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Good Thriller Movies (2010-15): Money Changes Everything
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Good Thriller Movies (2010-15): Money Changes Everything

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Hope Madden itcherWhether in poverty-stricken backwoods Texas or the highest dollar neighborhoods in Norway, money lures people to do bad things. This is not new news; yet, somehow, filmmakers have been able to explore this tried-and-true principle to shape a modern landscape of indie thrillers that entertain, surprise, and sometimes disturb us. ~ Hope Madden

Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing

What is it about the promise of cash that causes people to make such horrifying decisions? There are those who know how to manipulate others with such a carrot to dangle, and those who find themselves tangled in unthinkable dilemmas based on little other than their own weakness when it comes to the lure of easy money.

The first years of this decade saw industry veterans pull together the skills they’d honed in various crafts to deliver accomplished, thrilling works, while newcomers made their mark on the genre.

However they got here, they’re all asking basically the same thing: what will you do for money, honey?

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Disturbing Thriller Movie Recommendations

‘Killer Joe’ (William Friedkin, 2011)

If you insult me again, I will cut your face off and wear it over my own…

William F. Friedkin, ladies and gentlemen. The director’s early career churned out the back-to-back classics ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist’ – two films that created a cinematic language in which all genre films are now fluent. But today, Friedkin offers something bold and nasty: ‘Killer Joe’.

Matthew McConaughey plays the titular killer, a predator in a cowboy hat making deals with some Texas white trash. The deal goes haywire and some crazy, mean, vividly depicted crap befalls those unthinking trailer folk.

Subdued, charming, merciless, weird, and oh-so-Southern, Joe scares the living hell out of any thinking person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really describe the Smiths – an exquisitely cast Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, and Gina Gershon.

Friedkin’s unparalleled knack for brutal action finds a perfect outlet in Tracy Letts’s screenplay, based on his stageplay. The two collaborated in 2006 on the tragically underseen ‘Bug’ (this film did not exactly set box office numbers ablaze), but you should definitely give it a shot.

Be forewarned, though. ‘Killer Joe’ is tough viewing. The darkest imaginable comedy, this is an ugly film about compromises, bad ideas, and bruised women. But it’s easily the best thing Friedkin has done since ‘The Exorcist’.

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‘Nightcrawler’ (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

That’s my job, that’s what I do, I’d like to think if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life…

I don’t know why it took so long to combine ‘Network,’ ‘Broadcast News,’ and ‘American Psycho,’ but ‘Nightcrawler’ is here now, so buckle up for a helluva ride. This is a mesmerizing film, propelled by a career-defining performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Years from now, his “Travis Bickle” may very well be Lou Bloom, a strangely polite, utterly driven man in search of a purpose.

He finds it via an old camcorder, which becomes his passage into the life of a freelance videographer in L.A. Yes, the film hits the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra and hits it hard, but doesn’t shrink from wondering just whom that indicts: the show or its audience?

As Lou’s sociopathic tendencies lead him to become more and more involved in the stories he’s covering, the film sharpens its satirical claws. Fear-mongering, class warfare, “bootstrap mentality” and more take a beating, with director Dan Gilroy showing great instincts for when to pull back before his hand becomes too heavy.

But the anchor here is Gyllenhaal’s can’t-look-away performance. He makes Lou Bloom an American psycho for today, unfazed by business cards but unable to tolerate anyone altering his plan for upward mobility. He’s all smiles and positivity, all the while analyzing your weaknesses, which he will unapologetically exploit when necessary.

***
‘Headhunters’ (Morten Tyldum, 2011)

Be sure to know everything about those you visit. Because each minute increases the chance of someone coming home unexpectedly…

Shortly into ‘Headhunters,’ you may want to assume that Roger Brown has let short-man-itis get the better of him. Don’t believe it.

Brown (Aksel Hennie) is Norway’s top corporate headhunter, and a man with expensive tastes. So expensive, in fact, that he moonlights as an art thief. But his new mark, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) – a handsome, tall, military tracker turned millionaire (in case the art wasn’t tempting enough) – has nefarious designs of his own.

