The Best Kidnap Thrillers
Years ago, I managed a video store, and I’ve probably watched thousands of movies in my lifetime. Needless to say, I’m a sucker for films in general—the darker, the better—and as a thriller writer, I’m always on the lookout for stories with a killer spin or twist. And kidnap thrillers are a particular favorite.
Here are the five best kidnap thrillers of all time:
I’m guessing most people have at least heard of Saw (if not actually watched it), but for those who haven’t: Two men wake in a locked room, ankle-chained to the wall, with no recollection of how they got there. Through a series of flashbacks and cut-scenes, we learn they are pawns in a deadly game, and they must do the unthinkable to survive. One could argue this movie is more horror than kidnap thriller—especially when you factor in the “over-the-top” sequels—but this first movie is brilliantly plotted and paced and has too many twists to count. Give it a chance if you haven’t yet.
Allegedly based on “true events,” this dark comedy follows a beat-down car salesman who pays two inept criminals to kidnap his wife in the hopes of collecting a hefty ransom from her step-father. Everything goes wrong, of course, and while there’s no big twist at the end, there is a wood chipper, but I won’t say any more than that. Much like Saw, I imagine most people have seen or heard of Fargo (it did win two Oscars, after all), but if you haven’t watched it, it’s a brilliant film with clever dialogue, breathtaking scenery, and characters you’ll love to hate.
Mel Gibson shines as Tom Mullen—a father whose son is taken by a group of criminals who demand a million-dollar ransom. After a botched delivery attempt of the money, Tom doesn’t believe the abductors are going to return his son, so he publicly offers the million dollars as a reward for anyone who can track down the kidnappers. It’s a great and original premise, and the movie has a stellar cast, including Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg, and Lili Taylor.
ALPHA DOG (2006)
I wish more people knew about this underrated movie. Based on a true story, Johnny Truelove is a small-time drug dealer in his twenties and the leader of a “gang” of misfits. When he’s disrespected by Jake Mazursky—a local thug who owes him money—Johnny decides to kidnap Jake’s younger brother, Zack. The twist? Zack doesn’t know he’s been kidnapped, and he spends his time partying with Johnny’s gang, drinking, doing drugs, and even meeting a new love interest. But things soon spin out of control, leading to a heartbreaking climax. What makes this story so tragic is that these aren’t hardened criminals; they’re misguided kids with troubled home lives who get in over their heads. That doesn’t excuse or justify their behavior, but it humanizes them just enough to make them relatable.
When Keller Dover’s six-year-old daughter goes missing, the police arrest Alex Jones—a local oddity who was seen in the neighborhood at the time of the disappearance—believing him to be the kidnapper. When no evidence is found and the police are forced to release him, Keller takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping Alex . . . and torturing him in an attempt to discover the truth. This movie haunted for me days after watching it. Torture is wrong. But as a father myself, wouldn’t I do whatever it took to find and protect my child? This movie asks tough questions and offers few answers.
Last, but not least, I have one “special mention” entry:
GONE GIRL (2014)
For me, this movie is the coup de grace. It may be a bit of a stretch to call this a “kidnap” thriller, but if you think about it—spoiler alert: I am going to reveal some plot as I’m confident everyone has seen this movie or read the book by this point—Amy basically kidnaps herself, and then blames it on Desi, who, arguably, does sort of kidnap her, or at least makes her his guest/prisoner. Regardless, if you haven’t watched this movie, it’s one that will stay with you for a long time.
Movies, for me, have always been an escape from reality, but with so much “real-life horror” in the world today, some people might wonder why anyone would enjoy films such as these. I think that’s the exact reason we’re drawn to them: it’s a safe way to explore our fears. Most of us will never experience a violent crime, or a kidnapping, or even a random act of violence . . . but at the same time, most of us worry about these things, and we can’t help but ask ourselves: what would we do in that situation?
Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out.
About the Author
Erik Therme has thrashed in garage bands, inadvertently harbored runaways, and met Darth Vader. When he’s not at his computer, he can be found cheering on his youngest daughter’s volleyball team, or watching horror movies with his oldest. He currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa—one of only twenty-eight places in the world that UNESCO has certified as a City of Literature. Join Erik’s mailing list to be notified of new releases and author giveaways: http://eepurl.com/cD1F8L
He can also be found at eriktherme.com and Goodreads.
More Thriller Features
Nannies in Thrillers
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
Games, Stakes, and the Thriller
Why we love horrifying games in our fiction
Thriller Book Club Questions
10 Book Club Questions for a Thriller