Sometimes, the formulaic structure of romance movies can get tiresome. Don’t get us wrong, we do enjoy our dose of “we saw it coming” romance every now and again; but sometimes, we just need a little suspense to keep us on our toes. This is where romantic thrillers come in, holding just the right amount of allure. The following romantic thriller movies will surely have you feeling butterflies in your stomach…and shivers down your spine.
We have to start off this list with a film from masterful director Alfred Hitchcock. He simply knew how to perfectly blend romance and the thriller. Rebecca, based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, follows the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who marries a fascinating widower (Laurence Olivier) and finds herself living in the shadow of his former wife, Rebecca, who died mysteriously. Instead of using the genres of romance and thriller as separate components, Hitchcock uses romance—or the guise of romance—to foster our fear and leave us in suspense, wondering what we are capable of doing in the name of love. We are stunned at how quickly the romance blossoms between the couple, yet we don’t doubt it; in the second Mrs. de Winter, we see our naivety, our hope, and our loyalty towards love. Audiences are left questioning: Is this hopeless love or maddening obsession? Who is Rebecca and what happened to her? We find ourselves haunted by Mrs. de Winter’s question: “Our marriage is a success, isn’t it? A great success? We’re happy, aren’t we? Terribly happy?” Love’s a crazy thing, isn’t it?
V for Vendetta (2005)
“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November…” Known as V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious masked freedom fighter—who finds inspiration from Guy Fawkes—takes up arms against a totalitarian government, finding an ally in a young woman (Natalie Portman) along the way. In the year 2032, the world is under complete chaos: There’s a virus spreading around the world, most Americans have been wiped out, and the British are living in fear. The citizens of Great Britain have given up their freedom in exchange for security promised by a fascist dictator, High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Growing tired of his society’s inability to challenge the government—and on his own quest for revenge—V sets a plan in motion: He will strike against Parliament one year from now on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day. However, our lonesome vigilante meets, and kidnaps, the independent and rebellious Evey, whose presence brings complications. As the story spins into a tale of both love and revenge, viewers are left wondering if both sentiments can maintain a balance.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Inspired by Fingersmith, a novel by British author Sarah Waters, this crime drama is set in Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. The film centers on a young Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) living in a secluded estate, and a Korean woman (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired to serve her as her handmaiden. The handmaiden, a pickpocket named Sook-hee, gets pulled into a scheme by a fake count (Ha Jung-woo) who wants to marry the heiress, Lady Hideko, and have her committed to an asylum so that he can claim her fortune. The count's simple plan becomes complicated when Sook-hee starts to fall in love with her target ... or does she? With plenty of characters conning both each other and the audience, we are left wondering who's really the victim. This provocative tale of temptation and deception allows the audience to witness the same events from multiple perspectives, each one digging deeper into an unsuspecting revelation.
Basic Instinct (1992)
In this early ‘90s erotic thriller, Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his prime suspect Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) find themselves immersed in the world of the rich and glamorous—think: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Nick is investigating the brutal murder of wealthy rock star, Johnny Boz. Suspicion quickly falls on Boz’s bisexual girlfriend, Catherine, whose crime novels have an unhealthy way of coming true. Nick concludes that either Catherine is the murderer or that someone is attempting to frame her. Even though Catherine has an alibi and passes a lie detector test, Nick is still suspicious since she’s uncooperative during the interrogation and has a history of befriending murderers. Eventually, Nick’s erratic behavior causes him to be put on leave—leading to a torrid cat-and-mouse affair with Catherine. As their affair reaches new heights, Nick’s certainty of Catherine’s culpability begins to waver. The real thrill is in trusting our instincts—it’s innate, it’s natural, but can we truly trust ourselves when our passions are involved?
