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Good Thriller Movies (2000-05): Pushing Envelopes

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Hope Madden itcherAs the new millennium dawned, filmmakers continued to find thrills in some of the most traditional subjects, like vengeance and nature. But what they managed to do with these topics was to subvert expectation, infuse dark comedy or startling realism, and come out the other end bloodier and wilder, but not necessarily better. ~ Hope Madden

Provocative Stories Shockingly Told

Whether looking ahead, examining the modern world that most would choose to ignore, or casting an eye back toward our past, filmmakers took their inspiration to shocking, even upsetting new levels.

The great Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park released the second in his “Sympathy Trilogy,” while Brit veteran Stephen Frears explored London’s underbelly. Newcomer Chris Kentis exerted absolute control and caused a splash, while veteran actor turned director Bill “We’re Toast! Game Over!” Paxton delivered a beautifully nuanced, utterly surprising serial killer flick.

It was also a good time to look backwards, as Mary Harron did, mercilessly skewering the “greed is good” Reagan era with perhaps the most abundantly talented cast assembled that decade.

It was an exceptional time for thrillers, especially indies. Here are a few worth remembering.


Compelling Thriller Movie Recommendations

‘Oldboy’ (Chan-wook Park, 2003)

You want to torture me, but I can simply kill myself first. Do you want revenge, or do you want the truth?

So a guy passes out after a hard night of drinking. It’s his daughter’s birthday, and that helps us see that the guy is a dick. He wakes up a prisoner in a weird, apartment-like cell. Here, he stays for years and years.

The guy is Min-sik Choi, and no actor alive can take a beating like him. The film is ‘Oldboy,’ director Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece of subversive brutality and serious wrongdoing.

This is not a horror film in any traditional sense – not even in South Korean cinema’s extreme sense. Though it was embraced – and rightly so – by horror circles, this is a refreshing and compelling take on the revenge fantasy that takes you places you do not expect to go. But that’s the magnificence of Chan-wook Park, and if you have the stomach, you should follow where he leads.

Min-sik Choi takes you with him through a brutal, original, startling and difficult-to-watch mystery. You will want to look away, but don’t do it! What you witness will no doubt shake and disturb you, but missing it would be the bigger mistake.

‘Frailty’ (Bill Paxton, 2001)

He can make me dig this stupid hole, but he can’t make me pray…

Aah, adolescence. We all bristle against our dads’ sense of morality and discipline, right? Well, some have a tougher time of it than others.

‘Frailty’ manages to subvert expectations by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer ‘God’s Hand’ by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with director Bill Paxton’s character as a father.

Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity of whether this man is insane – and therefore, his good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior would be profoundly damaging his boys – or if he really is chosen by God.

Brent Hanley’s sly screenplay evokes such nostalgic familiarity – down to a Dukes of Hazzard reference – and Paxton’s direction makes you feel entirely comfortable in these common surroundings. Then the two of them upend everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if they’ve challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.

‘Dirty Pretty Things’ (Stephen Frears, 2002)

There’s nothing more dangerous than a virtuous man…

There’s nasty business afoot in a West London hotel in ‘Dirty Pretty Things,’ a gritty thriller by director Stephen Frears (‘Dangerous Liaisons’). It’s more than a foot, actually; it’s a heart, and it’s stopping up the toilet in room 515 and wrecking the life of Okwe (a characteristically brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor), an illegal immigrant who works the hotel’s front desk and is, quite possibly, the last honorable man in London.

The film is about more than disposable body parts; it’s about disposable people. Frears revisits favorite themes of life on the social fringes, focusing on the nearly invisible and highly exploited population of refugees and illegal immigrants in modern London.

Frears reminds us again of what he is capable of evoking with his unflinching eye and spare use of music, building tension and foreboding mercilessly. The camera is not unkind, but treats its subject entirely without glamour. As he slowly unravels the bizarre mystery, he traps the audience along with the characters in filthy backrooms and sweatshops, allowing us all the small bursts of beauty that might keep a person sane amidst all this filth. 

The film builds tension beautifully and develops a sense of mystery and foreboding that keeps you guessing as Frears keeps you ready to shield your eyes. It’s far more dirty than it is pretty, but either way, it’s worth watching.

‘Open Water’ (Chris Kentis, 2003)

Other people go on vacation and spend their days just laying around. We have a story we’re going to be telling for the rest of our lives…

A couple on vacation (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) books a trip on a crowded, touristy scuba boat. Once in the water, they swim off on their own – they’re really a little too accomplished to hang with the tourists. And then, when they emerge from the depths, they realize the boat is gone. It’s just empty water in every direction.

Now, sharks aren’t an immediate threat, right? I mean, tourist scuba boats don’t just drop you off in shark-infested waters. But the longer you drift, the later it gets, who knows what will happen?

In 2003, young filmmaker Chris Kentis’s first foray into terror is unerringly realistic and, therefore, deeply disturbing. From the true events that inspired it to one unreasonably recognizable married couple, from superbly accurate dialog to actual sharks, ‘Open Water’s greatest strength is its unsettling authenticity. 

Every element benefits from Chris Kentis’s control of the project. Writer, director, cinematographer and editor, Kentis clarifies his conception for this relentless film, and it is devastating.

‘American Psycho’ (Mary Harron, 2000)

I think if you stay, something bad will happen. I think I might hurt you. You don’t want to get hurt, do you?

A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the 80s, ‘American Psycho’ represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but there’s more here than superficial flash. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as Bateman’s smitten secretary, or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost call out to them: Look behind you!

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy.

It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.


Smaller Budget, Bigger Thrills

While Hollywood tried hard and failed with flops like ‘The 6th Day,’ ‘Hollow Man,’ and ‘Reindeer Games,’ independent filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Glazer were redefining the genre with their masterpieces ‘Memento’ and ‘Sexy Beast.’

It was a ripe period for independent filmmakers; particularly those working in the thriller genre, and that tide would carry these modern mavericks well into the new millennium.

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