From The 39 Steps to Enemy of the State: Twisty conspiracy thrillers to trigger your paranoia

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
7 Min Read
Conspiracy Thriller Movies
Conspiracy Thriller Movies Credit: The Nightly

Everyone’s a little paranoid these days, right? Even the most sensible, moderate person will occasionally let their mind wander. What’s really going on, you might ask, before shaking it off.

In this era of your parents having too much time in retirement going down a YouTube rabbit hole and with every second post on X making unhinged claims that some horrible tragedy was a false flag operation, it’s surprising Hollywood isn’t churning out more conspiracy thrillers.

In the past, the anxiety-inducing genre was often a reaction to global events and a rise in the distrust of institutions. The 1970s in post-Nixon America was a particularly rich moment.

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While 2024 seems like it would be primed for a revival, perhaps it’s too close to home thanks to the proliferation of the tin-foil hatted being fuelled by misinformation and disinformation on social media. It’s all a little too real – the paranoia, not the conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy thriller movies make for such gripping experiences because they seem like wild, elaborate fantasies removed from the day-to-day. As odd as it sounds, it’s escapism.

You may have had an exhausting day – too much traffic, a mansplaining colleague parroting your idea and taking credit for it, or your meeting ran so late the café down the road has sold out your favourite sandwich. But at least you’re not caught up in a case of mistaken identity and on the run from shady government agents.

We may not want to be confronted with 2024’s real-life conspiracy theorists, but there’s nothing wrong with diving into some fictional schemes.

THE PELICAN BRIEF

The Pelican Brief
Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief. Credit: Supplied

If there’s someone who knows how to spin an out-there yarn, it’s John Grisham, and for a time, almost every one of the legal thriller writer’s books had been adapted for the big screen. The Pelican Brief is one of his most complex conspiracies, involving a university student (Julia Roberts) who theorises on the deaths of two Supreme Court justices.

When people around her who have read her paper start to be picked off, she realises there’s some truth to her speculation involving an oil and gas tycoon. Now on the run with a reporter (Denzel Washington), she’ll have to escape the merciless assassin (Stanley Tucci) to expose the truth.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

Three Days of the Condor
Robert Redford as a CIA agent on the run in Three Days of the Condor. Credit: Supplied

Three Days of the Condor stars Robert Redford as a CIA analyst who chances upon a nefarious plot within his own intelligence organisation. At first, he doesn’t realise the extent of his discovery and after he files a relatively routine report, he goes out to grab lunch.

When he returns, his whole team has been killed and he’s now in a cat-and-mouse game with an assassin and is being framed for the earlier murders. He doesn’t know who he can trust or how high up the conspiracy goes.

There’s a subplot with Faye Dunaway that doesn’t hold up in 2024 but the rest of the film is edge-of-your-seat entertainment that really speaks to the vibe of its 1975 release in a post-Watergate era.

THE 39 STEPS

RICHARD HANNAY (ROBERT DONAT) , HOLDING A PAIR OF OPERA GLASSES, AND PAMELA (MADELAINE CARROLL) AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM TOGETHER AS THEY WATCH THE MEMORY MAN.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps was released in 1935. Credit: Michael Balcon/Ivor Montagu/Alfred Hitchcock

The genre loves a story about a person who discovers a conspiracy, often accidentally, is framed for the crime and then has to go on the run to try and clear their name. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is one to venture into what has now become a trope.

Released in 1935 and loosely based on a 1915 Canadian novel, the film is centred on a theatre-goer who becomes embroiled in a plot when a scared woman convinces him to hide her in his flat.

She says she’s a spy and has uncovered a scheme to steal British military secrets but when she is killed, he becomes the prime suspect.

To get to the bottom of things, he hightails it to Scotland while eluding assassins and the cops before a climactic scene at the Palladium Theatre in London.

THE FIRM

The FirmTom Cruise
The Firm was also based on a John Grisham novel. Credit: Supplied

Who is better at “man on the run” than Tom Cruise? And in The Firm, he literally and figuratively runs.

The 1993 thriller stars Cruise as Mitch McDeere, a top law school graduate who is recruited by a small but elite firm in Memphis. The job is a huge upgrade – fancy house, fancy car, fancy salary – but there’s something off about the company, including the recent deaths of four associates.

Turns out, the firm does a lot of money laundering and tax avoidance work for “businessmen” and anyone who tries to leave the firm meets a sticky end. There are phone taps, honey traps, dead investigators and the most suspenseful scene ever involving photocopying papers. And, of course, Tom Cruise running.

