When it comes to psychopaths Hollywood can hardly help itself. Firstly, Hollywood always gets it all wrong. The psychiatric community stopped using psychopathy as a diagnosis in the early 80’s and replaced it with antisocial personality disorder acting as a sort of blanket term for a wide range of behaviors that qualified as psychopathic behavior. To boot, sociopathy became a more common diagnosis describing a series of behaviors that were in direct conflict with social norms and viewed as traditionally evil by mainstream society. The problem with this is that the net is cast so wide with antisocial personality disorder that ordinary human behavior can often be decoded as antisocial and just about anyone with a Facebook could pass enough criteria to go down in the history books as presenting antisocial features. Psychopathy and sociopathy, these days, represent a series of nuanced behaviors that are just different enough to warrant their own subsets of pages in the DSM-IV. Hollywood screenwriters, however, can’t be bothered. Those that do, however, often present us with the very best of movie madmen and women. Often times, the movie maniac, when they’re not represented by an unstoppable cartoon villain in a mask, are raving maniacs, wringing their sweaty hands in filthy basements under harsh lighting and while I’m sure this class of killer is out there in America as we speak, it’s far more common that the most dangerous psychopaths in our lives are people we interact with daily. When they’re finally arrested, their neighbors are shown on TV telling a camera crew about how nice or quiet they always seem. Good sociopaths are hard to come by in movies. Here are some of my favorites.
I actually detest Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho. I like what it represents because I have pretty vivid memories of the 80’s even though I was just a kid but the novel is littered with literary devices that outline Patrick Bateman’s personality that mirror a lot of the same reasons that I seriously fucking loathe Chuck Palahniuk novels. They seem so singular and novelty driven. Every character Bateman encounters is described not by their features or personality traits but by the specifics of their designer wardrobes. That got old so fucking fast and it dates the book badly. Ellis, however, and the adaptation of the novel, nailed the psychopath angle. Patrick Bateman becomes less a character in a novel about his own sadism and shallow existence and becomes a living metaphor for the 80’s and the upper wrungs of the corporate ladder. Given our current economic climate, American Psycho seems more relevant than ever as the financial sector of the American economic landscape loots our stores of American taxpayer money and awards the very same people responsible for the housing crisis tremendous bonuses in the millions of dollar range. Sure, these guys aren’t wantonly murdering people with nail guns but they may as well be. In Ellis’ version of New York City, Patrick Bateman is the only person who exists. He confuses his friends for one another since they all seem so alike and in an ironic twist toward the end of the novel and movie, it turns out that they feel the same about him. Bateman, a caricature of a yuppie and a stand-in for the entire Me Generation paradigm, analogizes the entire shallow population of young and privileged professionals of the eras to psychopaths, irreversibly caught up in consumer narcissism, unable to conceive of anyone but themselves and their own personal bottom lines. There has never been a more authentic psychopath in movies than Patrick Bateman.
Number two on my list of all-time greatest movie villains (Another list, entirely. Not this one.) is Hannibal Lecter. Second only to Darth Vader. Few sideline characters are so boldly iconic with so little screen time. When The Silence of the Lambs hit the box office in 1990, Lecter, strapped to a hand truck, bite mask in place, became as recognizable to pop-culture as Jason Voorhees and the hockey mask. I’ve often felt that the evil-genius angle of the character of disqualifies him from a certain real-world quotient of movie killers, but he gritty, true-crime tone of Johnathan Demme’s movie makes him feel like a part of our own real world. No killer in the history of murder has ever been so cunning and unique, even the ones who continue to stump authorities. For years, The Zodiac Killer was considered to be this kind of mad man thanks to his baffling cyphers and certain aspects of Jack The Ripper’s murders have led authorities to believe that Jack is of well above average intelligence but Lecter is a cartoony cut above the rest. I tend to ignore the further adventures of Hannibal Lecter because trying to explain his background and his motivations for eating flesh, take away a good deal of the mystique to me but his super-genius levels of intelliegence, manipulation of others for his own pleasure and patent sadism totally jives with the traditional diagnosis of psychopathy. In truth, killers The Tooth Fairy from Red Dragon and Buffalo Bill from Lambs are far more in line with actual serial murderers and I’m sure that Lecter’s appeal has a lot to do with Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant portrayal but there isn’t a more a frightening maniac out there than the one you find yourself rooting for in the end. Lecter’s sophistication is something that I actually like. Though, I’m sure that my apparent lack of sophistication would put my liver on his plate with some fava beans, I would probably find hanging out with Lecter a fascinating experience.
For my money, nobody plays a sociopath quite like Robert Mitchum. There are certain actors in the history of film who are so closely associated with certain menacing characters or a class of menacing characters that I find myself having a hard time separating fact from fiction. Their very presence, no matter who they’re playing, puts me on edge and among those is Mitchum solely for his roles in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. For all I know, Mitchum was a really nice guy and from what I know of him and his reputation on set, he was really down to earth and pleasant. None of this makes a difference to me because of the sheer power of evil portrayed in the characters Max Cady and Reverend Harry Powell. Powell is so plainly horrible and his LOVE/HATE tattoo schtick, told several times in the movie as if to win over the people he will eventually kill, is such baldfaced bullshit that it’s amazing that the only people in Night of the Hunter who ever see through it are a pair of children. Way before the analytical period of mental illness, the writing and portrayal of Powell is text book serial killer behavior. Psychopathy wasn’t a particularly well-known set of behaviors but Mitchum’s delivery of the lines is chilling to the bone and text book sadist. He presents as a man of god so to better manipulate people as he robs and then kills them. The lengths he goes to in order to find Night of the Hunter’s booty at the center of its conflict is elaborate. He goes so much further than any normal person would go in pursuit of stashed cash.
Cape Fear’s villain, Max Cady, is a different kind of beast, however. While Powell is a cunning psychopath in the traditional mold, the monster, Max Cady, fits a much more broad spectrum of behaviors in the Antisocial Personality Disorder classification. Cady spend eight years in jail honing himself and planning and pining for the day he gets out so that he can get revenge on the lawyer that put him in jail. The problem is that Cady is, in fact, a horrible, remorseless criminal. A rapist, in fact. He is guilty as hell of his crime and his heedless desire to have his day with Sam Bowden is a reflection of his psychopath narcissism. Cady’s desire for revenge isn’t an expressive need for sudden death, either. He savors every second of the terror. He follows the Bowdens around and menaces them in every possible setting. This trademark sadism is characteristic of some of the worst serial killers in American murder history.
Got a favorite movie psychopath? Discuss them in the comments!