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The Best Thrillers Of 2021

After a year like 2020, the only thing on many people's minds is finding some way to decompress and relax, to escape the stress and pretend that everything is just fine. That is, unless you're a hardcore thriller fan (or just really sick of quarantine), in which case you've been looking for something to get the blood pumping and provide a little excitement after months of isolation and boredom.

And just over two months into 2021, we've got quite an enthralling batch of suspenseful entries in the thriller canon. From the comfort (or boredom) of our own homes, we can witness all kinds of scares and chases, twists and turns, freshly minted for our enjoyment this year. If 2021 does turn out to be just as horrific as its predecessor and demand that we turn to escapism through our movies, at least it has provided us with some exciting films to turn to — and stacked up even more upcoming titles to look forward to as the year wears on.

Red Dot aimed for maximum tension

Across the snowy landscape of remote Sweden, we see — or don't see — a couple being pursued by unseen assailants. Much of the action takes place across great distances which only a bullet can quickly travel, obscured by falling snow that only the red dot of a rifle's sight can pierce. The whiteout visuals take the suspense to critical heights as we frantically struggle to figure out what's going on.

But it's not just the relentless snow that's hiding something. When there's a twist in a thriller movie, usually it's something involving the villain, something that shocks the protagonist to the core and presents a new threat that they must find a way to overcome. Maybe someone close to the protagonist has been working against them the whole time, or the main character must confront a challenge to long-held beliefs.

Red Dot, however, in addition to its impeccable and inventive brand of suspense, puts a spin on the traditional twist itself.

Wrong Turn was the right kind of reboot

As far as reboots go, 2021's take on Wrong Turn is more than respectable. In fact, critics liked it even more than the 2003 original! And since the 2021 version is the seventh installment in the franchise, it's even more impressive that it was able to garner positive reception rather than dismissal or even frustration.

The original Wrong Turn relies heavily upon the gore and suspense of being chased through remote woods by a group of cannibals. False hopes repeatedly give way to the harsh illumination of human depravity: The protagonists find a cabin and hope to be able to phone for help, but instead discover that it belongs to the very cannibals who are stalking them, and are forced to watch in hiding as their friend is dismembered and eaten. We witness all manner of weapons and traps, from arrows to axes, tire punctures to explosions. There's a lot of action, to be sure, but nothing new.

In 2021's version, though, we get a clearer window into the cult of the cannibals themselves. Rather than fleeing from largely unknown forces, we learn that the cult was originally an 1859 settlement established on the basis of the belief that the United States was doomed. The protagonists meet and interact with multiple members of the community, becoming more enmeshed with them in their attempts to survive than in the first film — which makes for a much more thrilling disentanglement and escape.

Silk Road took a dark path

This year has offered a lot of non-traditional fare as far as the thriller genre goes, but Silk Road is closer to a classic story of crime and suspense and is based on true events. The dark web's Silk Road was in many ways the first of its kind, an infamous but elusive platform best known for facilitating the sale of illegal drugs. Silk Road tells the story of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), creator and operator of the titular darknet marketplace, and his capture by the FBI in concert with DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke).

One of the strongest elements of the film is the manner in which it portrays these two main characters. While it was not the best-received thriller of the year, it serves as a good introduction to the subject matter it covers, and though critics have concluded that the film should have done a better job elucidating these inner workings, the film will appeal to viewers who enjoy the intrigue of the dark web and ponder the clandestine dealings of its users.

Fear of Rain wasn't afraid of exploring illness

If you think a detective's job is hard, try doing it with schizophrenia. That's essentially the situation Rain (Madison Iseman) finds herself in as the protagonist of the 2021 psychological thriller Fear of Rain. She not only has to battle the unnerving hallucinations brought on by her illness and attempt to discern what is real from what is not in the midst of this confusion, but when she begins to suspect her neighbor of kidnapping, this delicate balance is thrown into upheaval.

There is no critics' consensus yet for Fear of Rain, and the few reviews that have already been cast are mixed, but audiences loved the film — and left ratings to that effect in many times greater numbers. The thriller is engaging because of the personal way it shows a young person reckoning with powerful forces both outside and within, which amounts to the kind of impossible odds that make for good suspense.

The juxtaposition of these threats in the film makes it compelling: hallucinations of cemetery statues crying blood are frightening, yet outside the realm of reality, while kidnapping is very real. The film also features a Shyamalan-esque twist and an emphasis on the bonds of love that tether us not just to reality, but to our humanity.

I Care A Lot showed just how uncaring one person could be

I Care A Lot premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2020, but wasn't distributed to United States audiences until late February of 2021, when it began to dominate Netflix Top 10 lists soon after its release. The film stars the formidable Rosamund Pike, whom you might recognize from her critically acclaimed role in another thriller, David Fincher's Gone Girl from 2014.

Unlike Gone Girl, however, I Care A Lot has a bit more of a comedic bent, though the tale is still undoubtedly a thriller. Pike shines in roles such as these, which allow for the kind of psychological depth that keeps us engaged as much as the plot itself: In this case, the story revolves around Marla, a scammer who cons the courts into appointing her as a guardian for seniors whom she falsely testifies are incapacitated. After putting her wards in assisted living facilities, she begins to sell their assets for her own profit.

It really does seem like something that, in another life, Pike's character from Gone Girl would do. The talented actress has explained that she is drawn to complex roles, and I Care A Lot delivers just that — another "wicked performance" from Rosamund Pike as a painfully clever woman with an elaborate scheme to secure her own survival at someone else's expense.

Boss Level upped its game

The ingredients of a thriller can easily sneak into its sister genres to give them a bit of an extra kick, and that's exactly what happens in Boss Level, the sci-fi action film released on Hulu to positive reactions from critics and audiences alike. While the time loop trope in films has itself become a little repetitive, the "excess" of Boss Level allows it to "power up" the concept, according to the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes.

The name of the film is a reference to the term for the final level of a video game in which the player must face a "boss" or challenge that represents (or even directly incorporates) all the challenges of the previous levels combined in overwhelming force. It is typically the hardest level of the game, and many players in various games attempt it dozens, even hundreds of times before they beat it – if they even do.

Boss Level combines this familiar experience with the time loop concept, but tells the story of one man trying to survive the same day over and over in the style of a thriller, with narration by star Frank Grillo that's more reminiscent of a noir. This ambitious and captivating entry in a tired genre proves that there's always a way to break the cycle.

Be thrilled, our hearts

Don't stray too far from the edge of your seat, because there is a lot more in store this year in the thriller genre.

One of the most anticipated thrillers of the year has been postponed no fewer than three times already, making the saga of its eventual premiere a suspenseful story in itself. A Quiet Place Part II, the sequel to John Krasinski's successful first foray into the horror-thriller genre, was originally slated to premiere in March of 2020. But as we all know, that month decided to introduce its own brand of horror. After a year of postponing, this film's release was actually moved to a date three months earlier, from September to Memorial Day Weekend 2021.

In addition to this long-awaited sequel, we also can look forward to Spiral, a new chapter of the Saw franchise whose release was also delayed from spring 2020. This reboot stars Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson and is the brainchild of the iconic comedian. We'll also get treated to a new M. Night Shyamalan flick called Old in which a family discovers that the beach on which they are spending their holiday is causing them to age so rapidly that their lifespans are reduced to a single day. Along with films like Death on the Nile, The Woman in the Window, Those Who Wish Me Dead, and Deep Water, we have a lot of thrills to look forward to in 2021 (hopefully just on screen).