Not many females come to mind when thinking about the detective genre in cinema. There's The Maltese Falcon, Zodiac, The Killer, Se7en, Memento, Memories of Murder... but are there any women? They may be few and far between, but they do exist!
Here are the best movies with female detectives, which explore themes ranging from motherhood to beauty standards to gender politics in addition to the usual themes of grief, regret, corruption, and more.
11. Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
Directed by Billy Ray
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 51m)
Our first pick already deals with motherhood as an overarching motif. Has there ever been a movie where being a father played a significant role in a detective's story? (Maybe Prisoners.) But in Secret in Their Eyes, Jess Cobb's daughter is relevant to the plot.
Julia Roberts is always a safe casting bet because she's able to pull off almost any role, especially a mother (as we saw in Erin Brockovich, Ben Is Back, and Wonder). That's certainly true here.
In Billy Ray's remake of the Argentine thriller El secreto de sus ojos from 2009, Jess is both a grieving mother and an Los Angeles investigator who vows to find her daughter's killer.
Although critics disliked Secret in Their Eyes in comparison to the original, this one's more accessible to mainstream audiences and easily pleases casual murder mystery fans.
10. Miss Congeniality (2000)
Directed by Donald Petrie
Starring Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt
Action, Comedy, Crime (1h 49m)
Funny enough, Miss Congeniality somehow both defies yet encourages traditional gender stereotypes. That's not a judgment either way.
Gracie Hart (played by Sandra Bullock) is a tough tomboy with a terrible love life, which we learn right from the opening scene when she saves the boy she fancies on the playground only for him to be embarrassed by being saved by a girl.
Gracie is painted as a beer-drinking hot mess of an FBI agent who, against all good sense, goes undercover in a beauty pageant. (She's meant to be an unattractive dark horse, but come on! Casting Sandra Bullock is the wrong choice for that, no?)
The original pick-me girl, Gracie is still a feisty and likable agent who's trying to track down suspected terrorists in Texas. She proves her team wrong and shows that, yes, a woman can wear a ball gown and a Glock 26 on her thigh at the same time.
9. To Catch a Killer (2023)
Directed by Damián Szifron
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ben Mendelsohn, Jovan Adepo
Action, Crime, Drama (1h 59m)
Damián Szifron's labyrinthine thriller is bleak, stylish, and psychological, with hints of David Fincher influences. Weakened only by its script, To Catch a Killer is carried solely on the shoulders of the talented Shailene Woodley.
Eleanor (played by Shailene Woodley) is a low-level beat cop in Baltimore, but her skills of perception make her a key witness in the murder spree of a sniper on New Year's Eve.
The FBI recruits Eleanor to act as assistant detective, and when it starts to become clear that she should've been in this career all along, the failings of her psychological exam also reveal themselves.
8. The Bone Collector (1999)
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Starring Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 58m)
The Bone Collector received negative reviews from critics, but the public generally liked Angelina Jolie as newbie patrol officer Amelia Donaghy. In 1990s New York City, Amelia discovers a mutilated body under a railroad bed surrounded by clues.
Like Eleanor in To Catch a Killer, Amelia impresses the higher ranks with her skills of deduction. She teams up with forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme (played by Denzel Washington) to find the culprit known as the Bone Collector.
Lincoln is a bedbound quadriplegic, so Amelia acts as his eyes and ears on location, reporting her discoveries back to him. The duo's performances were good enough to override The Bone Collector's flaws, making it a worthwhile watch despite what critics say.
7. Gone Girl (2014)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 29m)
Detective Rhonda Boney (played by Kim Dickens) doesn't stand out in Gone Girl, not with Rosamund Pike stealing all the attention as an all-out psychopath. But in any other film, she would.
Based on Gillian Flynn's 2012 book, Gone Girl pretends to be your average murder mystery for the first half with Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) being a suspect in his wife's disappearance. But soon things start to get... freaky.
You can't blame Rhonda for suspecting Nick, given the growing pile of evidence and their history of marital issues. But as it so happens, all of the proof that Rhonda finds for Nick's arrest may have been planted.
Of course, Rhonda isn't stupid. She's tough, unbending, and completely committed to the law. The vague background we get of her own troubled marriage gives Rhonda more depth and motive, elevating her as a character in the middle of the mess.
