From the gut-wrenching suspense of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) to the overripe sexiness of Basic Instinct (1992), women have often had prominent roles in the thriller genre. Yet so often they’re defined by bunny-boiling psychosis, power-hungry bitchiness or victimisation both physical and psychological.
The assumption that women can be devious, unknowable beings, more prone to sin than men, has been a cornerstone of misogynist thinking since time immemorial. That’s upheld by the many notable female characters in famous thrillers who are femme fatales with manipulative tendencies. If not, they’re too often sidelined as wives, sisters or lovers of the male hero.
Whether it’s Hitchcock’s systematic destruction of his fantasy blondes or the destructive homewreckers-cum-independent-women of movies such as Fatal Attraction (1987), women in thrillers have overwhelmingly been the creations of men. So when a woman steps behind the camera instead, it’s fascinating to see the results.
From Kathryn Bigelow to Jane Campion, many of the female powerhouses of cinema have worked within the genre. Although their styles and approaches may be disparate, many of them seize the opportunity to subvert and retool traditional genre tropes – and make the thriller a place for women’s perspectives to flourish. Female characters needn’t be likable or perennially trustworthy, but a feminine perspective allows for more fully-fledged and nuanced women to take centre stage.
Here are 10 times that women directors rocked the thriller canon.
The Hitch-hiker (1953)
Director Ida Lupino
This striking film noir was based on the real exploits of American spree killer Billy Cook, who murdered a family of five and a travelling salesman before hijacking a sheriff and forcing him to drive into the California desert. Ida Lupino, the film’s director, was not only the sole woman belonging to the Director’s Guild of America at the time but also one of the few to tackle such grisly subject matter on screen. Lupino even spoke to the real killer and some of his hostages to bring authenticity to her screen depiction of his story.
In the film itself, Lupino elevates the low budget with gorgeous location shooting in the desert and a poetic sense of the empty highways of the south-west, with their unseen dangers. As the hitchhiking killer, William Talman is frighteningly understated, with a deformed right eye and an icy snarl.
Blood Feud (1978)
Director Lina Wertmüller
Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni star in this vengeful Italian mafia tale in which a wronged wife takes centre stage. Widowed and deranged with grief, Loren’s character, Titina Paterno, takes up with a local crook and refuses to be silenced about who is responsible for her husband’s death.
Lina Wertmüller, a left-wing Italian filmmaker of aristocratic descent who became the first woman ever to be nominated for the Oscar for best director (for 1975’s Seven Beauties), made this arthouse crime thriller with the intention of placing the traditional grieving woman of the crime film in a position to deliver retribution. Radically unglamorous with her shorn-off hair and makeup-blackened eyes, Loren comes into her own as a beacon of angry female power.
Point Break (1991)
Director Kathryn Bigelow
Few crime thrillers are as much fun as Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer-boy bank heist movie, in which an FBI agent is made to infiltrate a gang of California surfers who might be guilty of a string of bank robberies but finds himself increasingly drawn to their brotherly lifestyle and passion for the waves.
Pitting vacillating FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) against philosophical charmer and surf-gang leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the action is nearly non-stop. Between mastering the fierce waves of the Pacific, sky-diving at gunpoint and the series of heists, Bigelow is never one to avoid the exciting momentum of physical action. Overblown though this early entry in her career may seem, Bigelow also deftly conveys the homosocial dynamics, making Point Break a far less macho take on the genre that it might have been.
American Psycho (2000)
Director Mary Harron
In other hands, this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s trenchant, fearsomely nasty novel of sex-fuelled violence might have been unpalatable. But with the gleefully misogynistic Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) dictating the skewed perspective of the narrative, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) director Mary Harron is able to fully commit to the deranged worldview of her protagonist. She reveals his myopic fetishisation of status symbols, his predilection for random cruelty and his backsliding into psychotic violence. Bateman may be the poster child for 1980s success, with his Brooks Brothers suits, carefully designed business cards and gleaming toothpaste grin, but the malevolent emptiness of this satirical murderer is as chilling as it is tongue-in-cheek. Harron plays Bateman’s behaviour for dark humour too, which is a saving grace in a film about so hideous a human being.
