Director David Fincher is well known for his impactful psychological thrillers, which make up a significant portion of his film credits, though he’s also helmed a number of biopics and book adaptations. However, even when his work isn’t centered on crime or mystery, it’s still defined by a certain gritty quality. Something viewers can be sure of when beginning a David Fincher film is that the story they’re entering will haunt them after the end credits roll, perhaps challenging or altering their beliefs. Here are thirteen suspenseful films – including a few directed by Fincher – that are sure to leave audiences unsettled.
Training Day (2001)
In Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, Jake (Ethan Hawke) is an ambitious and idealistic officer who joins experienced narcotics detective Alonzo (Denzel Washington in an Academy Award-winning performance) for a day of training and evaluation. As the day continues, Jake begins to see that Alonzo’s methods are not always ethical. The thrilling crime movie has viewers on the edge of their seats as it becomes clear that Jake is being led into a trap. Training Day is an exploration of brutality and corruption within the police force that has withstood the test of time – if anything, it’s become a film that needs more explosion now than ever before.
Like Training Day, Se7en begins with a rookie cop joining an older, more experienced officer; like Jake and Alonzo, Brad Pitt’s David Mills often butts heads with Morgan Freeman’s Detective William Somerset. The two have different views on how the case should be conducted, but eventually, the scale of the crime outstrips them and they must work together to stop a vicious serial killer from completing his series of murders. The killer, known only as John Doe, is on a mission to punish the citizens of his city for the seven deadly sins. Each murder is grizzly, gruesome, and leaves an impact on both the characters and the audience. In addition to the mystery and tension, Se7en offers food for thought on how civilization impacts human nature on an individual level as well as on a global scale.
Another Fincher film, Zodiac is based on the true story of the Zodiac Killer, who was at large in the 60s. As one of the most unsolved serial killer cases in American history, it has been the subject of much public speculation and provided ample material for pop culture. Zodiac is told mostly from the perspective of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who believes his natural problem-solving skills can lead him to the killer. He teams up with detectives and journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.) for a terrifying investigation that leaves the characters unsettled and forever changed.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Though The Silence of the Lambs was released earlier than any of Fincher’s work, it’s a must-see for fans of his movies – and fans of the thriller genre in general. The Academy Award-winning film is a staple of the genre, masterfully building suspense and tension. Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Harris, the film uses the source material and its skilled actors to great effect. FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) asks Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a convicted serial killer and psychopath, for insider knowledge on another serial killer case. As she digs deeper into the investigation, her childhood trauma gradually creeps up on her, and Lecter begins to get under her skin.
Nightcrawler is a chilling thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a petty thief who realises he can make money by capturing footage of crime scenes for news outlets. As Lou descends deeper into the competitive circle of news videography, he resorts to extreme methods to get a shot that will guarantee a purchase. He establishes his own business and hires assistants to ensure that each grisly crime scene gets the best coverage. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is well-paced but manages to gradually increase the suspense along with the stakes.
Gone Girl (2014)
Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a meticulous study on the seemingly perfect marriage of Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck). As the plot unravels, told partly through Amy’s diary entries, viewers begin to see the cracks in the relationship that lead to Amy’s disappearance on their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick adamantly defends himself to the authorities but bungles almost every public appearance. Like the public, the film’s audience is sure to be divided over who is to blame for the marriage’s dissolution and Amy’s disappearance. Over the course of the film, the mysteries multiply, revealing darker sides to the characters.
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is another Fincher-directed film, based on the eponymous novel by Chuck Palahniuk. This unsettling thriller has a lot to say about capitalism, masculinity, and various forms of addiction. Starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club is a satirical story of an underground fight club for men who have no other way to exert their frustrations with their otherwise bland and unfulfilling lifestyles. However, there’s something sinister about the fight club, which turns into something much greater as it expands around the world. Similarly, the main character is not who he appears to be, and even he can’t be sure of who that is.
Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a masterclass in building tension and suspense. This crime movie follows the journeys of three men: a father whose daughter – and her friend – has been abducted, the detective working the case, and a potential suspect the father has taken captive. The father (Hugh Jackman) begins to lose his patience with the detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) when the investigation yields no leads. Taking things into his own hands, the father’s increasing desperation leads him to take his emotions out on the captive suspect (Paul Dano), whose guilt is questionable at best. The characters are taken on a lifechanging journey that leads them to question their most fundamental beliefs that make them who they are.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Like Fincher’s films, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive invites the viewer to decipher the story’s message. At the surface level, this neo-noir mystery follows the relationship of two young women in Los Angeles. Betty (Naomi Watts) is an aspiring actress with big dreams who meets Rita (Laura Harring), an amnesiac who has suffered an accident she can’t remember. In between auditions for movies, Betty tries to help Rita rediscover her identity. Both the film industry and the quest to help Rita lead Betty to strange situations where she apparently begins to recall forgotten elements of her own past. A series of seemingly unrelated vignettes serve as clues to viewers.
Another film interested in uncovering the truth, Christopher Nolan’s Memento also features an amnesiac trying to resolve his past. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is an insurance investigator whose last memory is of his wife getting killed before him. Now, he uses tattoos to remind himself where he is in his investigation to find the killer and avenge his wife. The story skips between timelines, placing the viewer in a similar state of mind to Shelby, who is perpetually confused and trying to catch his mind up to the present. As the stakes increase, Shelby finds himself in more danger and realises that he may be misinterpreting the few memories he has of his previous life.
Shutter Island (2008)
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is another mystery film whose central character is an unreliable narrator thanks to his altered memories. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. marshal sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a remote, top security mental hospital. Accompanied by his colleague Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy explores the island and begins to question the way the facility is run. The same eerie feeling that infuses Fincher’s films crawls under viewers’ skins in Shutter Island, especially when more of Teddy’s past is revealed.
Emily Blunt leads the cast of this FBI drug-bust film. Alternately quiet and action-packed, Sicario balances big, epic moments with subtler, disturbing scenes that invite the audience to ruminate on what’s really at stake. Upheld by a brilliant score (Jóhann Jóhannsson) and stunning cinematography (Roger Deakins), this is another excellent thriller from Denis Villenueve. Fincher fans will appreciate its sweeping, epic feel, the deeply unsettling plot, as well as the focus on the main characters, FBI agents Kate (Blunt) and Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), who are conflicted when their seniors bring an assassin (Benicio del Toro) on board.
Black Swan (2010)
A thriller of a different nature, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan follows Nina (Natalie Portman), an ambitious ballet dancer who has been cast as the White Swan. However, her artistic director doesn’t believe she has the right personality to portray the White Swan’s downfall and believes that another dancer (Mila Kunis) would better suit the role. This drives Nina on an obsessive quest to become better. Over time, she loses herself in the world of the dance, but the psychological thriller subverts expectations when least expected.