Whether it’s a country house cut off by a blizzard, a stranger seeking shelter after their car skids into a snowdrift, or a great train halted by an avalanche, no climatic conditions—aside perhaps from fog—better suit dastardly doings than ice and snow.
Here are a few wintry mystery and thriller movies to watch while wrapped in a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate.
Wind River (2017)
This classy 2017 police procedural is set in the bone-chilling winter landscapes of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. A tough, laconic US Fish and Wildlife Service agent (Jeremy Renner) teams up with fish-out-of-water rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate the brutal murder of a teenage Native American girl. Superb performances by the leads and a lean and taut script create a movie that not only works brilliantly as a mystery thriller but also highlights important social issues.
Dead of Winter (1987)
Mary Steenburgen tackles three roles in this satisfying 1987 big-house-in-the-snow mystery. She plays an actor called in at the last minute to appear in a movie being filmed at a creepy mansion in Upstate New York, the actor she is replacing (who—allegedly—had a nervous breakdown) and also the sister of the film’s obsessive director.
No sooner has she arrived on set, than a blizzard hits. The telephone lines are soon down in the gloomy snowbound house and, with death hovering, the situation turns increasingly menacing—and perilous. In a movie that owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Roddy McDowall is in top form as the ghoulish production assistant who lures Steenburgen into the snow-caked landscape.
In this atmospheric 2008 psychological thriller, a young American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) take the epic rail journey from Beijing to Moscow. In the frozen wilds of Siberia they fall in with another young couple (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) who gradually entangle them in a criminal enterprise involving smuggling, murder, and the Russian mafia. When Ben Kingsley turns up as a gangster, you know things are going to take a severely nasty turn—whatever the temperature.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)
Adapted from Danish writer Peter Hoeg’s international best-selling mystery novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, this well-paced and classy 1997 movie sees the eponymous Smilla (Julia Ormond) investigating the mysterious death of a young Inuit boy who falls from the snowy roof of her apartment building in Copenhagen. The trail takes the intelligent and resourceful sleuth to icy Greenland, where a shadowy international corporation is clearly up to no good in the frozen tundra.
A Simple Plan (1998)
What would you do if you found a suitcase containing $4.4 million in a light aircraft that crashed in a snowy forest near your home? That’s the question at the heart of this cracking 1997 movie set in a very Fargo-esque Minnesota and starring Billie Crudup, Bill Paxton, and Bridget Fonda. The answer in the case of the small-town trio is—naturally—to keep it. But that proves a good deal more difficult than they have bargained for, especially when the original owners come looking for it. A superb and undervalued neo-noir from director Sam Raimi.
Frozen River (2008)
Melissa Leo (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Blackfoot actor Misty Upham play a pair of struggling blue-collar Moms in the North Country of Upstate New York who team up to earn extra cash by driving illegal immigrants across the frozen river that marks the border between the USA and Canada. What starts as a means to an end quickly draws the two women into darker realities. Released in 2008, Courtney Hunt’s brilliantly acted and conceived crime drama was garlanded with awards, and it’s easy to see why.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery was shot with a real sense of the epic by director Sydney Lumet and features some superbly realized winter landscapes (most were actually filmed in the studio against backdrops of painted glass). Ingrid Bergman, who plays Greta Ohlsson, picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, but it’s Albert Finney as the comically fastidious Belgian sleuth—complete with bizarre hair and mustache nets—who catches the eye. Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 adaptation is flashier, but never looks quite as cold.
Hold the Dark (2018)
Landscapes don’t get much colder or wintrier than those in Alaska. The largest State in the Union is the setting for this 2018 action thriller that sees wolf-expert Jeffrey Wight called in to hunt down a pack that has been blamed for killing three local children. Wright knows the wolves didn’t do it, but who did? And why?
The Pale Blue Eye (2022)
The apparently ritualistic murder of cadets at West Point Academy in the snowy winter of 1830, sees veteran investigator Augustus Landor(Christian Bale) teaming up with West Point Cadet Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) to try to find the killer or killers before they can strike again and ruin the reputation of the recently established military school. Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye is a satisfyingly grisly (and chilly) mystery that will delight fans of Poe through its knowing allusions to many of his greatest stories.
The greatest snowbound thriller in the history of cinema. If you haven’t seen the Coen Brothers’ 1997 already, why not?