A great genre of film that often doesn’t get its due are movies about conspiracy theories, often called paranoid thrillers. These are movies where the protagonist, often a journalist, uncovers an evil plot by a government or corporation and struggles to bring the truth to light as he or she is hunted mercilessly by the people who want to stop them from revealing their transgressions. Sometimes, these paranoid thrillers are based on real events, such as the movie Erin Brockovich about a woman who blows the whistle on a company poisoning a town’s drinking water, and the upcoming film Spotlight about sexual abuse committed and covered up by the Catholic church. But most times, these movies are pure escapist fun—albeit with a good measure of intensity thrown in. So here is a list of 11 of the best paranoid thriller movies.
11. Flashpoint (1984)
Two U.S. border patrol agents discover a jeep long buried in the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border. Inside the jeep is a skeleton, along with a high powered rifle and a bag containing $800,000 cash. Who is the skeleton and what was the man doing with the rifle and bag of money? So begins the mystery surrounding the plot of Flashpoint, a 1984 film starring actors Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams. The border patrol agents become intrigued with the mystery and dig deeper and deeper in search of answers, despite the warnings of their bosses to back off and let federal agents handle the investigation. But the more the two border patrol agents uncover, the more complex the conspiracy behind the skeleton in the jeep. Hint: It involves a political assassination. Flashpoint is a solid thriller that has been largely overlooked. A strong script and good acting make this an engrossing movie that is worth a look. It was also the first movie made by Home Box Office, aka HBO.
10. Enemy of the State (1998)
A high-tech whiz bang of a movie, 1998’s Enemy of the State stars actor Will Smith as a Washington-based lawyer who becomes the target of corrupt government agents and assassins after he is given evidence of a politically motivated crime. Gene Hackman is great in the movie as a seriously paranoid hermit who uses his technology savvy to help Will Smith figure out why the government is after him, and how to turn the tables on the corrupt politicians who have marked him for death. Directed by Tony Scott of Top Gun fame, Enemy of the State plays largely as an action film with lots of chases, jump cuts and shoot outs. However, at its heart, this movie is driven by a conspiracy theory plot and shows how the government today literally has eyes on every one of its citizens.
9. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
In this 1975 thriller, made right after U.S. President Richard Nixon resigned from office, Robert Redford plays a bookish CIA analyst who goes out to pick up a lunch order for his office and returns a few minutes later to find that all his co-workers have been murdered. Shocked, confused and with no explanation for the grizzly assassinations, Redford’s character goes on the run while trying to figure out why the mass killing took place and who is behind it—all the while being pursued by government assassins. The more he learns, the bigger the conspiracy surrounding the CIA killings gets and the more in danger his life becomes, especially when everyone Redford’s character thought he knew and trusted betrays him. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor is a classic paranoid thriller from the 1970s—perhaps the most fruitful era for the genre. Fresh off the Nixon Watergate scandal, America seemed to have an especially high distrust of government at the time, which is on full display in this movie.
8. Arlington Road (1999)
What would you do if your next door neighbors were radicals bent on political terrorism? That is the question posed to audiences in the 1999 thriller Arlington Road. Actor Jeff Bridges plays a college professor, specializing in teaching about terrorism and political radicalism, who begins to suspect that his next door neighbor, played by actor Tim Robbins, may himself be a political radical who is plotting to carry out a terrorist act against the U.S. government. Is Jeff Bridges right about his neighbor or is he paranoid? This movie plays with that question until the very end. And while the conclusion of the movie is a little predictable, the build-up is strong, especially given the talents of Bridges and Robbins, who spend the movie dancing around each other and trying to fake the other out. A slow build psychological thriller, Arlington Road is a good example of a modern day conspiracy theory film.
7. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The original Manchurian Candidate movie, released in 1962, is the originator of the conspiracy movie genre. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the movie is about an American soldier, played by Frank Sinatra, who is taken prisoner during the Korean War and brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin back home in the U.S. The ultimate Cold War paranoia film, The Manchurian Candidate tapped into people’s fears at the time of Communism, the Soviet Union, political instability and invasion. A slow burn psychological thriller, The Manchurian Candidate involves a considerable amount of politics and a twisted storyline. Audiences become more paranoid as the main character grows increasingly distrustful of everyone around him. This movie has influenced a lot of television and film work that came after it—from the Jason Bourne movies to the TV show Homeland.
