10 Conspiracy Thrillers for the Truly Paranoid

10 Conspiracy Thrillers for the Truly Paranoid

I’m a big fan of the thrillers in general, but what I love in particular are conspiracy thrillers. This genre is a mostly forgotten art because, in my opinion, few movies today are able to capture the truly unhinged paranoia of prior decades. It might also be that we have enough conspiracies in real life to satisfy.

Starting in the 1970s, Hollywood began churning out stories that were far more distrustful of the government than before. After Watergate, the Vietnam war, and a litany of mid-century scandals and coverups, distrust had crept into American popular culture, and that suspicion was reflected in Hollywood. These movies are great because they take serious themes and topics and transform them into vehicles of suspense and excitement. We all know that powerful people and institutions do bad things, but, in real life, we almost never get to hear or see what that bad behaviour looks like as it happens, we don’t get to peer over the shoulder of the bad guy as he’s doing his dastardly deeds. With these movies, you do. So, if you want to get paranoid, here are some flicks to check out.

The Parallax View (1974)

Released during the Watergate scandal, this 1973 classic really set the tone for the “Paranoid Seventies,” the decade when Americans lost trust in the people in power. Warren Beatty is a slovenly newspaper reporter whose investigation into the death of a friend leads him to discover a bizarre, MK-Ultra-type conspiracy. The film is directed by Alan J. Pakula, who would go on to direct a number of other decade-defining conspiracy flicks.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

In this 1975 classic, Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a bookish CIA agent who manages to survive a targeted “hit” that kills everybody else at his office. Going on the run, Redford attempts to elude his government handlers and find out why his team was slaughtered. Max von Sydow plays a shadowy spook who pursues Turner.

All the President’s Men (1976)

It’s the story that launched a thousand journalism careers. Robert Redford (again) and Dustin Hoffman play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story. Hal Holbrook plays “deepthroat,” Woodward’s famous source that encouraged the reporters to “follow the money.” This film, which is directed by Alan J. Pakula (also the director of The Parallax View and other conspiracy thrillers), was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three.

Marathon Man (1976)

This cringe-inducing thriller involves classical thespian Lawrence Olivier playing a Nazi war criminal named Christian Szell who is being pursued by undercover agents. Szell becomes locked in a creepy game of cat and mouse with one of the agents (Roy Scheider). Szell’s unwitting brother, played by Dustin Hoffman, gets roped into the affair. It’s a pretty bizarre movie, and includes a famous scene where Hoffman is tortured via tooth extraction. Proceed with caution.

Blowout (1981)

All of Brian De Palma’s movies are ridiculous Alfred Hitchcock-inspired thrillers. His 1981 movie Blow Out makes almost no sense but still succeeds in being mightily entertaining: John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound technician for a Hollywood slasher movie who accidentally records the sounds of a “Chappaquiddick”-type incident involving the Pennsylvannia governor and a prostitute. The story then devolves into a paranoid series of events, including a bizarre subplot in which a hired goon for a political candidate becomes a serial killer. Again, this movie is totally bonkers. But’s it’s also great!

The Star Chamber (1983)

Prior to his roles in Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas starred in this lesser known thriller about a secret society inside the American judicial system that secretly metes out justice to their own liking. The Star Chamber, named after an infamous British cabal from the 15th century, dispatches hired guns to take care of criminals who cannot be effectively prosecuted. Douglas is an idealistic judge who gets wrapped up in the “Chamber” and gets in over his head.

JFK (1991)

If you want to get really paranoid, check out Oliver Stone’s classic (and controversial) movie about the JFK assassination. The movie revolves around the true story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who investigated links between a network of conservative Southern goons and the 1963 killing of the president. The movie has been lambasted (both when it came out and throughout the years), mostly because it insinuates that CIA agents or similar deep state thugs killed America’s president.

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Thriller maestro Alan J. Pakula struck again with this 1993 movie about a law student (Julia Roberts) who stumbles upon a conspiracy involving the assassination of two Supreme Court judges. A journalist, played by Denzel Washington, gets involved to help Roberts and the duo try to outwit the shadowy forces pursuing them. The story is twisty, but it’s a fun ride.

The Manchurian Candidate (2005)

Also starring Denzel, this 2004 remake of a 1962 classic became a classic in its own right. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the movie involves Major Bennett Marco (Washington), a Gulf War veteran who can’t shake the feeling that his head has been seriously messed with. To clear things up, he reaches out to his former comrade, the wealthy Raymond Shaw, who is running for president. Ultimately we learn that Marco and Shaw are part of a conspiracy by factions of the government to create brainwashed sleeper agents (something our government actually tried to do). It’s a great, creepy flick — required viewing, honestly. I’d recommend the original too.

Shooter (2007)

This movie is dumb…but it’s also a lot of fun. Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger (yes, that’s his name), a reclusive former Marine Corps sniper who is framed for a botched assassination and goes on the run to clear his name and exact retribution on the deep state spooks who betrayed him. It’s peak Wahlberg, and the movie includes a lot of twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing.