this urges him to embark on a quest to find her killer.
As with other Christopher Nolan films (Inception, Insomnia), Memento messes up with your mind. It makes you pay attention to every detail, conversation, and happening to be able to understand the story and the protagonist’s plight.
This detective film noir is a psychological thriller told in two separate storylines. One story moves forward in time and told in colors. Meanwhile, the other tells events backward and emphasized in black and white. The two sequences meet at the end of the movie to produce one cohesive timeline or narrative.
This filmmaking style makes you want to solve the mystery yourself. It makes you share Leonard’s disability to remember, thus it urges you to think hard and well in order to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder.
Director: Christopher Nolan – Screenplay: Christopher Nolan – Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Stephen Tobolowsky – Run Time: 1h 53m
How far will you go to protect the ones you love? This question surrounds the story of Keller Dover, a father who would do anything to save his family.
Keller (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when his 6-year-old daughter and her friend go missing. While the police continue their search for the abductor, the loving father risks his life to find the girls.
The worried Keller is moved beyond desperation to save the girls before time runs out. He breaks the law, holds a suspect captive, and uses physical violence to extract the truth. All the while, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) works tirelessly to confirm his suspicions.
The film’s dark and gloomy atmosphere evoke an eerie mood of suspense and tension. Though the storytelling moves at a slow pace, the performance of the brilliant casts is sufficient enough to heighten the drama and mystery and engage the audience.
Director: Denis Villeneuve – Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski – Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano- Run Time: 2h 33m
The identity of the 1970s Zodiac killer is one of America’s greatest mysteries and the murders remain one of the country’s most infamous unsolved cases. David Fincher though puts a face to the serial killer in this crime thriller that focuses on the people involved in the investigation.
The film is based on Robert Graysmith’s book and tells the story of the detectives and reporters who become obsessed with finding the Zodiac killer. As the bodies pile up, they become more involved with the case to the detriment of their personal lives and careers.
At over three hours long, some may find this movie too long but it’s not without its purpose. The storytelling is properly paced as to provide intricate details about the case and dig deep into each character’s story.
Meanwhile, the tension and suspense never falter. You are drawn into the investigation as each person involved tries to expose the truth about the Zodiac killer.
Director: David Fincher – Screenplay: James Vanderbilt – Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox – Run Time: 2h 37m
Mystic River (2003)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, this movie compels an ominous brooding about a crime in the present that has ties to a troubling event in the past. It follows three former childhood friends whose lives clash following a family tragedy.
Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are now grown men with families. Their friendship is put to the test when Jimmy’s daughter Katie is found murdered.
Sean, a homicide detective, takes charge of finding the killer. However, in order to find the truth, Sean must confront demons from the past and the present.
Meanwhile, Dave returns home on the night of the murder in a suspicious state and his wife starts to doubt his true nature. Soon he becomes the primary suspect in Katie’s murder.
Mystic River is dark and filled with tension even as the investigation comes to its conclusion. This film is more than just a murder mystery. It also explores the boundaries of friendship, loyalty, and moral grounds. It begs to answer the question of how far you will go to seek justice.
Director: Clint Eastwood – Screenplay: Brian Helgeland – Cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gray Harden, Laura Linney, Emmy Rossum, Robert Wahlberg – Run Time: 2h 18m
This American thriller follows David Kim (John Cho) and his desperate attempts to find his missing teenage daughter. With the hours ticking by, the anxious father searches for clues about her disappearance in the least likely of places.
David looks through his daughter Margot’s laptop and what he discovers there opens his eyes to the realities of the online world. He also learns about her secrets and comes to a realization about his misgivings as a father.
This film has all the right twists and turns to tell a gripping story about a father’s love for his child and a daughter’s apprehensions. The narrative is told through the tense, fast-paced world of online technology, where everything and everyone may not be who or what they seem.
Screenwatching literally becomes a medium in the investigation. Meanwhile, webcams and Google searches become a detective’s weapon in this intense and emotionally compelling film.
Director: Aneesh Chaganty – Screenplay: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian – Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, Sara Sohn, Michelle La – Run Time: 1h 42m
Shutter Island (2010)
The disappearance of a murderess from an asylum brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck to a remote island. Daniels, a WWII veteran, suspects something sinister is going on in the institution.
He fears for the lives of the patients especially those who committed heinous crimes and housed in Ward C. The longer Teddy stays on the island the more he becomes obsessed with finding the truth.
However, complications arise when his past catches up to him in the most surprising way. He’s left with no choice but to face his personal demons.
This twisted psychological thriller starts out as a basic detective film. But the plot only gets bigger and complex as the story progresses. The mystery also becomes distinct as you watch the investigation slowly unfold to a surprising conclusion.
Director: Martin Scorsese – Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis – Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Max von Sydow – Run Time: 2h 18m
L.A. Confidential (1997)
This neo-noir crime thriller became Guy Pearce and Kurt Russell’s ticket to Hollywood stardom. The film was a massive success and paved the way for better film opportunities for the then-relatively unknown Australian actors.
The movie is set in 1950s Los Angles and follows three cops who are as different as night and day. They seek justice and the truth in their own style.
One is willing to break the law, the other cares more for celebrity status, and another is willing to do almost anything just to climb the ladder. However, they are forced to set aside their differences and cooperate in order to investigate a series of murders.
L.A. Confidential lives up to its title with its thought-provoking and intriguing plot. The narrative is so complex: the secret alliances and double crosses. There are just enough twists to keep you guessing until the end.
This film gives you no reason to side with anyone since there is no antagonist or protagonist to distinguish from. The characters are potential villains in their own story.
Director: Curtis Hanson – Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson – Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin, Matt McCoy, Paul Guilfoyle, Paolo Seganti – Run Time: 2h 18m
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
In his directorial debut, Ben Affleck tells the story about a search for a missing girl from a Boston neighborhood. The little girl’s aunt takes a different approach and hires two private detectives who have little experience with missing people cases.
Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are not cops but they know the harsh realities surrounding their neighborhood better than the police do. Patrick has connections to criminal Boston that comes handy in the investigation.
In order to solve the case, the pair must deal with drug mules and child molesters. In the process, they uncover a web of corruption that threatens to jeopardize their investigation. And just when they are about to close the case, they are forced to make a hard decision that could have personal ramifications for everyone involved.
The movie has an unpredictable plot and comes with just the right amount of tension to keep your heart racing. The mystery lingers and keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.
Director: Ben Affleck – Screenplay: Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard – Cast: Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver – Run Time: 1h 54m
The Girl on the Train (2016)
It’s best to stay on the safe side if you know that you can’t hold your liquor. Apparently, though, our main lead in this film allows intoxication to lead her dull, meaningless life, to the detriment of her own sanity.
Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic and still reeling in the aftermath of her divorce. Every day she rides the train that passes by her old neighborhood and fixates on the lives of her ex-husband and his new wife and their sexy neighbor Megan.
Had it not for this daily routine, she wouldn’t have gotten herself involved in a murder mystery for which she believes she is at fault. Megan is found dead and Rachel starts to doubt her capacity to commit murder when she wakes up from an alcohol blackout covered in bruises and blood.
As with every commute Rachel takes, this movie takes you on a road of mixed emotions, suspicions, and guesses. Just when you thought you have the murderer figured out, the plot takes you on a different path and opens another possibility. This movie manages to keep up the suspense, mystery, and tension until the very end.
Director: Tate Taylor – Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson – Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramírez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow – Run Time: 1h 52m
Along Came A Spider (2001)
This movie adaptation of James Patterson’s novel of the same name follows Detective Alex Cross as he returns to police work following the death of his partner from a sting operation. He is drawn into another investigation after the kidnapper requests to deal with him personally.
Alex (Morgan Freeman) puts his emotions on the backseat when entrusted to find the kidnapped daughter of a senator. Together with US Secret Service Special Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), they follow breadcrumbs of clues purposely left by the perpetrator.
However, deception rules in this cat-and-mouse chase and the detective eventually learns that there’s more that goes on than he initially thought. He doesn’t realize the truth until the very end.
This movie may suffer from a few loopholes in storytelling, but it is nevertheless engaging and thought-provoking. It does what a good crime thriller does: it keeps your heart racing and your brain guessing.
Director: Lee Tamahori – Screenplay: Marc Moss – Cast: Morgan Freeman, Michael Wincott, Monica Potter, Dylan Baker, Anton Yelchin, Mika Boorem, Billy Burke, Michael Moriarty – Run Time: 1h 44m
Kiss The Girls (1997)
Based on James Patterson’s 1995 novel of the same name, this American neo-noir thriller puts detective and forensic psychologist Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) on a search for his niece Naomi. The police say she is the latest victim in a series of missing girl cases.
Alex learns from the cops that a man who calls himself Casanova abducts strong-willed women and forces them to succumb to his demands. He then kills them.
The detective becomes more anxious as the body count increases. When Kate, (Ashley Judd) one of the victims escapes, she helps Alex search for his niece and capture the perpetrator. The search leads them to Los Angeles, where similar someone called “The Gentleman Caller” commits similar crimes.
This movie perks your interest in the identity of both perpetrators. The plot could benefit from a few tweaks and divert from the usual twist, but the mystery nonetheless keeps you invested in the search.
Director: Gary Fleder – Screenplay: David Klass – Cast: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Cary Elwes, Alex McArthur, Jay O. Sanders, Tony Goldwyn, Jeremy Piven, Brian Cox – Run Time: 1h 55m
Prior to entering the world of sci-fi, action, and dark comedy, Rian Johnson started out with the mystery genre, specifically with Brick. This detective film basically launched his career and catapulted him to Hollywood society.
The story takes place in a Californian suburb with high school students as the main characters. The focus is on Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is on a mission to avenge his ex-girlfriend Emily’s death. He still holds feelings for her and so he becomes consumed with finding her killer.