6. Blow Out (1981)
In this excellent thriller directed by Brian De Palma, John Travolta plays a movie sound technician who is out recording by a lake one night when he witnesses a car plunge into the lake. At first, it seems like a tragic accident caused by a tire blow out. However, Travolta’s recording equipment picked up a sound that proves the car’s plunge into the lake was no accident at all, but rather a staged murder with political motives behind it. On the run, Travolta’s character struggles to protect his sound recording and bring the truth to light through the media, while evading the government agents hired to kill him and retrieve the evidence. Stylishly made and expertly directed, this film is one of the best made by John Travolta and Brian De Palma. It’s also helped by a standout performance from character actor John Lithgow, who plays the government agent determined to find John Travolta and silence him before he reveals the truth.
5. All The President’s Men (1976)
This movie gets extra points for being based on the real events that broke open the Watergate conspiracy and led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon. Based on the true life reporting of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the movie examines what the two young journalists went through to uncover the truth behind the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), headquartered at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., during the 1972 presidential campaign, and who ordered the break-ins. What’s interesting about this movie, directed by Alan J. Pakula, is how little detail is actually provided about the break-ins. The movie assumes that audiences already know what happened and the end result. Rather, the movie focuses on the work of the journalists and their personal struggles to get the story out. Actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are perfectly cast as Woodward and Bernstein, and their haggard search for the truth is captivating, especially the covert meetings Woodward has with the mysterious government official codenamed “Deep Throat.”
4. The X-Files (1998)
The first X-Files movie, released in 1998 at the height of the television show’s popularity, is very good—namely because it answers a lot of the questions raised by the TV show, while also advancing the central storyline around the presence of aliens on Earth and the conspiracy to cover up their existence and actions on our planet. The movie has the same paranoid energy and drive to find the truth as the long-running series, but it also has a number of thrilling action sequences, great special effects, and reveals much about the alien conspiracy that FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) relentlessly pursue. The movie also deftly handles the relationship between the two FBI agents.
3. Marathon Man (1976)
The 1976 paranoid thriller Marathon Man stars Dustin Hoffman as a New York-based graduate student and marathon runner who finds himself unwittingly wrapped up in a conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, an exiled Nazi war criminal, and a rogue government agency known as the Division. The whole thing is played for maximum paranoia and fear, and the movie directed by John Schlesinger delivers. The scenes where government agents break into Dustin Hoffman’s bathroom while he’s soaking in the tub, and where his government agent brother, played by actor Roy Scheider, is killed, are genuinely terrifying. However, it is the scene where Nazi dentist Szell, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, repeatedly asks Dustin Hoffman “Is it safe?” before drilling into his teeth and gums that has viewers squirming in their seats. Not a movie to be watched by people who have a natural fear of the dentist.
2. The Parallax View (1974)
Probably the broadest in terms of scope of the movies on this list, 1974’s The Parallax View stars Warren Beatty as a reporter who gets in deep while investigating the assassination of a U.S. Senator. So deep, in fact, that the reporter uncovers a conspiracy involving a multinational corporation that is involved in all the world’s news headlines—all of them. The assassination of the U.S. Senator was part of a conspiracy involving the Parallax Corporation, an enigmatic “training institute.” To get to the truth, Warren Beatty enrolls in the Parallax training himself and slips down a rabbit hole of lies, deceit, intrigue and manipulation. This movie is widely credited for setting the template for the paranoid thrillers that followed it and was a box office success, helping to kick-off the wave of conspiracy theory movies that followed the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.
1. The Conversation (1974)
Many movie critics and film aficionados consider The Conversation to be the best movie ever made by director Francis Ford Coppola. And that’s saying a lot considering Coppola directed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. While The Conversation is a smaller movie made between those two epics, it is nonetheless a classic move. It focuses on a paranoid and secretive surveillance expert who has a crisis of conscience when he fears that a young couple he is spying on is about to be murdered. An intimate character study, The Conversation features a restrained but powerful performance by Gene Hackman as the main character, and the movie takes a number of surprising twists and turns leading up to an ending that is genuinely surprising, and a final scene that could be the very definition of paranoia. For a conspiracy theory movie or paranoid thriller, they don’t come any better than The Conversation.