Over the last couple of decades, the true crime genre has formed a cornerstone of modern entertainment media, from podcasts to TV shows, to the infamous Netflix docu-series format. While much of the genre today seems to have somewhat descended into over-sensationalized, insensitive portrayals of some of the most harrowing real-life crimes, true crime in fact stems from much more credible, non-fictional works of literature, like Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (1966). Many documentaries, like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, also hold strong against the common true crime trope, and the film industry has additionally produced several critically well-received works based on real-life crimes. To steer you towards the best of the genre, here are our choice of 9 well-made, true-crime-based fictional films and shows.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

Image Via IFC Films

In the early 1970s, the Stanford psychologist Dr. Zimbardo conducted a controversial experiment, designed to investigate the cause of the brutality prevalent in American prisons. This 2015 biography drama tells the story of the mock-prison experiment as it unfolded, with a cast of well-known young actors, including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, and Nicholas Braun, playing the parts of the 24 male students that were selected to take on the roles of prisoners and guards.

As expected, the cast are all brilliant; the “prisoners” perfectly capture the feeling of fear and confusion as the experiment spirals out of control, while the “guards” become increasingly sadistic in an eerie, Lord of the Flies way. Kyle Patrick directs the film in a fantastically immersive form, giving viewers a true sense of claustrophobia; every scene becoming increasingly intense. Although the film has some mixed reviews, partly because of its reluctance to explain the deeper psychological ramifications of the experiment itself, it still provides an effective summary of how Zimbardo’s bizarre behavioral simulation failed as dramatically as it did.

Zodiac (2007)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac
Image via Parramount Pictures

A must-see from this list, David Fincher‘s Zodiac is a dark thriller that follows newspaper-cartoonist-turned-amateur-investigator, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he helps San Francisco police track down the elusive Zodiac killer. The film is based on Graysmith’s own book, telling the inside story of the hunt for the man who was responsible for several ruthless murders in late ‘60s California. As Graysmith becomes obsessively engrossed in the investigation, Fincher’s masterpiece takes viewers along on a fast-paced, maze-like journey. Worth noting at first is how historically accurate Fincher’s film is. In fact, it is reported that Fincher decided to only include murders with surviving witnesses that he could interview for the film.

When watching Zodiac, you can really feel that it is telling a true story, as Fincher’s efforts clearly pay off in creating a truly authentic world. As well as Gyllenhaal’s fantastic performance as the newbie staff member who becomes the closest to cracking the case, the entire cast brilliantly portray very real characters from Graysmith’s book; from Mark Ruffalo as a serious lead inspector, to Robert Downey Jr as a boozy and witty reporter-slash-mentor-figure. A stand-out scene is an interrogation of prime suspect at the time, Arthur Leigh Allen, where John Carroll Lynch gives a chilling performance that forms a centerpiece of Fincher’s entirely grisly film.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

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Based on the graphic novel and memoir by John “Derf” Backderf, My Friend Dahmer is the real-life story of Jeffrey Dahmer in his high-school years. Once a classmate of Dahmer, Backderf looks back on how his high-school friend became such a notorious serial killer. In the novel, Backderf expresses his thoughts about how someone should have done something, “It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, […] if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably [..] indifferent,” writes Backderf.

In the film, Alex Wolff plays Backderf as a teenager, the ringleader of the “Dahmer Fan Club” where kids grouped together to make fun of the school outcast. Directed by Marc Meyers, the film offers an unbiased narrative of Dahmer’s troubled youth, with a brilliant performance by Ross Lynch. Throughout the film are cut scenes of Ohio country roads and suspenseful shots of Dahmer “working” alone in his garden shed, all of which come together to create an unsettling, creepy atmosphere, leaving viewers to wonder if or when he will make his first murderous move.

American Animals (2018)

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Directed by Bart Layton, the British director who also made the 2012 critically acclaimed documentary, The Imposter, American Animals follows a similar interview-slash-dramatic-reconstruction style approach that blurs the line between drama and documentary. The story follows four young men who attempt to steal some valuable books from their college library. Uniquely put together, the film is made up of interview scenes of the real men involved, older and wiser, looking back on their misdeeds, integrated with dramatic reconstructions that flit between the perspectives of the two main characters involved: Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). Evan Peters steals the show as Spencer’s wacky and impulsive friend, Warren, and the film shows the close friendship and naivety of the pair in fun, easy-to-watch early scenes.

However, it is also a “heist” movie, and so we also see energetic chase sequences and even satirical scenes where American Animals seems to parody other famous heist films like Ocean’s Eleven and Reservoir Dogs. Some critics have suggested that the film unfairly offers the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrators of this crime due to their middle-class, white backgrounds, while this narrative is rarely applied to young black men alike. While this may well be true, it is certainly still worth watching with a critical eye, as Layton’s film truly does make for an enjoyable, art-house-style docu-drama.