ENEMY OF THE STATE

KAL-ENEMY   4/6/99  TH    SENTMOVIE; ENEMY OF THE STATE
Will Smith and Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. Credit: Supplied

Directed by Tony Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Enemy of the State is peak late-1990s action thriller vibes and features a peak late-1990s cast led by Will Smith and Gene Hackman with the likes of Jack Black, Jake Busey, Seth Green, Jamie Kennedy, Barry Pepper, Lisa Bonet, Scott Caan, Jason Lee, Regina King and Gabriel Byrne in supporting roles. You cannot get more late-1990s than that.

And it deals with what was the then-nascent and now-full blown anxieties around technological surveillance over individual privacy. It’s much harder to be on the run (Smith is a lawyer who ends up a tape of the murder of a politician) when your enemies can track your every move on the grid.

SOYLENT GREEN

Soylent Green
Soylent Green is [spoiler redacted]! Credit: Supplied

When Soylent Green was released in 1973, it predicted that by 2022, the world would be beset by overpopulation and ecological disaster. Only the wealthiest can still afford actual food in their walled-off communities policed by bodyguards and security systems.

Division in this dystopian society is very literal.

Everyone else has to subsist on processed food wafers called Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow and so on. The newest “flavour” is Soylent Green, apparently tastier and more nutritious.

The secret of what Soylent Green is really made from will eventually be unearthed by a detective portrayed by Charlton Heston, who begins to investigate after the murder of a board member of the Soylent company.

Decades later, in the real world, Silicon Valley bros too “busy” changing the world, would scoff down a food replacement product called Soylent, completely missing the point.

WAG THE DOG

Wag the Dog
Wag the Dog, a classic Clinton-era political satire. Credit: Supplied

Wag the Dog is a satirical comedy and not a thriller but it is as disturbing as it is hilarious. The 1997 film by Barry Levinson stars Robert De Niro as a political spin doctor tasked with distracting the public from a sex scandal in the lead-up to a presidential election.

He decides to stage a fake war in Albania, all waged from inside a Hollywood studio with an unscrupulous producer (Dustin Hoffman) who relishes the idea of what would be his greatest production.

The plotline of the elaborate con involving an invented folk song, a POW hero and an orphan girl became a real-life conspiracy flashpoint when one month after Wag the Dog’s release, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke and two years after that, the Clinton administration intervened in the war in the Balkans where some of the conflict took place just over the border from Albania.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

A scene from The Manchurian Candidate.
Liev Schreiber in The Manchurian Candidate. Credit: Supplied

Given the era of release, the 1962 version with Frank Sinatra is underpinned by a communist plot to overthrow the US government but by the time of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake, the political climate had changed.

It was no longer reds under the beds but the mistrust of the cosy relationships between politicians and big businesses.

Liev Schreiber plays a would-be vice presidential candidate and war hero who is secretly a sleeper agent under the control of his ambitious mother (Meryl Streep).

Denzel Washington plays a soldier from the same platoon and starts to investigate when a fellow veteran says he’s been having the same distressing dreams of torture and brainwashing.

THE NET

Sandra Bullock in The Net
The Net still terrifies. Credit: Supplied

Remember floppy disks and the green and black interface of DOS systems? In The Net, Sandra Bullock plays a loner systems analyst who is inadvertently embroiled in a conspiracy involving cyberterrorists and a tech company when a soon-to-be-murdered co-worker sends her an incriminating disk.

The rudimentary technology of The Net may induce chuckles or trigger memories of frustratingly slow tech, but the themes are still resonant and terrifying.

The broad stroke risks – someone erasing your online identity and records, a malicious medical misdiagnosis, big tech with no moral compass – remains very, very real.

DARK WATERS

Dark Waters film stills
Dark Waters stars Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. Credit: supplied/supplied

The scariest thing about Dark Waters is that it’s not some paranoid fringe conspiracy thriller.

It’s actually a sobering drama based on the real-life cover-up and corporate greed of chemical giants who produce PFOAs, also known as forever chemicals that are found across myriad household goods including non-stick pans, carpets, cleaning productions and water-resistant fabrics.

They’re everywhere, including in the bodies of 98 per cent of the human population – and they don’t break down.

The film features Mark Ruffalo as a crusading lawyer who begins to uncover the truth when he takes on a client whose cows are badly diseased and suspects the DuPont chemical plant nearby is responsible.

What do you know? It is, and the company knew it, and they knew it was linked to cancer and deformities.

It also stars Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp and Tim Robbins.

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