Ever since the inception of cinema as a storytelling medium, the crime genre has been one of the most popular. It’s a great way to tell riveting stories with impactful themes and memorable characters.
In the suspenseful and exhilarating environments that crime movies often present, it’s easy to connect to the characters and their struggles. This is particularly true when the film in question is driven by those characters, their arcs, and their development, like in the case of the Safdie brothers’ Good Timeand Mary Harron‘s satirical classic American Psycho.
1 ‘The Godfather’ (1972) & ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)
When it comes to character studies, it’s hard to get any better than Francis Ford Coppola‘s masterpieces The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, seminal pieces of the crime genre and filmmaking in general.
The two first films in the series have a thoroughly engaging storyline and fascinating themes regarding tradition, family, and the American Dream. However, the true core of it all are Michael and Vito Corleone. Audiences are subjected to the tragic moral downfall of the former, while watching the latter rise to power and perpetuate it through a combination of loyalty and violence.
2 ‘Heat’ (1995)
Michael Mann is no stranger to character studies in the crime genre, and it’s hard to argue against the fact that the heavily lauded Heat is his magnum opus in that department.
Although it isn’t common to see crime thrillers that are slow-burning and all about building atmosphere, Mann somehow makes it work wonderfully with Heat. The star-studded cast does an amazing job, and it definitely helps that they’re all playing brilliantly written characters with clearly defined personalities and fascinating flaws.
3 ‘In Bruges’ (2008)
The Banshees of Inisherin cemented Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as one of the greatest comedic duos in recent times, but it was In Bruges that introduced this iconic pairing with a delightfully dark comedy about a pair of hitmen waiting for their next mission in Bruges, Belgium.
n Bruges is hilarious, tense, fun, and full of Martin McDonagh‘s signature nihilism and cynicism. What makes it work as well as it does, though, is its focus on its nuanced characters and the way they experience guilt and redemption.
4 ‘The King of Comedy’ (1982)
Martin Scorsese is one of cinema’s greatest masters of dark character studies following deeply flawed, morally questionable people (often played by the always brilliant Robert De Niro).
The King of Comedy is one of Scorsese’s most underrated movies (as well as featuring one of De Niro’s most overlooked performances), where the protagonist is one of the most deranged characters in the director’s filmography. As the film goes deeper and deeper into the character’s psyche, it becomes even more engaging.
5 ‘Good Time’ (2017)
With Robert Pattinson currently having a bit of a renaissance, it’s always worth looking back at one of the earlier roles that let audiences see just what this talented actor is capable of: Good Time.
Josh and Benny Safdie direct this tense thriller about a guy trying to get his brother out of jail over the course of one night. The audience isn’t asked to empathize with the main character or root for him, but it’s inevitable to be captivated by his energetic personality and deep meaning in the symbolism of the narrative.
6 ‘American Psycho’ (2000)
Based on the almost equally famous 1991 novel of the same title, Mary Harron’s rendition of American Psycho is an equal parts hilarious, equal parts thought-provoking satire poking fun at materialistic culture and the dark side of masculinity.
Harron does an admirable job at balancing comedy, horror, and crime movie tropes. The audience gets to see the whole thing through the eyes of Christian Bale‘s Patrick Bateman, resulting in a twisting and contorting of reality and perceptions that simply makes the story’s themes more fascinating.
7 ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014)
One of the most enrapturing crime thrillers in recent years, Nightcrawler is the story of a journalist desperate for work who starts to blur the line between observation and participation.
Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifyingly convincing in the role of Lou Bloom, a ruthless and manipulative walking mystery. From scene to scene, it gets increasingly harder to say with certainty whether he’s an antihero or a full-blown villain. He’s the perfect representation of what happens to unstable people in a dangerously brutal capitalistic society.
8 ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992)
American auteur Abel Ferrara is known for making contentious character studies that redefine the modern neo-noir film. For some, his best work in this vein is Bad Lieutenant.
On the surface, Ferrara’s masterpiece may look like a typical police procedural. Beneath that, however, lies a brilliant exploration of an irredeemably decadent man falling deeper and deeper into despair and corruption, and the spiritual implications of that downward spiral.
9 ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975)
Cinema owes a great deal to the chameleonic filmmaker Sidney Lumet. Some of the artform’s greatest works come from him, including 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and—of course—Dog Day Afternoon, based on the true story of a bizarre bank heist.
The film is superbly crafted in every sense, including what most people agree is one of Al Pacino‘s greatest performances. Lumet packs the film with a variety of social issues and fascinating character moments, with the main characters driving the narrative beautifully.
10 ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
It’s hard to beat Taxi Driver. It’s the ultimate crime drama, the ultimate character study, the ultimate Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro film, and just a staggering work of art all-around.
The film explores loneliness, masculinity, and violence in the most riveting of ways. In the story, New York is purgatory and the character of Travis moves through it like a ghost. It’s a movie about the repressiveness of urban environments, the volatility of a lonely person’s ideals, and the difficulty of true human connection. This is how you do a proper character-driven crime film.
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