When They See Us (2019)

when-they-see-us copy
Image Via Netflix

When They See Us is a powerful dramatization of the story surrounding the “Central Park 5” – where five young men of color were wrongfully convicted for assaulting a young female jogger in Central Park, Manhattan in 1989. The series, created by Emmy-winner and Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, received critical praise for its unflinching exploration of the living nightmare that the five innocent teenagers were plunged into, from their first arrest in 1989, to their eventual exoneration in 2002.

Every scene in the series seems to be cinematically shot and carefully considered. We see dimly lit and anxiety-inducing interrogation scenes, where the young cast ensemble brilliantly convey just how scared and confused the teenagers were. DuVernay paints a particularly evocative picture of Korey Wise – the oldest of the group who was immediately sent to an adult prison. Winning an Emmy for his performance, Jharrel Jerome‘s portrayal of Wise during his time at Rikers is so hauntingly profound; his scenes in solitary confinement offer a disturbingly honest glimpse into prison life. Above all else, DuVernay’s series manages to give a voice to the five men.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

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Joe Berlinger’s biography crime drama tells the story of infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, from the point of view of Liz (Lily Collins), his long-time girlfriend. Having directed several key crime documentaries of the past decade, from Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to a documentary series about Ted Bundy himself (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), Berlinger’s film definitely has the mark of a creator who is personally fascinated with the psychology of the notorious murderer.

The film stars Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, a role that many critics argue was made for him. He delivers an excellent performance, charismatic and smart, allowing audiences to understand why the killer was so strangely a source of admiration despite his grisly crimes. If you are hoping to find out more about Bundy’s crimes and the investigations that led to his eventual demise, the film might leave you unsatisfied. However, if you want to find out more about the man himself, Berlinger’s film will keep you on your toes through its vivid portrayal of Bundy’s psychopathic, callous nature and the complete lack of motives for his crimes.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

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Nominated for several Academy Awards, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of two mid-level Hollywood entertainers from the ‘60s. Right from the start, the film is set up as a nostalgic ode to 1960s Los Angeles, and much of the storyline is driven by the friendship between Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling Western-style actor, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). While the film has mixed reviews surrounding its problematic romanticization of ’60s Hollywood culture, described by one New Yorker article as “Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age […] that celebrates white-male stardom at the expense of everyone else,” it certainly does create a platform for DiCaprio and Pitt to deliver a collectively entertaining performance that makes the almost-3-hour film still engaging to watch.

Margot Robbie does seem to have limited lines as Sharon Tate, something that is again often criticized about the film, and many also question the value of turning the true story of the Tate-LaBianca murders on its head – as is played out in the classically-Tarantino-esque-violent last act of the film. However, if you watch this film with fewer expectations of gritty true crime reenactments, and hope for more of an energetic creation of a detailed, multi-layered, Tarantino-style world, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood won’t disappoint!

Changeling (2008)

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If you’re looking for a stranger-than-fiction true-crime biopic, Changeling is the film for you! The story is one of grief and tragedy, centered around a single mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) from 1920s LA, who is living a simple and pleasant life with her 9-year-old son until one fateful day when he goes missing. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is filled with beautifully framed shots and period detail that will completely transport you to Prohibition-era Los Angeles. Jolie gives a powerful performance as a mother who is determined to track down her son and go against the LAPD if necessary to do so, even if to her own detriment.

The film takes on twists and turns that stay true to the real story behind the horrifying crime, as Collins is victimized by the LAPD, where Jolie’s incredible performance leaves viewers with a sense of the traumas that the real Collins went through. Not to be missed is a chilling performance by Jason Butler Harner as the disturbingly evil killer, Gordon Northcott, a real-life figure from the 1920s. If you want to see some of Jolie’s best work, don’t miss out on this understated gem!

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

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Aaron Sorkin’s 2020 drama recounts the story of seven anti-Vietnam-War protestors on trial for their part in an uprising in Chicago, Illinois. The main body of the film takes place in a courtroom, with a pivotal scene involving an unconventional and confused judge (Judge Julius Hoffman, played by Frank Langella) citing the defendant, Bobby Seale (co-founder of the Black Panther Party, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) for contempt – despite the fact that he wasn’t even involved in organizing the demonstration.

Sorkin’s retelling of the trial of the Chicago 7 is purposefully not just a dry regurgitation of historical events. Instead, the absurdity of the federal trial is reflected in the character’s witty dialogue, most of which comes from the counterculture revolutionaries of the Youth International Party, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). While many critics agree that some of the film is somewhat muddled and hard to follow, the cast ensemble is brilliant, perfectly portraying the differences between leftist factions and their ideologies, where Sacha Baron Cohen in particular is always amusing to watch in is his constant battles with the clean-cut, serious Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). Be prepared for a new side to true crime with this one – not the usual gore and murders that you may strangely be more familiar with.