6. Wind River (2017)
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 47m)
The deuteragonist of Taylor Sheridan's icy neo-Western—where the Wild West is replaced by snowy mountain peaks—is Jane Banner. Humanized by Elizabeth Olsen, FBI Agent Jane is called in to help a Fish and Wildlife Agent (played by Jeremy Renner) solve a homicide.
The frozen body of an 18-year-old girl is discovered on an Indian Reservation with signs of rape and blunt force trauma. Sheridan avoids the clichés of a bloody, thrill-pumped reveal, instead opting for a sculpted character study with Jane at the center.
Jane is smart but somewhat hasty, emotional, and ultimately still just a rookie with little experience. However, Jane always looks to the humane side of her case rather than succumbing to the numb, cynical desensitization of other experienced agents.
5. Enola Holmes (2020)
Directed by Harry Bradbeer
Starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin
Action, Adventure, Crime (2h 3m)
Sherlock Holmes has been immortalized throughout the decades by various actors, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Robert Downey Jr. Even Mycroft has had his fair share of the limelight! But only recently has the most famous inspector been imagined with a sister...
Different than (but likely inspired by) Eurus Holmes in BBC's modernized Sherlock, a young Enola Holmes appears in Enola Holmes in the original context of the late 19th century.
Played by Millie Bobby Brown, Enola is just like her brothers: intelligent, observational, and ignorant of social norms. Based on the novels by Nancy Springer, the first installment of Enola Holmes sees her running away to London on a trail of clues.
4. Destroyer (2018)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Starring Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 1m)
Most reviews of Destroyer start with some variation on one idea: "Nicole Kidman is unrecognizable." And it's totally true. Her physical appearance here is worlds away from her blonde-beauty-on-the-red-carpet looks. But is her acting any good? Oh, absolutely.
In Destroyer, Nicole Kidman's transition from ice princess to desert rat girl goes beyond skin deep and into the all-encompassing. Kidman stars as LAPD detective Erin Bell, who's getting revenge on a gang she once infiltrated.
The rough and ghoulish-looking Erin has a "burnt circuit" in her brain and works her way through each gang member, clue by clue. She has no desire for forgiveness or healing, only forward-facing vengeance and a shot of whiskey.
3. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 38m)
Rooney Mara underwent a huge transformation for her role as a hardened and vengeful vigilante in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander isn't a detective in any professional capacity, but a computer hacker who partners up with an investigative journalist.
Daniel Craig plays the David Fincher version of Mikael Blomkvist, the writer protagonist from Stieg Larsson's Swedish novels. Blomkvist is hired to figure out the disappearance of a wealthy man's great-niece, and he calls Lisbeth aboard to assist.
Lisbeth is a social reject (by choice) and mercilessly delivers a comeuppance on any man who crosses her. Mara devoted herself to the role by actually piercing her face, bleaching and chopping her hair, getting real tattoos, and losing a ton of weight.
2. Fargo (1996)
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi
Crime, Thriller (1h 38m)
Frances McDormand has been collaborating with the Coen brothers since their early days of cinema. Their offbeat style couples perfectly with McDormand's chameleon acting skills, who appears as the chirpy (and pregnant) police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo.
In snowy Minnesota, Marge disregards the brooding, hard-drinking, anti-social detective stereotype and presents as a polite and optimistic everywoman. Marge is smart (but not a genius) and she cares more for a home-cooked meal than a night at the bar.
Yet, Marge still solves the triple homicide case, all while remaining one of cinema's most lovable characters, calling everyone "hon" on her way to an Academy Award. It's miles away from her other Oscar win for the ruthless mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri!
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)
It's easy to assume that The Silence of the Lambs is so famous because of its villain, the iconic Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). But, really, the cult classic would be nothing without its exceptional heroine Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster).
The Silence of the Lambs is one of those films everyone has to see at least once, especially if you're a film student. There's just so much to unpack here—like the infamous interrogation scene—but it's also just good to witness the film's historical influence first-hand.
And that's why we're glad that a woman sits in the driving seat of this psychological masterpiece directed by Jonathan Demme. Demme gets into the mind of both detective and killer as Clarice is introduced to the cannibal genius Lecter while still in FBI training.