A great murder mystery is hard to come by. Often, the best is a confluence of events, plot, and character depth with a talented director behind the lens bringing each frame to life. Ensembles are popular, bringing on an onslaught of suspects, but it can also be the journey of one person to save their soul. Agatha Christie said, “Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul are revealed by your actions”.
The best of these films reveal something dark and sinister about ourselves. The biggest question is always the “why?” What could drive someone to murder? The best murder mysteries devise these situations and unearth a blanket of perversity, revenge, and curiosity. Whether it be the hard-boiled detective, a regular Joe entangled in events beyond his understanding, or friends trying to wrong a right, these are the best murder mystery movies of the 21st Century, so far.
Updated on September 24th, 2023, by Federico Furzan: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel — whose works almost exclusively take place in Boston — Mystic River is a tragic, fatalistic look at three lifelong friends intersecting at a deep and brutal crossroads. Directed by Clint Eastwood, whose elemental and patient touch immerses us in the small Boston neighborhoods.
Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tim Robbins play the three friends whose lives are seemingly marred when Penn’s daughter is murdered. As Penn pulls the most punches in a hammy, electric performance, Eastwood offers no catharsis with his formal restraint. Through trial by error, Penn uses his influence to turn vigilante. Mystic River won both Penn and Robbins Oscars for their harrowing performances.
The always-in-command Denzel Washington takes the center frame in the wildly hypnotic, wrong-man murder mystery Out of Time. Reminiscent of classic steamy thrillers with a slight Alfred Hitchcock panache where someone is forced to cover up and protect their innocence.
Carl Franklin directs the sweaty, humid atmosphere of a small Floridian town with all the nasty tension to ratchet up the ludicrous story. Set up by his mistress to steal money, Washington gets entangled with the wrong woman and seemingly becomes the straw man in a life insurance scam. Going to great lengths to clear his name as police chief, he gets caught up in all the twisted plot corridors that could see him lose his freedom forever.
Shane Black’s action comedy The Nice Guys is a vastly underrated murder mystery featuring two great leads in a film that doesn’t exactly pull any punches. The premise is pretty simple as it tells the story of an investigator and a private enforcer in the ’70s who decide to look for a teenage girl’s killer.
Weirdly, the film has a place for a comedy tone that, thanks to a great script, works smoothly to deliver a great story that wouldn’t work without the charisma of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in one of their finest performances. The film was critically hailed and confirmed Shane Black’s different storytelling abilities.
A very underrated thriller written and directed by Drew Goddard, Bad Times at the El Royale tells the story of six strangers who arrive at a strange hotel called El Royale. Each of them has a story to tell, but this doesn’t compare to what the hotel hides beyond its walls (and its floors).
A great neo-noir film that not many people saw when it was released because it doesn’t follow rules, it’s not a familiar IP, and it dared to go somewhere dark in the third act. It features a fantastic cast ensemble consisting of Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth among many others. Trust us when we say you will not guess where this one goes.
Taylor Sheridan sure knows how to write films. But in 2017, he tried again at directing (he directed his first film in 2011, but he doesn’t consider it to be worth mentioning) with Wind River, a snowy thriller featuring a great cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, and Jon Bernthal.
Wind River tells the story of two special agents coming from different backgrounds who investigate a murder in a tense-filled territory. An Indian reservation in Wyoming where corporations have slowly entered and now dominate. If there’s a film that’s worth going back a few years and digging around, this is the one.
In 2003, James Mangold directed Identity, a thriller that’s anything but highbrow, and features a great story about ten strangers trapped during a night storm in a shady motel where people start getting killed.
Surely, it sounds like a regular murder mystery featuring people trying to investigate who could be the culprit, but in Identity there’s a reason for the coincidence, and that reason lies in a subplot about a deranged killer being evaluated to see if he can be tried as a sane man. The “solution” will cause some anger in some viewers, but no one can say this isn’t a thrilling movie experience from the early 2000s featuring a fantastic cast.
Sam Raimi directing a film written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson? Yes, please. The Gift is also known as the film that features Keanu Reeves as a very bad and violent dude, something that’s hard to find in his career.
The Gift tells the story of a small-town fortune-teller called Annie (Cate Blanchett in one of the best roles of her career) who gets treated as a pariah by most people in town. But then, the girlfriend of the school’s principal disappears, and Annie sees her body in one of her visions. Everything points to the obvious, but Annie knows better than to point without the evidence she pulls from her psychic abilities.
David Fincher takes the deep pulp and mystery of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and puts his cold and technical but sleek look on the sprawling epic. Daniel Craig plays Mikael in his first fit of cold case detective work as a journalist dedicated to exposing extreme right-wingers.
He teams up with an elite hacker — the revelatory Rooney Mara — who leads them down a dangerous path solving a murder that occurred 40 years ago. Fincher keeps the tension airtight as the grim, cold, unforgiving nature of violence that permeates the wealthy family under investigation surmounts to bloody hell. TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo takes time to get to its conclusion but does so in classic Fincher fashion.
Shane Black takes the title of his movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from an essay written by famed film critic Pauline Kael when describing the noir genre. Essentially boiling down the old detective films of the ’40s to the bare essentials and giving them a fresh face, Black transports us to Los Angeles.
Taking the usual band of suspects and shuffling them around to deliver a murder mystery as a meta-commentary on the genre and the studio system itself. Pairing Robert Downey Jr., as a petty thief turned actor, with Val Kilmer was a match made in heaven. Michelle Monaghan plays the femme fatale with all the gusto and toughness she would bring to later roles. Black fills the film with his hilarious, side-talking banter and random acts of violence as slapstick comedy.
