Now's a great time to become reacquainted with some of the amazing, psychological thrillers streamable available at the push of a button on Netflix. Comedies and other light-hearted genres may be some viewers first choice in certain situations, but sometimes it feels good to be immersed in some dread and existential anxiety. Come learn about some of the best psychological thriller movies and TV series currently on Netflix.
The 15 Best Psychological Thrillers on Netflix
Forget comfort viewing, watch these tense thrillers next time you need something to stream
From Donnie Darko to Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhal clearly loves a good psychological thriller. While he’s lent his talents to numerous dark projects, it’s Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Enemy that stands out as the creepiest and most thought-provoking of the bunch. Without diving too much into spoilers, because this movie definitely hits harder when going in blind, Gyllenhal does an outstanding job bringing two distinct, yet physically identical characters to life. It’s hard to know how someone would react after discovering and meeting their exact doppelganger, scars included, and this film methodically picks at the sense of paranoia and confusion that a self-shattering discovery like this could have on someone.
Most psychological thrillers are an examination of someone’s mental state and how they react to certain situations, but Inception takes that concept and ramps things up to 11. Rather than use metaphors to describe someone’s mind, director Christopher Nolan takes audiences directly inside someone’s heads- specifically their dreams- with Inception.
A twist on the heist genre- Leonardo Dicaprio’s Dominick Cobb spends a solid chunk of time assembling the perfect crew for an invasive job- Inception sees its cast of characters invade a businessman’s mind in an attempt to influence his thinking at the behest of one of his corporate rivals. Underneath the film’s glossy, blockbuster exterior is a sharp, profound look at how far someone is willing to go to erase their personal pain. The detailed design and tricky fights elevate Inception, but the most memorable aspect of the movie is the sense of confusion and uncertainty that slowly distorts everything the viewer is seeing.
3. ‘Good Time’
The Safdie brother’s newest flick, Uncut Gems, turned the duo into some of the most talked-about directors of the 2019/2020 award cycle, but it’s their 2017 thriller Good Time that cemented them as two of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers currently working. Directed by brothers Josh and Benny, from a script by Josh and Ronald Bronstein, Good Time is a balls-to-the-wall thriller that delves into the paranoia and increasingly desperate decisions of Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson), a shady, narcissistic criminal, after a bank job with his autistic brother goes south.
Good Time has a lot of dramatic, action-y moments and crazy set-pieces- one of the film’s most intense sequences includes liquid LSD and a closed amusement park- but at its core, it is a thorough examination of a flawed individual whose self-destructive tendencies bring down everyone around him.
4. ‘Ex Machina’
Alex Garland’s 2015 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina asks its audience a lot of tough questions. If someone visually recognized something as a robot, could they still form a connection with it? Is it ethical to create and then contain something if it vocalizes that it doesn’t want to be trapped? Are the feelings of artificial beings just as valid as the feelings of organic lifeforms?
After winning a contest, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is flown out to meet mysterious tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac). What seems like a pleasant time between two tech-minded individuals slowly transforms into a tense situation after Caleb is asked to help Nathan with a thought experiment regarding his newest robotic creation. Ava (Alicia Vikander) has a metallic, clearly robotic body, but it also has a human face, making it easier for Caleb to connect with and empathize with it. The real-life Turing Test slowly turns dark as Ava’s conversations with Caleb become more personal and make him uncertain about his own reality and the twisted motivations of his employer.
5. ‘The Lobster’
The closest thing to a romantic comedy on the list, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is a bizarre, dystopian look at how much self-contortion people are willing to do to find love. The film’s simple, silly premise- distressed individuals stay at a hotel and are told they will be turned into an animal of their choice if they fail to find a life partner in 45 days- obscures a dark truth: people are willing to physically harm and lie to themselves and others to obtain something that resembles a healthy relationship. With Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz leading an extremely talented ensemble, The Lobster is a painful, constantly escalating examination of just how willing people are to sacrifice their own wellbeing and happiness in their pursuit of superficial love.
6. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’
Few things in life are more challenging and upsetting than expecting parents to learn their child has a physical or mental ailment of some kind. Children are deserving of love regardless of their health status, but what should an expecting mother do when she suspects there’s something truly dark and off about her child? Without crossing into violent or gory territory, Rosemary’s Baby constantly keeps viewers uncomfortable and glued to the screen as Rosemary (Mia Farrow) tries to find some sense of comfort amidst her suspicious neighbors.
The occult angle certainly gives the movie a sharper, more frightening edge, but the real fear driving Rosemary’s Baby forward is a completely relatable and realistic one for parents or caregivers of any age. No matter how trustworthy the people around you may seem, you never truly know what someone’s intentions are with you or your child.
You didn’t think Jake Gyllenhal was only going to appear on this list once, right? He may not be the star of David Fincher’s ensemble film about the San Francisco-based investigations into one of the United State’s most infamous and anonymous serial killers, but he has a meaty, emotive role that solidifies him as one of this generation’s finest actors.
Zodiac takes a classic cold case, one that detectives still take off the shelves occasionally, and turns it into a chilling tale that feels like it could end in any way. Even though the killer’s identity is still unknown and there are numerous biographies and articles pointing to the wellbeing of the various investigators featured in the movie, Fincher effectively focuses on and drags out uncomfortable moments to ensure the audience is immersed in the same fear the investigators felt every step of the way.