Prior to her death, Emily left Brendan 2 words “brick” and “pin,” which lead him into the underworld of a high school crime ring. In order to uncover the mystery of her death, he must work with a group of drug dealers, which naturally, results in a few fistfights and troubles along the way.
This film relies heavily on dialogues to drive the story forward. This may seem tedious for some who prefers actions to words, but Johnson makes sure the conversations are smart and engaging to grip viewers until the credits roll.
Director: Rian Johnson – Screenplay: Rian Johnson – Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Emilie de Ravin, Nora Zehetner, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary – Run Time: 1h 50m
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
This Hollywood film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel of the same name follows disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he investigates the disappearance of Harriet, the niece of wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) 40 years ago.
Harriet is believed to be dead although her body is never found and there’s no trace of her anywhere. Suspicion lies on the Vanger family themselves.
Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a hacker with poor social skills who may be harboring secrets of her own. The pair dives into the investigation to uncover the truth and what they find involves past Nazi connections and an immense corruption beyond their wild imaginings.
As with other David Fincher films, this movie is chilling and haunting. Fincher uses dark moods and utilizes scenery to heighten the suspense and tension. This film though is character-driven. Viewers will be very much invested in Blomkvist and Salander’s story all throughout.
Director: David Fincher – Screenplay: Steven Zaillian – Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Donald Sumpter – Run Time: 2h 38m
Two homicide detectives investigate murders on a small Alaskan town. One involves a teenage girl while the other a detective.
Will Dormer (Al Pacino) accidentally kills his partner while apprehending a suspect and gets away with the crime with the perfect alibi. However, his guilt torments him senseless and disrupts his work and sleep. Making matters worse is the suspect who lures him into a game of cat-and-mouse.
Meanwhile, local police Ellie Burr investigates the death of detective Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), Dormer’s partner. Events escalate as each detective goes about uncovering the truth.
This film is a smart and well-constructed thriller that keeps you guessing from the start. It proves that memories can be treacherous when it comes to seeking the truth and that guilt can heavily influence our way of life.
Director: Christopher Nolan – Screenplay: Hillary Seitz, Nikolaj Frobenius – Cast: Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, Martin Donovan, Paul Dooley, Jay Brazeau, Larry Holden, Lorne Cardinal, James Hutson, Nicky Katt– Run Time: 2h 38m
The Bone Collector (1999)
Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie star in this psychological thriller based on the crime novel of the same title by Jeffery Deaver. Washington plays the quadriplegic ex-homicide detective Lincoln Rhyme who joins forces with Jolie’s patrol cop Amelia Donaghy in the hunt for a serial killer.
New York is threatened with the presence of a murderer who leaves clues to every crime scene: a piece of bone and a scrap of paper. The culprit masquerades as a taxi driver and kills his victims in particularly sadistic methods.
Donaghy and Rhyme’s investigation leads them to an old crime novel called The Bone Collector. The killer eventually makes his presence known in the most unexpected way.
Director: Phillip Noyce – Screenplay: Jeremy Iacone – Cast: Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah, Michael Rooker, Michael McGlone, Ed O’Neill, Luis Guzmán, Bobby Cannavale, Leland Orser, Richard Zeman – Run Time: 1h 58m
Red Dragon (2002)
In this prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (2001), retired FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) is on his last criminal case. He is tasked to investigate the murders of two families every full moon.
Graham comes out of retirement in order to help solve the series of grisly murders committed by someone called the Tooth Fairy (Ralph Fiennes). With the next full moon coming in three weeks, he wastes no time in uncovering the truth.
However, Graham believes that the best way to capture the killer is to get inside his mind. To do so, he must confront his past and face his former nemesis. Graham must probe the equally brilliant and twisted mind of the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter, the very person who convinced him to go into retirement.
This film had some wonderful performances from a stellar cast and some chilling moments to entice viewers. Some scenes may be too scary and violent but not too much as to turn heads away.
Director: Brett Ratner – Screenplay: Ted Tally – Cast: Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ken Leung, Anthony Heald – Run Time: 2h 4m
Source Code (2011)
This film treads between science fiction and action crime thriller. It explores the magnitude of the human brain and its capacity to function under extreme circumstances.
The narrative focuses on Army Captain Colter Stevens, who is on a mission to disable a bomb on a Chicago commuter train. He is also tasked to identify the bomber to prevent subsequent threats.
There’s a catch though. He can only do so in a span of eight minutes and in the guise of a different person. Stevens relives the incident repeatedly while gathering clues each time. He eventually learns the disturbing truth and one that he’s willing to contest and reaffirm for the sake of love.
This film keeps you on the edge of your seat each time you watch the protagonist relive the train incident over and over again. It keeps you emotionally-invested in Stevens’ quest especially when you see the heartbreaking truth about his physical state.
Director: Duncan Jones – Screenplay: Ben Ripley – Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Russell Peters, Cas Anvar, Brent Skagford – Run Time: 2h 4m