Few genres contain the gap in quality between best and worst like true crime.
The best of true crime is not only gripping in its storytelling, but revealing in what it tells us about each other and the place crime occupies in our society. The worst of true crime can be exploitative or downright cruel, taking advantage of our worst instincts as amateur detectives (or just as nosy people).
Nowadays, when people hear “true crime,” it’s understandable the first thing that pops to mind are straight-to-streaming docuseries about some horrible person. But that’s not all the genre contains — it has a long and storied history of entertaining and terrifying audiences alike.
We’re not going to dive into true crime literature on this list, but there’s enough time to say that if you haven’t read Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood and you’re interested in this topic, you should stop whatever you’re doing right now and go read it. We’re also not going to talk about meta movies and shows about the true crime genre, like Only Murders in the Building and the excellent American Vandal. Instead, let’s pick out some of the best of the best that the genre has to offer.
Run time: 1h 39m
Director: Bart Layton
Cast: Frédéric Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide
I’ll be totally honest with you: Apart from how often it overlaps with that of thrillers, I’m not all that interested in the subgenre of true crime. One of the sole exceptions is Bart Layton’s 2012 documentary on the true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a notorious serial imposter who in 1997, at the age of 23, impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a young boy from San Antonio, Texas, who disappeared three years prior at the age of 13.
The Imposter dives into Bourdin’s life, exploring his history of adopting false identities while scrutinizing the circumstances that led to Bourdin being taken in by Barclay’s family despite their dissimilar appearances. It’s an enthralling story about a charismatic con artist who may have himself been manipulated in order to cover up the true circumstances of a tragic, unsolved disappearance. —Toussaint Egan
The Imposter is available to stream for free on Plex and with ads on Peacock, Pluto TV, and Tubi.
Memories of Murder
Run time: 2h 12m
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roi-ha
Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 psychological crime thriller recounts the story of the Korea’s first confirmed serial murders, which took place between 1986 and 1991 and remained unsolved until DNA evidence identified the killer in 2019. Song Kang-ho, who would go on to collaborate with Bong in films including The Host, Snowpiercer, and the Oscar-winning dark comedy drama Parasite, stars as Park Doo-man, a local detective assigned to work alongside junior detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) to crack the case. Packed with haunting imagery, terrific performances, and a devastating gut-punch of an ending, Memories of Murder remains one of the most masterful films Bong Joon-ho has directed to date. —TE
Memories of Murder is available to stream on Hulu.
Pain & Gain
Run time: 2h 9m
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie
Pain & Gain is true crime (comedy variant) meeting the explosive excess of Michael Bay, and both are at their very best. Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie play a group of bodybuilding idiots who kidnap one of their clients (Tony Shalhoub) in a scheme to make it big. Their schemes spiral out of control in a last-ditch effort to grasp the American Dream.
After the stellar Ambulance, we may be heading into a bit of a Baynaissance, so freshen up by getting hip to his funniest movie (by far). That humor goes a long way toward making the movie work, as Johnson and Wahlberg both tend to be at their best in comedic roles. Pain & Gain is a piece of true crime that takes a larger-than-life story, amplifies it to the nth degree, and manages to find not only a riotous good time, but plenty to chew on when it comes to the “promise” of the American Dream. The first eight minutes, available on YouTube, give you a good idea of the movie’s tone. —Pete Volk
Pain & Gain is available to stream on Prime Video and Paramount Plus.
The Thin Blue Line
Run time: 1h 41m
Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Randall Adams, David Ray Harris
Errol Morris set the bar for the true crime genre with this documentary about the 1976 killing of a Dallas police officer. Randall Dale Adams was convicted for the crime and sent to jail, but in his research, Morris found inconsistencies, and used the power of interview interrogation and re-creation to make a cinematic case that Adams was not the man who pulled the trigger that night. What separates The Thin Blue Line from so many imitators is style. While Morris’ film advocated for and eventually freed Adams after 12 years in jail, it’s still a movie: composed, concise, and engrossing. —Matt Patches
The Thin Blue Line is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
Into the Abyss
Run time: 1h 47m
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Werner Herzog, Michael Perry, Jason Burkett
Into the Abyss isn’t your typical true crime deep dive, but that’s the transcendent relief we get from a pro like Werner Herzog. Instead of sensationalizing or fetishizing the 2001 murder of a 50-year-old Texas woman and her 17-year-old son, Herzog affixes his camera to the present, interviewing the murderer who sits on death row and his accomplice. Unlike Herzog’s other documentaries, Into the Abyss doesn’t rely on much reflective narration or wandering camera work. Through interviews with family, Texas authorities, and the killers themselves, the film is a clinical attempt at understanding the psychology of a heinous crime, going straight to the source and considering that murderers are people, too. —MP
Into the Abyss is available to stream for free with a library card on Kanopy and with ads on Pluto TV.