8. ‘Raging Bull’
Director Martin Scorcesse and Robert DeNiro hit the Oscar circuit together this year for the Netflix original The Irishman, but the iconic New Yorkers have been working side-by-side for decades. Another collaboration between the famous duo, Taxi Driver, is included on numerous “Best Psychological Thriller” lists, but sports biography Raging Bull is an equally effective look inside the mind of a mentally unstable, dangerous individual who has no problem harming himself and those around him in order to succeed.
Starring Robert DeNiro as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull tracks the mafia-linked fighter’s career from his early days up to his late-life career as a club manager. An intimately shot film that helps the core characters’ vulnerabilities and fears shine through, Raging Bull explores just how alienating and explosive someone can become on the path towards accomplishing their dreams.
9. ‘Twin Peaks’
he mystery around Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) death engrossed television audiences when it first came out and has continued to entertain and confuse subsequent generations of David Lynch fans ever since. A moody yet comical series, Twin Peaks tracks how the death of one high school girl impacts her small hometown and its inhabitants. FBI Special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is on the case, but once clues start popping up he uncovers dark secrets about the seemingly innocent girl and the serene town.
A series that puts as much emphasis on creating an interesting atmosphere and stretching out the characters’ quirky traits as it does the overarching plot, Twin Peaks lingers on panicked moments to create a constant sense of dismay. Parts of the show feel incredibly soap opera-ish, but the cult classic has an anxious, hyperbolic energy that pushes the audience to question everyone and everything they see as the coffee-loving Agent Cooper barrels closer to the truth.
10. ‘Breaking Bad’
At first glance, the psychological thriller label may seem odd for the rags-to-riches drug epic that is Breaking Bad, but examining the series as a whole makes it clear it is applicable. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was a normal chemistry teacher coasting through a traditional suburban existence until a cancer diagnosis throws everything into whack. Using chemistry terms, this catalyst changes everything for Walter and sets him down a dark, desperate path that sees him happily use and discard anyone, even former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to further his own selfish goals. Even at the series’ biggest and most action-packed moments, Breaking Bad remains calculatingly cold as audiences discover alongside Walter just how low he’s willing to sink to “protect'' his family and the empire he’s built for himself
11. ‘Black Mirror’
Few shows have the ability to instill a sense of horror and personal angst quite like Black Mirror. A bleak anthology series that examines the impacts of technology and social media on the world, the stories are all grounded in personal pain and people’s desire to fill the emptiness in their lives with something. Each episode has a brand new ensemble, but every performer masterfully displays the fear and paranoia each story needs. A deliberate and careful look at human behavior that questions whether or not we know what’s best for us, the series is deeply reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, a clear influence on show creator Charlie Brooker.
Certain episodes hit harder than others, but the anthology series is consistent in its prodding of the corrosive effects of technology. No matter how loud the show screams at viewers about how detrimental their device dependency may be, our world keeps inching closer to the eery one presented on screen every day.
12. ‘Bloodline’ (Season 1)
The sudden return of Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn) at a celebratory event sends distressing shockwaves throughout the entire Rayburn family. The uncomfortable reunion leads to numerous hostile confrontations and brings an old, dark secret to light that threatens the connective tissue of the entire Rayburn family and the professional lives of Danny’s three siblings. Set in the Florida Keys, the series’ beautiful and haunting cinematography adds to the sense of isolation and fear that every Rayburn family member feels as they confront their past. Unfortunately, the series kind of drags in subsequent seasons, but Bloodline’s first season is one of Netflix’s original gems and one of the best examinations of familial distrust and grief ever put on television.
Jack the Ripper. Ted Bundy. Hannibal Lecter.
The deliciously evil, cannibalistic serial killer may be a fictional character, but his name is just as notorious as his murderous, real-life counterparts. Anthony Hopkins’ menacing performance in Silence of the Lambs and its subsequent sequels turned the hungry maniac into a household name, but Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen brings his own chilling energy to the role in Hannibal that makes this version even more sly and menacing. A surprisingly dark show for home-network NBC, the series followed a still-in-the-serial-killer-closet Dr. Lecter as he slowly manipulates empathetic FBI profiler William Graham to determine if he can push this principled man into becoming a killer.
David Fincher doesn’t just excel at making tense movies based on real-life serial killers, he also shines at making excellent TV programs about serial killers. A Netflix original series, Mindhunter follows the FBI’s first investigations into and conversations with serial killers like Ed Kemper and Jerry Brudos.
Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench’s (Holt McCallany) unconventional interview sequences with various killers and trips into the field lend the show a sense that anything can happen to our key characters at any time. Despite this, Mindhunter is at its best when teasing out the protagonist’s personal lives and how their dark, invasive work impacts how they communicate and relate with others. Interviewing serial killers isn’t exactly the material someone wants to bring home from the office, and the show is framed in such a concise, penetrating way that even some of the most low-stakes scenes feel incredibly explosive and dangerous as a result of the dangerous people our protagonists are now interacting with.
A dystopian story about two individuals in a magical realist society with a touch of medical malpractice from Cary Fukunaga, the director of every episode of True Detective’s first season? Sign me up.
The Netflix original mini-series starring Emma Frost and Jonah Hill has a lot going for it, but the sense of confusion and hysteria truly never disappears even when things are at their most tranquil. Set around a group of drug trial participants who are trying to cure their mental and social disorders, the show has a magical realist sense that constantly incorporates zany and obscure images to explore uncomfortable feelings of loneliness and isolation. With a story that crisscrosses various timelines and brings viewers inside the key character’s self-consciousness, Maniac is a fast-paced, complex show that constantly makes viewers pause and reconsider what just happened on screen.