Common Themes in Psychological Thrillers

Warning: This article includes spoilers for numerous films.

It must be quite difficult to create a truly spellbinding psychological thriller, given the difficult task of creating genuine thought-provoking suspense without delving too deeply into the realm of campy melodrama. However, when the right balance is achieved, this genre has proven to lend itself to some truly spectacular films.

In thinking about some of the better psychological thrillers in recent years, there are two overarching themes that tend to pop up: guilt and obsession. Sometimes, each of these themes can generally stand alone as the core of a film, but oftentimes, they are combined with a context of ambiguity regarding what is real and what is imagined.

What follows are three psychological thrillers that heavily feature the theme of guilt:

3. Shutter Island (2010)

In Shutter Island, directed by the great Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal investigating a disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane. As the story unfolds, we see bizarre occurrences that become increasingly fantastical in nature. Ultimately, we learn that DiCaprio’s character is actually an incarcerated patient at the institution, as he killed his wife (Michelle Williams) after she drowned their children. His overwhelming guilt over this crime had caused him to create an elaborate story in his mind that gave him a new identity and could make him cope with what he had done. Feeling unable to escape, he willingly subjects himself to a lobotomy to free his mind from this plight. Thus, Shutter Island is an example of a film that combines the theme of guilt with ambiguity regarding reality, creating a mind-bending experience that even has horror-like elements. The story is so meticulously constructed that a second viewing is, in many ways, more rewarding than the first one.

2. Inception (2010)

Inception might be better categorized as a psychological action film, but the elements of guilt and ambiguous reality are present at the movie’s forefront. This is also yet another example of a film that came out in 2010 where a character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is plagued by guilt over his wife’s death. We learn that his character, Dom Cobb, had planted an idea in his wife’s (Marion Cotillard) mind that their world wasn’t real so that she would eventually want to leave the limbo dream world they had been in for an extended period of time. However, since this idea was planted so deeply that she still had this belief even in the real world, she killed herself thinking that would allow her to return to the real world. Cobb, weighed down by guilt, finds purpose when an opportunity arises for him to return to his children (he had been unable to stay in the United States because of a murder charge against him) if he can complete a difficult mission involving inception — the very thing he did to his wife. The mission is nearly destroyed by Cobb’s guilt-based projection of his wife in the dream worlds, but he comes to terms with what happened and seems to get past his guilt. His emotional peace is confirmed at the end of the film when he reunites with his children. While the reality of this reunion is left undetermined, the big takeaway is that Cobb has overcome his guilt by at least believing that he has not left his children behind like his wife did.

1. The Machinist (2004)

The Machinist is one of those overlooked independent films that has really held up in the years since its release. Christian Bale lost an unhealthy amount of weight to play Trevor Reznik, an emaciated insomniac who has bizarre visions that include notes on his fridge that convey a game of hangman. After falling down a vicious spiral of paranoia, Trevor comes to learn that he had killed a child in a hit and run accident; at this point, the answer to the hangman game is revealed: “Killer.” As a result of his guilt over the incident, Trevor had lost weight and been unable to sleep for a year. Most of his visions involved elements of this tragic event. Finally facing his guilt head-on, Trevor turns himself in to the police, and upon being imprisoned, he is finally able to sleep.

And now here are three psychological thrillers that examine the idea of obsession:

3. Black Swan (2010)

While Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan often pushes the envelope in terms of the campy melodrama mentioned earlier, the fact that it’s a film about theatrical melodrama (ballet) gives this approach plenty of validity. Natalie Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, is obsessed with achieving perfection as a professional ballerina. The stress of trying to achieve perfection in her lead role in Swan Lake causes her to undergo a gradual psychological breakdown throughout the film. We see a sinister “black swan” side of her emerge, contrasting the “white swan” side of her that we had seen previously, and in so doing, drawing parallels to the storyline of Swan Lake. In portraying her mental struggle, Aronofsky makes us completely unaware of what is real and what is simply imagined in Nina’s head. In the end, Nina cannot achieve perfection without a huge sacrifice.

Black Swan is not the only Aronofsky film about obsession; Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain all qualify. Out of all of them, though, Black Swan probably has the most explicit psychological overtones.

2. Take Shelter (2011)

If you like psychological thrillers and haven’t seen Take Shelter, then you need to rectify that as soon as possible. This overlooked independent film starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is about a man named Curtis (Shannon), who has apocalyptic-like visions of an impending storm. Whether they represent an actual storm, some other type of doom for him and his family, or just a symptom of mental illness is left largely ambiguous throughout the film. In any event, Curtis becomes obsessed with trying to prevent this nasty fate from reaching him and his family, using his family’s savings as well as unethical means to build a storm shelter. It looks as though this obsession and his lack of explicitness about it will drive his family away forever, but once he finally confides in his wife, things take a turn for him — though, like the rest of the film, even that part is ambiguous.

1. Zodiac (2007)

This might be one of the most under-appreciated films of the last 10 or so years. It is a masterpiece from director David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club, Se7en) that chronicles in impeccable detail the series of murders in California in the 1960s and 1970s that were attributed to the “Zodiac” killer. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle but soon becomes obsessed with trying to uncover the identity of the Zodiac. Graysmith’s obsession alienates him from his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and creates tension with others, particularly San Francisco police detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). In the case of this film, however, the theme of obsession is not placed in the context of an uncertain reality — only the identity of the killer is ambiguous. Nevertheless, this theme and the overall tone of the film work extremely well together. If you know anything about the Zodiac murders going into this film, you know that the killer was never caught. But somehow, the obsessive fervor of Graysmith (played exceptionally well by Gyllenhaal) and Fincher’s directorial talents make this a thoroughly suspenseful and entertaining 160-minute feature.

These are just a few psychological thrillers that come to mind when thinking about these themes. Why do you think these themes are so common in this genre? What other themes are often prevalent in psychological thrillers? Feel free to share your feedback in the comments section.

Read further about this subject: Common Themes in Psychological Thrillers: Part 2.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Tom Dianora. I'm a 23-year-old yuppie (though not like Patrick Bateman) living in LA. I have a passion for film that I like to tap into through writing.

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9 Comments

  1. Getter Trumsi

    An interesting list.. I would have maybe preferred it as an essay but I guess it works.

    Interesting to see Zodiac there, I think that many people don’t see the very cleverly hidden obsession in that movie at all. Glad you did!

  2. Rosanne

    All great film choices! A common theme that I see in many thrillers is sexuality. It adds a tone that is both dark and enticing. Black Swan and Lost Highway are two strong examples.

    I agree that an essay form of this topic would be interesting; maybe to dig a little deeper into the significance of these themes within psych thrillers as a whole.

    • BeccaMurphy

      I agree. And another common theme is “conspiracy” – look at Arlington Road which is a great example and also an awesome movie.

      Someone should write up an essay about psych thrillers.

      • I have never seen Arlington road but it is on my ever-expanding list of films to see.

        All of this feedback is making me consider writing a follow-up entry to this one that more closely follows an essay format. We’ll see…

  3. Debjyoti (DJ)

    Every time you watch Inception, you always get to see something new. Nolan has decisively kept the ending ambiguous letting us to put our own conclusion; whether you believe the entire movie to be a dream really does not matter. One thing concerning Inception always bugs me, Cobb had always been using the totem of his wife…isn’t it strange when you recall how Arther once told Ariadne that you cannot judge the reality based on someone else’ totem. Nonetheless, Shutter Island was yet another master piece.

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