Don’t Fuck With Cats
Run time: 57-65 minutes per episode; three episodes in total (3h 5m)
Director: Mark Lewis
Cast: John Green, Deanna Thompson, Claudette Hamlin
Animal lovers, beware: This documentary plunges directly into the story behind a series of graphic viral videos depicting an unknown assailant murdering kittens. If that doesn’t immediately turn you off from this three-part crime series, what’s left is a fascinating look at how online sleuths banded together to uncover the killer, the knotted life of the man in question, and perhaps most importantly, the ripple effect of a reckless amateur investigation, which ultimately led to more blood. In a day and age where true crime content is churned out and Reddit pop-ups are constantly trying to solve the next big crime, Don’t Fuck With Cats’ biggest message might be its meta-commentary — violence begets violence begets violence. —MP
Don’t Fuck With Cats is available to stream on Netflix.
Run time: 45-53 minutes per episode; four episodes in total (3h 12m)
Director: Barbara Schroeder, Trey Borzillieri
Cast: Trey Borzillieri
In 2003, a pizza delivery man in Erie, Pennsylvania, walked into a PNC Bank with a bomb collar locked around his neck, demanding cash. The robbery did not go off without a hitch — the man, Brian Wells, was ultimately killed in the end by the activated explosive. Weirdly, Hollywood retold this story as a Jesse Eisenberg/Aziz Ansari comedy called 30 Minutes or Less! But Netflix’s four-episode true crime docuseries drills down into the events in whodunit style to discover a harrowing tale of conspiracy, financial strife, and mental illness. Evil Genius doesn’t probe the themes as deeply as the story may demand, but as a character study, it’s endlessly fascinating. This actually happened, and now is a strangely familiar narrative in American life. —MP
Evil Genius is available to stream on Netflix and Disney Plus.
Run time: 2h 37m
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.
David Fincher’s 2007 movie about the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who stalked the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and ’70s, is at once the stylistic high point of the true crime genre, and a kind of philosophical rejection of it. The meticulous director stages a stunningly exact re-creation of the period and the key events of the case — but instead of heading toward the comforting certainty of What Really Happened, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt head the other way.
The Zodiac killings are perhaps the most famous unsolved crime in American history, and the cryptic taunts and garbled self-mythologizing of the perpetrator have become one of the central clichés in serial killer fiction (including Fincher’s own Seven). Fincher allows the crimes to attain a mythic dimension against the curdling ideals and brewing paranoia of the death of the hippie dream. But he turns a cold eye on the efforts to solve the case of dogged cop Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), flamboyant crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and newspaper cartoonist and puzzle obsessive Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), on whose books the movie is based. Despite some classic procedural scenes and a thrilling interrogation of one suspect, the harder the trio chase the truth, the further it seems to slip from their grasp. Their ultimate failure to solve the killings mirrors our inability to truly understand them, making this daringly unresolved film one of Hollywood’s most haunting explorations of real-world evil. —Oli Welsh
Zodiac is available to stream on Showtime and for rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.
Run time: 43-58 minutes per episode; eight episodes in total (6h 25m)
Director: Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon
Cast: Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever
The true crime genre is often criticized for exploiting and sensationalizing events that have had horrible consequences for real people. You’d be hard-pressed to find a true crime drama series as careful and ethical in its approach as Netflix’s Unbelievable, which puts the victim’s experience at its center and interrogates prejudicial assumptions at every turn.
Between 2008 and 2011, a series of apparently unconnected rapes were committed around Colorado and Washington state. Unbelievable follows Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a young, vulnerable victim of one of these rapes who is pressured into retracting her report by skeptical police, which sets a dreadful series of dominoes toppling in her personal life. Meanwhile, two Colorado detectives, played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, start linking the unsolved rape cases and stubbornly pursuing the scant leads they have.
Unbelievable is remarkable for being as uninterested in the perpetrator as it is respectfully fascinated with his victims. It’s acute and damning of the callous way the culture treats victims of sexual assault — Dever gives a heartbreaking performance — and how tremendously difficult it is to prosecute these crimes. But the show is also a hugely entertaining and satisfying traditional procedural, not despite this context, but because of it. Wever is brilliant as the bloody-minded, resourceful, indefatigable detective who has the belief and strength to battle the headwinds, but won’t take anything for granted: a true hero for our times. —OW
Unbelievable is available to stream on Netflix.
Run time: 1h 49m
Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
When Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins made her big-screen debut with Monster in 2003, the cultural conversation revolved so much around Charlize Theron’s transformation for the role (and her Best Actress Oscar win for it) that it almost drowned out the side chatter about how this is a really terrific movie. Yes, it’s still somehow considered “brave” for a pretty lady to de-glam herself for a movie and risk looking unattractive on screen, but Monster really isn’t about Theron daring to be unappealing. It’s much more about the queasy places self-justification can lead, especially when a longtime victim finds a way to make other people the victims instead.
We’re in the middle of a weird, weird cultural place around serial killers right now, with true crime explorations of the world’s Jeffrey Dahmers and John Wayne Gacys cropping up all over streaming services, but while Monster finds the human side of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Jenkins doesn’t shy away from the ways she turns misogynistic violence into an excuse to justify a lifestyle of premeditated murder. It’s a startling, graphically violent, deeply uncomfortable story, but it’s told compellingly and in ways designed to get audiences arguing. And Theron earns that Oscar through complexity and verve, not just through transformational makeup. —Tasha Robinson
Monster is available to stream for free on Plex and with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, and Vudu.