When Martin Scorsese approaches a genre film, he does so with the passion, knowledge, and history of an artist who has dedicated his life to understanding how the machinations of film can be applied and manipulated to whatever genre he’s tackling. When making Shutter Island, Scorsese saw the opportunity to open up his toolbox of camera tricks and storytelling devices.
Diving fully into B-movie territory, Scorsese tells the murder mystery and disappearance of a patient on a rain-covered island with a psychological twist. Leonardo DiCaprio plays manic and paranoid Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall in over his head. As the mystery unfolds, Scorsese sounds us with wild stylistic flourishes and flashbacks that haunt Daniel’s character. With a twist for the ages, Shutter Island is as fun as it is devastating.
Fincher has always found a way to take his cold, calculated, perverse outlook on the world and make it part of pop culture. With Gone Girl, he did no different. Adapting the best-selling novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, Fincher teamed with long-time friend Ben Affleck to throw the suburban schmuck in the middle of a murder mystery.
Fincher also delivers a commentary on the persona of the “star.” Played with an astonishingly bleak coldness by ice queen Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl puts Affleck’s Nick Dunne through a media circus and puzzle box wringer, a Fincher specialty. Grossing $367 million at the box office, Gone Girl is Fincher’s biggest hit to date.
The three-hour epic, roadhouse experience was a theatrical gateway for Quentin Tarantino to devise his single-location, snowbound murder mystery, The Hateful Eight. The film leads with two great performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell as the two collide.
They try to keep the deadly Daisy Domergue (an Oscar-nominated performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in chains as they take refuge in a suspicious trade cabin during a horrific blizzard. Populated with Tarantinoisms, great character names, and incredibly bloody shootouts and bursts of violence surmounted from the tension of the mystery at hand, The Hateful Eight is a surprisingly breezy three hours. Photographed beautifully by the virtuoso Robert Richardson in beautiful 70mm, the film crackles from start to finish.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has made a career of visually sleek, devastating brutalism where everyday people are pushed into a world unfamiliar and seemingly within their limits. Prisoners is the ultimate puzzle film as an obsessive detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) assists in an investigation of missing kids.
However, he also has to keep the obsessive and rage-filled father (Hugh Jackman) at bay. Kidnapping one of the main suspects and uncovering a network of individuals assisting in the sinister plot to sacrifice children, Prisoners takes its victims to the brink, while also delivering a steadfast of gorgeous, rain, and dread-filled imagery thanks to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The controversial Roman Polanski has a slew of films under his belt of conspiracy-driven, hard-boiled thrillers that take us through seedy underworlds where decisions get made in the shadows. The Ghost Writer saw a return to this similar form as Ewan McGregor plays a writer assisting a wildly over-the-top Pierce Brosnan as the British Prime Minister attempting to finish his memoirs on a remote island.
Caught in the middle of a conspiracy, Polanski pushes the Everyman McGregor character into a detective corner as he uncovers the smoke of a mass plot to murder. Riveting from start to finish, Polanski ends the film on a similar note to his classic Chinatown.
Rian Johnson has long been an admirer of the murder mystery whodunit and has shown his passion for the genre since he burst onto the scene with the Brick. The writer-director has always had complete control of his projects. His most fun Knives Out reinvigorated the familiar tropes of the all-knowing detective who takes on a slew of suspects when someone is murdered.
Johnson created the fashionably southern and articulate Benoit Blanc (a sly southern drawl from Craig — see Logan Lucky for the precursor) to investigate the Thrombley estate after their 85-year-old patriarch dies mysteriously. With a range of characters played by Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, and Michael Shannon, all vying for the money left behind, Blanc must determine the motives. Wearing its influences on its sleeve with some sly political commentary through family arguments, Knives Out was a huge hit and likely started a new wave of genre films.
During a run of films where Steven Spielberg was operating in the darkest parts of his thematic material, while also making films with one of the biggest superstars on the planet, Minority Report was a happy marriage of ideas. The film is a slick adventure met with the political commentary of sci-fi dystopias through Phillip K. Dick’s writing.
Tom Cruise plays a detective in a futuristic Washington D.C., where the population is under constant surveillance and murder has been eliminated thanks to a trio of precognitive brains that can tell the future. When the system gets manipulated into relaying that Cruise will be the murderer, Spielberg takes us on the run to uncover a murder conspiracy. Highlighting the dangers of total technological control and reliance on things outside our understanding, Minority Report is an action-packed, stylistic thrill ride.
The futility of technology, justice, and the baggage people carry when devastated by the tragedy. Bong Joon-ho announced himself to the world and stood out from the breaking Korean New Wave movement that started in the late 1990s with this near-perfect thriller.
WithMemories of Murder, Bong tells the sad, true story of a serial killer wreaking havoc on women in the small provincial town of Gyunggi in 1988. The police department is strapped with resources and can’t use its sense of vigilante justice anymore. The tremendous Song Kang-ho leads the film, in a Phillip Seymour Hoffman-like performance. Stripping away the vanity, with a dark comedy to his delivery but a fierce sense of passion, his pursuit of the killer, along with other detectives, is a gut punch.
Not properly recognized upon release as one of Fincher’s masterpieces and completely ignored at the Oscars, albeit in a stacked year, Zodiac is one of the finest films ever crafted about serial killers and the relentless pursuit to stop them.
These are ideas that Fincher would later mine in his Netflix show Mindhunters. Fincher also took actors like Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mark Ruffalo to their absolute limits before breaking. The film is terrifyingly cold in the way it depicts the murders of the Zodiac killer, but epic in scope when showing the bureaucratic, detective processes it takes to bring a monster like the Zodiac killer to justice.