Bloody, funny, and unpredictable, ‘Headhunters’ offers a lot. With criss-crossing cons – not to mention gunfire – timed perfectly with bursts of depraved humor, the film snags your attention and has you guessing from the opening heist. Morten Tyldum’s nimble direction keeps the humor dirty, the plot twisty, the blood spattering, and the pace at a sprint.

Hennie’s performance grabs you, almost against your will. Perhaps the least sympathetic character onscreen for the vast majority of the running time, you can’t root for him, but you also can’t look away. He’s unpleasant and fascinating in equal measure, and as his situation escalates, he becomes the perfect vehicle through the mayhem.

‘Headhunters’ is clever, nasty fun.

***
‘Kill List’ (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Sometimes God’s love can be hard to swallow…

Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in the genre-bending adventure, ‘Kill List.’

Hitman Jay (a volcanic Neil Maskell) is wary to take another job after the botched Kiev assignment, but his bank account is empty and his wife Shel (an also eruptive MyAnna Buring) has become vocally impatient about carrying the financial load. But this new gig proves to be seriously weird.

Without ever losing that gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities. The “What the hell is happening?” response to a film is rarely this satisfying.

Performances are disconcerting but well played. Michael Smiley, in particular, offers an outstanding supporting turn as the likeable mate. His longing, good nature and conflicted religious leanings make not only for an intriguing gun-for-hire, but also an emotional anchor for the film.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, ‘Kill List’ will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual thriller may find themselves saying thank you.

***
‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ (David Lowery, 2013)

Sir, I used to be the devil. Now I’m just a man…

The screen fills with the sepia image of a bygone Texas. Sinewy lovers quarrel and forgive, then wait in a pick-up, planning a future with their unborn baby, until the third robber arrives. There’s a chase, a lonesome shack, a shoot-out, and a compromise that sends the boy away to prison and the girl home to pine.

There’s good reason writer/director David Lowery’s romantic tragedy ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ feels so confident. The breathtaking cinematography, the fittingly artistic framing, the poetry of the language and image, the heartbreaking authority of the performances – each element fits together beautifully and benefits from the artistic coordination of a maestro. It’s because the relatively unknown Lowery has honed his craft, spending time as a casting director, crewman, writer, director, sound editor, actor, producer, and cinematographer before tackling this, that the culminating effort of a lifetime spent in film is presented spectacularly. 

He’s blessed with a cast that embraces his understated drama. Casey Affleck animates a career full of characters with vulnerability and confused nobility, and he impresses again here as the outlaw who breaks out of prison, just like he promised, to reunite with his girl and the daughter he’s never met.

Rooney Mara’s quiet ferocity offsets Affleck’s tenderness, and the love story they create offers a poignant center to the film. Orbiting the couple is Ben Foster’s humble police officer, torn by his affection for one and duty to the other. Each actor embodies an image of lonesomeness that makes the film ache. What’s beautiful about this triangle is that neither the characters nor the filmmaker judges anyone. Lowery and his characters accept, however sadly, the motivations and actions of all involved.

It’s a hell of an effort, and one that establishes Lowery as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in decades.

***

Everybody Has a Price

Want – it’s always been at the heart of a good thriller. Filmmakers made better use of this timeless motivational force during this period than in many others.

Joining the esteemed filmmakers on this list are the outstanding indie thrillers ‘Black Swan’ – Darren Aronofsky’s horror show about ambition and dance – as well as Refn’s exquisite follow up to ‘Bronson,’ ‘Drive’.

T. Sean Dunkirk mesmerized and terrified with ‘Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene,’ and Craig Zobel sucker punched us with the inescapable tension of ‘Compliance.’ Independent film released dozens of the most thought provoking, nail biting, jaw dropping thrillers the industry has ever seen. We can only hope the next five years are as fruitful.

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