In the Cut (2003)
Director Jane Campion
Starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, this erotic thriller didn’t meet with immediate critical success, but its reputation has quietly grown over time. Departing from her sweetheart persona, Ryan plays a sexually voracious teacher who becomes romantically entangled with a homicide detective (Ruffalo) after he questions her about a killer on the loose near her home. Both actors are playing against type here – Ryan as a bad girl and Ruffalo as a tough-talking cop – but their chemistry is strong – strong enough to let Ryan ignore her misgivings about whether her new lover is somehow guilty of murder himself.
Predating Campion’s later interest in crime-solving with Top of the Lake (2013-), In the Cut aggressively flips old noir tropes, with the sexy male cop becoming the subject of the enquiring woman’s quest to learn the truth about a crime.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Director Debra Granik
If there’s such a thing as American ‘kitchen sink’ cinema, this harshly realistic thriller would be a contender for it. Director Debra Granik has an unsentimental eye for the nooks and crannies of this harsh existence, nearly anthropological in their detail: camo-decorated home interiors, lawn detritus of broken-down cars, spiky bare treetops against a steel-coloured sky.
Jennifer Lawrence – at this point not yet an A-lister – stars as a scrappy young woman living in the backwoods of rural midwestern America. When her father goes missing, she’s forced to fend for herself and two young siblings. In her attempts to discover the truth about her dad’s disappearance, she’s faced with the bleak realities of the meth-infested Ozark drug world, with its looming threats of dismemberment should she venture too far astray.
Night Moves (2013)
Director Kelly Reichhardt
Kelly Reichardt borrowed the title of a classic 1970s Gene Hackman neo-noir for this rare hybrid: an environmentalist thriller. The director of minimalist gems Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) turns her attention to the machinations of a group of radical eco-activists who embark on a plot to blow up a dam. As the leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play imperfect but idealistic souls who are convinced of the fundamental righteousness of their cause. But this level of radicalism comes at a steep price.
Absorbing though it is, Reichardt’s film rarely operates like a conventional thriller, building at a more lackadaisical pace – almost placidly. In the aftermath of their act, the consequences seem as surreal as they might in real life.
Director Claire Denis
A bitter drama that pitches itself around its main characters’ rage and pain, Bastards is a unique extension of the thriller genre, sharply constructed and apocalyptically moody. Circling around a group of central and loosely connected individuals, including Vincent Lindon as a man trying to investigate his brother’s suicide, Michel Subor as a diabolical investment banker and Chiara Mastroianni as the latter’s married mistress, Claire Denis’ film makes links between the dark heart of late capitalism and the corporate evil that lurks behind the facade of Parisian life.
The Invitation (2015)
Director Karyn Kusama
Karyn Kusama’s claustrophobic psychological thriller turns a bourgeois dinner party into the stuff of nightmares. A deliciously slow-burn premise sees a group of well-off Hollywood dwellers and old pals come together after a long interval apart. Some have had previous entanglements, others are more alien to each other, but all seem ever so slightly off as they sip their red wine and chat in the swish modernist house of their hosts. Soon, the ghosts of Los Angeles past visit the party in the form of whisperings about cult activity.
This restrained, ominous film is a bit of a departure for Kusama, who debuted with her visceral feminist sports drama Girlfight (2000) and has since directed several episodes of high-quality television (Halt and Catch Fire, The Man in the High Castle). Given the spine-prickling quality of The Invitation, here’s hoping we see her make more forays into the thriller genre.
Berlin Syndrome (2017)
Director Cate Shortland
Reconfiguring the typical imperilled woman trope in surprising ways, Cate Shortland’s Australian-German co-production, Berlin Syndrome, potently explores gender dynamics, as a young woman (Teresa Palmer) travelling alone in Berlin has a casual one-night stand that becomes a saga of kidnapping and sexual entrapment. Her seemingly placid twentysomething kidnapper, Andi (Max Riemelt), is an English teacher by day but returns each night to play a forced game of ‘house’ with his unwilling captive.
Shortland is a director unafraid to highlight female vulnerability, but she progressively examines the risks that can be part and parcel of heterosexual attraction – a subject evergreen in its complexity and relevance. “The film is being marketed as a thriller,” Shortland has remarked. “To me, it’s not about the genre, but about the emotional truth of these people.”