Thrillers are some of the most popular movies ever made, giving audiences suspense and action with some cool twists and memorable characters. Like most genres, the men dominate the leads, but that’s not to say the women haven’t made an impact. This list proves it.
DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula STARS: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington
Let's kick this list off with a performance that was a bit unexpected. To this point, Julia Roberts was mostly a rom-com star, a queen of the genre in fact, and yet here she makes a dramatic leap into thrillers with great results. Playing university law student Darby Shaw, who writes a paper with a theory as to why two Supreme Court Justices have been murdered, she finds herself on the same assassination list, forced into hiding to stay alive. She partners up with reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) and the two take on a conspiracy that goes all the way to the White House. A well-directed film, Roberts is right on the mark, creating an intelligent, fast-thinking character that evolves from the naive lover of a college professor to a powerful, system disrupting force that changes the course of history. She ain't just a pretty woman.
Double Jeopardy (1999)
DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford STARS: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones
Murder isn't always a crime. So says the promotional tag for this popular thriller about a patient, vengeful woman. The story follows Libby (Ashley Judd), a wealthy wife living the dream, or so the thinks. While out on their yacht one day, she wakes up to find her husband Nick Parsons (Bruce Greenwood) gone but his blood all over her body and a knife in her hands when the Coast Guard happen to roll up. Sent to prison, she then suspects Nick might have faked his own death. She learns of the double jeopardy clause in the judicial system and so sets out to get released and find a way to make this right and get back her son. Do not mess with a woman scorned.
Single White Female (1992)
DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder STARS: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Now we're getting steamy. This erotic thriller was on everyone's lips when it released, and had men everywhere checking their dates for look-a-likes with stiletto heels. Starring Bridget Fonda as Allie, she is a computer software designer living a comfortable life, though is enraged when she discovers her fiancé is cheating. Now alone, she rents out space to a roommate, a charming but lonely woman named Hedra "Hedy" Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two hit it off until Hedy becomes jealous over Allie's weakness in letting her fiancé back into her life. Bad move, Allie. A tense, chilling thriller with a twisty disturbing climax, this one became the object of myriad spoofs and copy-cats but is nonetheless still a great flick with some awesome performances by Fonda and Leigh. This one will make you want to live alone.
DIRECTOR: Harold Becker STARS: Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin
Written by drama king Aaron Sorkin, this highly-charged thriller centers on a complex entanglement of three prime characters. Andy (Bill Pullman) and Tracy Safian (Nicole Kidman) are a newlywed couple living in a restored Victorian house and take in young handsome doctor Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin), who has recently earned notoriety for saving a rape victim's life. Unfortunately, he proves himself to be a rather challenging tenant, and it's not long before there is some conflict. But when Tracy needs emergency surgery that sees a controversial decision by Hill to remove her ovaries, it looks like the worst has come and lawyers get involved. But that's just where expectations take a corkscrew twist and it's down another whole dark road we travel. Kidman is the heart of this film and delivers a stirring, hair-raising performance that will leave you guessing right to the final frame. What you see isn't always what you see.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
DIRECTOR: David Lynch STARS: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring
You might think this movie is not a thriller but if that's the case, then you'd have thunk wrong. Not only is this a top-notch thriller, it's got not one but two strong female leads. Describing this twisted, labyrinthine tale of a woman's surreal journey through the underbelly of Hollywood casting is a feat one mere paragraph cannot due justice, but suffice to say, there is a lot in the film that is challenging and edge-of-your seat. Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms, a fresh-faced newcomer to California with dreams of stardom until she finds an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring) in her new apartment. In every way the polar opposites of each other, they are nonetheless drawn together in a gripping and terrifying story that sees them navigate a host of horrors that will lead to an ending so jarring, it is still being debated to this day. Both women utterly transcend their roles in this film, making this more of an experience than a movie. The clues are all there, putting them together makes this one of cinema's greatest thrillers.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
DIRECTOR: David Fincher STARS: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara
A remake of the equally great 2009 Swedish film, both based on the book of the same name, this tense thriller follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who sets about trying to solve the disappearance of a woman nearly 40 years prior in exchange for some information regarding a lost libel case. He works with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an unorthodox investigator and hacker with a history of mental instability who is under guardianship for her services. After she is brutally raped by that guardian, she turns the tables and sets about righting a few dreadful wrongs, along the way becoming sexually involved with Blomkvist. A chillingly compelling character, Mara delivers a dynamic, disturbing performance that is the anchor of this already challenging film. A person of indomitable strength and resilience, she is an emotionally crippled woman with an endearing and enduring spirit. And wicked hair.
DIRECTOR: Joel Coen STARS: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy
Think a pregnant woman can't stop serial killer from single-handedly being brought to justice? Might want to have a chat with Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) first. This award-winning thriller mixes the classic peculiarity of the Coen Brother's best work with a raw, violent edge that became one of the most influential films of its time. After a pair of dimwitted kidnappers haplessly end up on a killing spree when a car salesman botches a ransom scheme to secure financing for a land deal, it's a mess for all involved as the town's persistent, and very pregnant police chief steadily draws closer. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, always gripping, this film ranks as one of the best movies ever made, and deservedly so. Gotta have a breakfast.
DIRECTOR: James Cameron STARS: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn
Let's take just a quick detour into science fiction for a moment and give a nod to one of the the greatest female lead roles of all time, and while many might say this is more a horror film than thriller, we say stop being so picky. This is one of the best thrillers ever made. It just happens to be ridiculously scary, too. You know the story. Our hero Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is found adrift in space years after the events of the first film in the franchise and reluctantly agrees to join a mission to go back to the moon where it all started after a terraforming colony has gone quiet. Weaver is sensational in a tour-de-force performance as a woman desperate to escape the horrors of the alien-infested compound and rescue a lone little girl who has somehow survived by herself after all other have been killed. Get away from her, you b*itch.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme STARS: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster
You simply can't make a list of female-centered thrillers and not have this movie at the top. It's an internet by-law written somewhere. But we're going to go ahead and break it anyway. This Academy Award-winning psychological thriller, based on the book of the same name, is often considered one of the greatest movies ever made, featuring stellar performances by its two leads in a mental game of cat and mouse as a young upstart FBI agent (Jodie Foster) employs the help of an incarcerated serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) to help find a missing girl presumably in the hands of a madman systematically offing girls and taking their skin. While Hopkins easily steals the show, this is really the story of Foster's character, Special Agent Starling, who is tasked with the unenviable job of delving into the mind of a cannibal madman with a genius IQ. This fiercely independent and intelligent female character practically created a sub-genre of films that followed and still has influence to this day. Will you be having an old friend for dinner?
Blue Steel (1989)
DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow STARS: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver
Most likely you've not heard of or seen this excellent crime thriller from Academy Ward-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, but it's one you should seek out. I've already written about how sublime this film is (here), the story of a rookie beat cop on her first night facing an armed robber that will have terrifying repercussions later, but suffice to say, it's a film well ahead of its time and revealing of the director's great talent. That said, young Jamie Lee Curtis is a standout, making the shift from scream queen to drama, wholly convincing as the ambitious but flawed police officer who makes a crucial mistake that bares deadly personal repercussions before eventual sacrificial redemption. Stylish and violent, it's a rewarding movie that is as effective today as it was on release. Plus, come on, it's Zoolander's perfect pose. Gotta count for something.