What’s a list of thrillers with a side of romance without multiple Alfred Hitchcock films? The movie is set in San Francisco and follows Scottie (James Stewart), a former police detective suffering from acrophobia and vertigo, who is forced into early retirement following an incident in the line of duty. He is then hired as a private investigator to follow Gavin Elster’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been behaving oddly. After Gavin and Madeleine meet and spend a whole day together, they realize they can’t keep their hands to themselves and quickly fall in love…until tragedy strikes. Scottie suffers a complete break down—finding himself in the middle of murder, lies, and betrayal with a sprinkle of twists and turns…it is a Hitchcock film after all.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Nocturnal Animals, the second film from Tom Ford, is a story within a story and has a chilling ending—or two! At its core we follow Susan (Amy Adams), a successful but disillusioned art gallery owner who is married to a wealthy alpha male, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She finds herself in a deteriorating marriage, as her husband is being unfaithful to her, when she receives the manuscript for a novel penned by her estranged first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel—which is dedicated to Susan and bears Edward’s nickname for her—focuses on a family man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), who takes his family on a road trip across a desert landscape. The vacation turns violent and deadly, as the family encounters three members of a feral gang who kidnap Tony’s wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). Throughout the film, we’re taken through Susan’s present, her past shared with Edward, and the fictional world in which Susan imagines Edward as Tony. Perhaps life does imitate art, as the line blurs between fiction and reality. As they say: All is fair in love and war.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
This romantic thriller combines an emotional connection with political exposé. The film, based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, follows Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes)—a low-level English diplomat posted in Kenya—who must uncover the truth behind the death of his political activist wife (Rachel Weisz). Director Fernando Meirelles uses flashbacks to build on the relationship between Justin and his wife Tessa, diving into the development of Justin and Tessa’s love and the journey Justin undergoes in discovering secrets about his wife and the government. Entangled in hypocrisies, lax ethics, and betrayals from international pharmaceutical giants and government bureaucracies, Justin must run against drug corporations and their usage of Kenya’s population for fraudulent testing of a tuberculosis drug. The tagline of the film reads: “Love. At Any Cost.” So what will it cost Justin?
Natural Born Killers (1994)
This controversial film that left audiences and critics at odds during its 1994 premiere continues to be a topic of discussion due to its editing, subject matter, and violence. The film takes a look at the media’s depiction of mass murder through a young couple—Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis)—who share an intense interest in violence. Their troubled ways are explained through Mallory’s past and a look into her family. It is easy to realize why they would be attracted to one another—they share the same erratic, impulsive behavior and an intense devotion to one another. The two go on a wild killing spree across America and make sure to secure their credit in order to gain infamy. Their love and crimes captivate tabloids and ensures their fame. Eventually they are captured, but it only heightens the sensationalism surrounding them. Director Oliver Stone uses the film as a commentary of our society—a society interested in crime and scandal. Natural Born Killers is a thrilling and cautionary tale about mixing pleasure and crime.
Ex Machina (2014)
We’ve seen films explore different forms of falling in love, but none have offered an experience quite like Ex Machina. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young programmer who wins a competition staged by his employers to spend a week in the luxurious, isolated home of CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). However, he quickly learns that what he believed to be a treat might be more than he can handle: Caleb was chosen as the human component in a Turing Test to evaluate the capabilities and consciousness of the breathtaking A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander), who lives confined in an apartment. Slowly, their interactions lead Caleb to feel an attraction toward Ava, which Ava reciprocates—while also expressing a desire to experience the outside world. But can their experience be constituted as love? Can a robot feel? This is where the thrill begins: Viewers will have to decipher whether humans have lost their touch with humanity or if Ava is capable of reaching an unparalleled emotional intelligence. Caleb observes Nathan’s crude and narcissistic behavior and begins to reveal secrets that will lead to an exhilarating conclusion. Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this thriller, which toys with matters of artificial intelligence, humanity, and feminine identity.
Amores Perros (2000)
The title, which translates to “Love’s a Bitch,” follows three interlinked stories in Mexico City. The inventive thriller is constructed as a triptych, containing three different stories that are connected by a car accident. The first story center on a teenager, Octavio, who finds himself in deep waters when he falls in love with his sister-in-law, Susanna. Without any money to run away with Susanna, Octavio decides to volunteer his dog Cofi for a round of dog fights. Meanwhile, the second story follows the relationship between publishing magnate, Daniel, and beautiful model, Valeria. Daniel leaves his family to be with Valeria, but she gets into an accident that only worsens when she tries to save her trapped dog. In the third narrative, a former private school teacher, El Chivo, is hired by a businessman to assassinate his partner. But as he begins to follow his plan, El Chivo is interrupted by an auto accident, from which Octavio surfaces in search of help. A story that plunges into themes of love, money, and revenge, Amores Perros is unforgettable.
Featured still from "Ex Machina" via A24