Psychopaths in Film

The power of ambivalence. How is it I am repelled and drawn to stories about the psychopath? Do you believe there’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inside all of us? Perhaps that’s the allure of this anti-hero–his cleverness and seductive power. If one focuses upon the horror story which centers around a psychopath, there are plenty of great examples in film over the years. Can you narrow him/her to one?

The term itself has a complicated definition and certainly Hollywood and television has distorted the clinical concept of what is a psychopath. I read a fascinating article about Misrepresenting the Psychopath in Hollywood here. It has been easy to sweep up characters who portray abnormal characteristics such as: manic-depression, schizophrenia, bestiality, extreme violence, and egomania and dump them into the giant box labeled “psychotic”. If you enjoy thrillers or suspense, chances are there’s a character, whether protagonist or antagonist, and he or she is “psychotic”. Consider the films Wall Street or The Wolf of Wall Street. Clinical definitions would categorize both protagonists as psychotic with huge appetites for greed and experts at manipulation. They are passionate but not disturbed like Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector. Still, when one thinks of psychotic characters in film, these two “crazy” characters pop into most people’s minds.

There are quiet monsters and loud monsters. There are characters who do not complete violent acts but enjoy manipulation and never kill anyone. Most all have high intelligences and are charismatic and exude power. Based on that definition, here are my favorite character psychopaths:

Halloween is upon us–which psychopath is your favorite in film?

31 thoughts on “Psychopaths in Film

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  1. I like that you take the time to distinguish the types of behaviors and mentalities that classify ‘psychotic.’ Just because someone does the worst thing pretty much possible (killing their fellow man) that’s not the only thing we should corner the psychopath into. Like you mention, filthy greed and corrupted power can lead to psychopathic behavior. I honestly think there are too many of these characters out there for me to accurately choose as my ‘favorite,’ but I’ll just go with everyone’s favorite Heath Ledger Joker. That guy was just. . .wow.

    1. Excellent example; I sure am glad you mentioned him because I couldn’t believe what a stellar performance Heath Ledger gave. I really came to care for The Joker, which is rather sick on my part, but shows the power of acting. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Gotta go with Alex, from “A Clockwork Orange.” In fact, I can’t see Malcolm McDowell in any other movie role without halfway expecting Alex’s Nadsat narration to kick in at some point…

    1. It’s a fine film and what a command performance! Seems bizarre to commend such evil, but I was amazed how seductive and encompassing Bardem’s performance was. Scares me more than any slasher film. Thanks, Allen.

      1. After seeing Bardem in that movie, I would feel uncomfortable being in the same room with him. Some of the others that have played psychopaths — Hopkins, Perkins, Nicholson, et al. — just don’t exude the cold disregard for life that Bardem does.

        1. I agree. I wouldn’t be able to sit still, not because there’s a “star” in the room, but I would be scared! I’d love to ask how long it takes to shake off a character they’ve immersed themselves into. Also, I thought Bardem was fantastic as the villain in the last Bond movie, as the blonde psycho in ‘Skyfall’.

          1. I enjoyed Ian Fleming’s “Bond” books, but the movies, after the first few, lost my interest. For me, they have been just a mélange of tech gadgetry, cliché and flash.

  3. Very interesting Cindy, and some great examples! I wouldn’t say this is a favourite psychopath of mine (!) but your article reminded me of a documentary called The Corporation, in which large corporations are subjected to a checklist of psychopathic behaviour. If you haven’t seen it it’s very interesting, and loads of corporations end up fitting the psychopath bill!

      1. Getting off on power. It’s not really the killing, I think, for the psychotic. I think the anger of having “arrived” at the destination makes them explode. I think a psycho relishes the journey instead and like a kid in a tantrum is mad the game is over. The killing is an anti-climax. The blood and chopping or eating (whatever is their sick preference) is the result. It’s the mind games that keep them stimulated. Okay, never mind that theory when it comes to Tommy in GoodFellas. Tommy is pretty whacked. I bet he loved every minute pummeling his victims. Good call, Stu.

        1. I think the character seems to enjoy intimidation every bit as much as killing. One of the all time iconic performances, but then so are the ones you’ve mentioned!

    1. Hi Stu-no, I haven’t seen but I believe you completely. I’ve read as well that those who scored high on the Levensen test thus earning the psycho label, a common denominator was possessing a white-collar job. Board room politics, postions of power, politics in general (I think of Spacey in House of Cards) they can get away with a lot because no one can/will stop them. I think that’s what I loved about ‘American Psycho’ was a plea from the character Bale played, he wanted someone to stop him. It ties in, too, with Henry James novels like ‘A Portrait of a Lady’ –super wealthy, powerful elitists drowning in boredom, they prey on the unsuspecting. Cat and mouse games. Bring in the Nazi’s now. Okay, I’ll stop. Thanks, Stu!

    1. Hi GP! Jack, Jack, Jack. Which role do you choose from? In The Shining he’s pretty petrifying. But I think it’s his role in The Departed which shows his true psychotic acting ability 🙂

      1. I had originally thought of the Shining, but he was pretty strange in One Flew Over… and then you mention the Departed – hard to chose, isn’t it!?

  4. What a thought provoking post. I have to echo the idea of Alex from A Clockwork Orange being the best, or at least the most well rounded example of a true psychopath, but I also feel that Travis from Taxi Driver is a great example, and a more soft, sympathetic example at that.

    1. Hello, Andrew! Thanks for commenting. Yes, they are all different, these examples, yes? Alex the leader, the bully, Travis, the anti-social do-gooder- I love his character, how he transforms. DeNiro with his facial expressions and body language has the innate ability to exude a real person. A fine example, Andrew 🙂

  5. Great and timely post, Cindy. I’m still waiting to see Wolf of Wall Street and I’m getting a little tired of hearing my kids say they’ve seen it half a dozen times and cannot tire of it. I’m thinking Leo might end up being my new favorite.

    1. It’s a very gross film; a black satire about the excesses of the 80s. Leo is a fine actor, and his acting was truly great. I can’t say I “like” the film other than the craftmenship of it. I”m just glad the dude who the film is based upon got his comeuppance.

  6. Fitting topic for Halloween, Cindy. I can’t say I have a favorite psychopath, but the ones that made an impression to me are definitely Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Hopkins as Hannibal. Amon Goeth is definitely a chilling character one can’t soon forget!

  7. Very good post!

    The blog was interesting and contained thought provoking observations.
    If the public’s appetite for stories about these psychopaths wasn’t omnipresent, then they wouldn’t be on the front page of newspapers, ratings juggernauts for tabloid shows that deal with that type of subject matter, nor would they be the subject of hour-long biographies on the channel of the same name.

    I am not sure, who I would pick as my favorite representation in film. There are so many to choose from. Now if you asked the same question regarding television, it would be, without question, Dexter Morgan.

    1. Welcome Robin! I’m glad you brought the television to the conversation and Dexter would be a perfect example. If I were a sociologist, I’d be interested in knowing the nation’s preoccupation with twisted individuals while “angels” and virtuous folk rarely have the limelight. Sounds like a post to me. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Great post, and it is an interesting subject. “Psychotic” characters certainly tap into an uncomfortable part of us that, nonetheless, continually draws our curiosity.

    As for the question regarding favorites, the first one that jumps to mind is Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. I thought the film improved upon the book, actually.

    1. I recently rewatched it and was struck by Bale’s performance as stellar. The monologues and the appeal for help–it really spoke volumes about excess and the need for love and companionship which he was incapable of. Thanks, Nicholas 🙂

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