Now Streaming: Underrated Thriller Movies

Are you in the mood for a thriller? Then you’re probably going to take a look at what’s currently available on instant streaming, and realize that you’ve seen all the supposedly “good” ones already. Silence of the Lambs? Check. Blue Velvet? Check. Witness? Check. Come on, instant streaming… what else have you got?

Fortunately, it turns out that the many online streaming services actually have a lot of great, underrated thriller movies available right now. These are the films that got a bum rap when they first came out, or never quite hit with mainstream audiences. Maybe they were marketed badly, or never widely released. But they’re there, right now, at the click of a button. This week on Now Streaming, Crave takes a look at five of our favorite underrated thriller movies that deserve a bigger audience, and can find one right now if you just decide to press “play.”

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Changing Lanes (Netflix)

Changing Lanes Samuel L Jackson Ben Affleck
Paramount Pictures

After saving Hugh Grant’s career with the popular but sociologically “iffy” rom-com Notting Hill, director Roger Michell decided to follow up on its success with a disturbing everyday thriller. The film, Changing Lanes, was a modest box office success but went on to relative obscurity afterwards, and that’s a shame because its story – about two men who go out of their way to destroy each other over a petty squabble – feels increasingly relevant with every passing day. Outrage is everything. Changing Lanes still matters.

Ben Affleck is in a rush to get to the courthouse to file paperwork that will make or break his legal career. He gets in a collision with an insurance salesman played by Samuel L. Jackson, who also needs to get to court on a deadline in order to secure custody of his children. Affleck strands Jackson off on the side of the road, but accidentally leaves his paperwork behind, and decides to use his influence to coerce the other man – who just lost custody of his kids – to return it. The mundane, familiar conflict between haves and have nots escalates into disturbing territory as they both find ways to exact revenge upon one another, leading to… a thoughtful examination of our inherent selfishness and inability to empathize with our fellow man.

Yes, Changing Lanes doesn’t ever quite go into full fistfight barnburner territory. It’s too smart for that. Michell’s film is a meaningful treatise on our ability to step on one another to get what we want, or simply bully each other because we can. Jackson and Affleck are great, a strong supporting cast makes the whole film hum (especially Toni Collette as Affleck’s workplace confidante and lover), and the universally understandable concept keeps the thrills grounded in disturbing reality. Changing Lanes deserves your attention more now than ever.

The Drop (HBO GO)

The Drop Tom Hardy
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Released last year to some acclaim, but mostly ambivalence, Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop features one of the best performances of Tom Hardy’s career, and that’s already saying something. The star of Bronson and Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road mutes himself way down to play a mild-mannered barkeep caught in the middle of a criminal plot. The tavern is used as a money drop for a local gang’s gambling operation, and armed criminals are seemingly after that money. And all our hero wants to do is stay the hell out of it and bond with his new dog, who – it turns out – originally belonged to an abusive monster who now wants to turn his peaceful life upside down.

Struggling to keep his head when all about him are losing theirs is an impossibly tense way of life, and we gradually begin to realize that eventually Hardy will have to take action or take a bullet. But although he’s obviously a smart man he’s so impressively timid that we can’t imagine how, exactly, he can extricate himself from this increasingly dangerous situation. It seems like a no-win situation, and nails will be bitten as we fear ever more for the worst.

Roskam’s film builds and builds and builds, naturally and elegantly, to a climax that left (modestly-sized) audiences dumbfounded and impressed. It’s an incredibly well-acted film, deftly filmed, and rich with suspense. It warrants your attention.

Grand Piano (Netflix)

Grand Piano Movie
Nostromo Pictures/Magnet Releasing

Grand Piano may be ridiculously conceived but it is spectacularly realized. The film stars Elijah Wood as a concert pianist suffering massive stage fright as he embarks on a comeback concert, following a disastrous attempt to play one of the most difficult pieces ever composed. When he takes his seat, he spies a shocking note in the margins of his sheet music: an assassin is watching him, and if he misses even a single, solitary note his girlfriend will be murdered in the audience.

That sounds like a parody of a high-concept suspense thriller, but in the hands of director Eugenio Mira it becomes an absolute firecracker. Shot with the whirling dervish virtuosity of an early Brian De Palma film, and written with flare and subtext by Damien Chazelle (whose Oscar-winning Whiplash dealt with similar themes of artistic angst, albeit much more seriously), Grand Piano is one of the most impressive thrillers of the last few years. It’s too bad it was barely released, but it’s a damned good thing it’s readily available on instant streaming to build what should, with time, become an appreciative and dedicated cult following.

Opera (Shudder)

Dario Argento Opera 1987
Orion Pictures

The “giallo” is a popular Italian movie genre that never quite took off in the states, and combines – sometimes smartly, sometimes ghoulishly – the detective and slasher thrillers into a single, operatic whole. The high-concept violence of a Friday the 13th mixed with the “who done it” mischievousness of an Agatha Christie novel makes for great entertainment, and for many, many years a director named Dario Argento was the giallo’s reigning master.

Although American audiences may still be familiar with his more popular films, like Deep Red and Suspiria, his last truly great thriller remains largely unseen outside of hardcore horror circles. Opera takes the basic concept of The Phantom of the Opera – a madman stalking a young ingenue, murdering anyone standing in the way of her success – and twists it until it screams. In this version, the heroine (Cristina Marsillach) is repeatedly tied up by the killer and forced to watch as he brutally dispatches her rivals. He even tapes needles to her eyelids to prevent her from looking away. She cannot ignore the horrifying circumstances that are responsible for her on-stage success: she feels them every time, and the all-consuming guilt forces her to identify the killer at any cost.

Opera is a disturbing film, intentionally so, and not for squeamish audiences. But it’s a bravura showcase of Argento’s wicked perversions and over the top cinematic style, which culminates in an unforgettable – and wholly bizarre – plot to unmask the villain mid-performance. If you think you’ve seen all the top notch thrillers, and you haven’t seen Opera, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Side Effects (Netflix)

Steven Soderbergh Side Effects Jude Law Rooney Mara
Open Road Films

Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (TrafficOcean’s 11) announced, for the umpteenth time, that he was retiring from feature filmmaking in 2013, and that his last film would be the medical/psychological thriller Side Effects. He has arguably kept that promise (his follow-up, Behind the Candelabra, was technically a TV movie), leaving us with a strange and suspenseful “final” film… at least until he unretires again, but that’s neither here nor there.

As swan songs go, Side Effects is a smallish but memorable one. Rooney Mara plays a suicidal woman whose psychiatrist, played by Jude Law, eventually prescribes her an antidepressant that is still undergoing clinical trials. She takes the pills, and seems to be feeling much better, until she blacks out, wakes up, and discovers that she’s murdered her husband (Channing Tatum). She’s got one hell of a lawsuit on her hands, and Jude Law begins to realize that the medical system that depends so heavily on doctors foisting new and lucrative drugs on their clients may have destroyed his career.

And then… other things start happening. Side Effects is a difficult film to describe in too much detail without ruining Scott Z. Burns’s manipulative screenplay, which changes perspective several times and repeatedly reveals that the truth is far more sinister, and far more entertaining, than we initially believed. The film made money but wasn’t quite a hit, which may have done its story a great favor: it hasn’t been ruined for future audiences yet. See it for yourself and enjoy the clever, devious ride.

 


William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.