Norman Bates is not a psychopath, but these chilling movie characters certainly are.
Ever since Norman Bates stabbed Marion Crane to death in that motel shower, movies have been full of “psychos”—so much so, that most people have come to associate deranged violence with the work of a psychopath. Yet many of the psycho killers we’re so accustomed to on the silver screen aren’t actually psychopaths at all. Unlike someone who is merely psychotic, a psychopath is born without the ability to feel empathy or typical emotion. They treat people as objects and are able to unflinchingly manipulate others to suit their own aims. Some are wildly successful in business or politics, others live on the fringe. In movies, we see these psychopaths’ behavior at its most antisocial. Suffering from a split personality, Norman Bates is not a psychopath, but these chilling movie characters certainly are.
Anton Chigurh can be seen as a successor to The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” That’s the character who kills a old woman at the end and then declares that she would have been a good person if there had been someone around to shoot her every minute of her life. Steely calm, a chillingly quiet demeanor and a capriciousness is so deeply unsettling the viewer questions their own actions for weeks after. Does living or dying really come down to how a quarter lands? Chigurh, expertly portrayed by Javier Bardem, has stilted speech and movements that make him a kind of alien, a cold creature moving among us who can only kill. This is far more frightening than the cartoon version of psychopaths we’re given in many films because this is so much closer to the calm and collected guy at the grocery store who’ll destroy your life on a whim.
Bateman ticks literally every box on the psychopath checklist. He lacks empathy for every breathing organism on earth. He habitually invites beautiful women to his penthouse so he can watch them dance in thongs and, of course, kill them with knives, nails guns, chainsaws, etc. Mention love and he’d cringe at the word. He’d rather squeeze Wall Street for all its worth and kiss his tanned biceps in the mirror. It’s that perpetual capacity to view people as objects that makes him such a timeless harbinger of unchecked American greed. He’s a stunning lead in one of the most scathing satires of late capitalist society ever made. “I have all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but not a single, clear identifiable emotion.” He might not feel anything, but we do.
Somehow, it’s not the random beatings, home invasions, rapes or murder that makes the codpiece-equipped Alex (Malcolm McDowell) such a frightening presence in A Clockwork Orange—it’s the smug fucking smile he has on his face the whole time. Alex’s idea of a fun night out is gulping drug-laced milk and brutally harming people for no other reason than to stave off boredom. Like a true psychopath, Alex sees other people as playthings for his own sadistic enjoyment, and his exploits forever changed the tone of “Singin’ in the Rain.” When he’s finally incarcerated and subsequently rehabilitated through an experimental clamped-eyelid conditioning process that forces him to associate violent images with intense nausea, his warped behavior is only temporarily straightened. One failed suicide attempt later and his mind is again back to its default state: awash with flickering desire for “a bit of the old ultra-violence.”
“I am Frank Booth,” Dennis Hopper reportedly told David Lynch over the phone in a startling gambit aimed at securing the role. In whatever sense that may be true, Hopper’s portrayal of the iconic, nitrous-huffing madman remains one of the most frightening screen performances ever. Part of this is due to his volatile unpredictability—whether he’s ejaculating non sequiturs or blowing up over beer selections (“Heineken! Fuck that shit!”), there’s just no telling what Frank might do next. It’s hard to think of another actor who would bring Hopper’s level of commitment to such an ugly role, one that will forever be burned into the viewer’s imagination, haunting nightmares for years to come.
Plainview’s stated goal is to make enough money to get away from everybody. “I hate most people,” he tells another character. Throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful There Will Be Blood, we bear witness to the pitiless manipulations of this increasingly successful oil prospector. One of his main tactics includes using his adorable son to win the sympathy of those he’s conning. He makes promises he has no intention of keeping (shared prosperity, support for the religious community) and even disguises his identity to get what he wants. Plainview may not be entirely without emotion—he just pushes it down so deeply that it never gets in the way of his monomaniacal aim. Daniel Day-Lewis’s chilling performance continues to fascinate as more and more layers are revealed with repeat viewings—and in a time when the very real possibility of a Donald Trump presidency hovers over our country like a dark cloud, There Will Be Blood is perhaps more relevant than ever.
If Jake Gyllenhaal’s character was disturbing in Donnie Darko, his role as Louis Bloom, the rogue TV news cameraman in Nightcrawler, is nightmare inducing. Bloom’s job is to capture footage from which people can’t turn away; this is hardly a problem for him as his complete lack of empathy means the instinct that he should look away never crosses his mind. If his unblinking eyes and gaunt body aren’t enough to make viewers fidget in their seats, Bloom’s ruthless obsession with success puts him in enough situations that, by the time the credits roll, it will be difficult to think of the Brokeback Mountain heartthrob again without triggering a shiver.
Psychopaths are not made, they are born. In that sense, there may be no more prototypical cinematic psychopath than Kevin Khatchadourian. Even as a toddler, Kevin refuses to grant his mother the satisfaction of playing with her. As a young child, Kevin learns to manipulate his clueless father (John C. Reilly) as effectively as he psychologically torments his mother (Tilda Swinton). He’s a full-on monster before he’s potty-trained, and that’s largely because he purposely shits his pants for years to punish his mom. As he reaches high school, Kevin (Ezra Miller) begins collecting computer viruses as a hobby and ruins all attempts by his mother at connection. The lone time they seem to bond involves her reading Kevin a bedtime story about an archer—years later, Kevin would murder his father, sister and a gymnasium full of panicked students with a bow and arrow.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) has the ability to create true beauty through his perfumes, but his obsession with capturing the scent of pure innocence leads him to become a notorious serial murderer of young virgins. Sure, the first time he kills a young girl can be explained away as an accident, but what he does next is truly disturbing. He decides that the only way to recreate the magnificent scent of his first victim is to combine the scents of 13 more. Grenouille develops an elaborate method of cocooning his victims in lard and cloth to extract their essence. The process is meticulous, but it yields a perfume strong enough to manipulate the world.
Ben Kingsley didn’t do his best acting in Gandhi or Schindler’s List; he did it in this 2000 picture. His portrayal of Logan—a character determined to bring Ray Winstone’s Gary Dove back for one last job—will have you leaving the lights on. Logan is unpredictable and his every action carries an undercurrent of violence. His crudeness, the way he pesters Dove and taunts Dove’s wife DeeDee, aren’t just despicable, they’re also impossible to look away from on the screen. Kingsley doesn’t forget that superficial charisma that makes many psychopaths so deceptively easy to like. The brutality wrought upon him in the end is hardly excusable but one briefly wonders if this too wasn’t something of his own making.
Lee Woo-jin delights in the suffering of Oh Dae-su, and it is the only pleasure that he seems to derive from his life. He taunts, tortures and manipulates his antagonist. Woo-jin does not even care about dying; he lives only to cause Dae-su misery. He did once seem to care about one person, his sister, but even then he was incapable of expressing affection in a non-domineering way. Even what could be construed as emotion was articulated through violence. It was his transgressive connection to his sister that led to his singular hatred of Dae-su—emotion again becomes domination. Woo-jin is terrifying due to his combination of incredible intelligence and absolute desire to control. He is quite literally capable of anything—murder, imprisonment, mind control—and he performs those acts according only to his own demented logic. Moreover, he not only attempts unspeakably awful violations of decency but succeeds at them.
Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are twin gynecologists with a successful practice in New York City. While they appear to be paragons of an elite, urban society, director David Cronenberg follows them into their apartments and observes some truly abnormal behavior. Among other things, they’re terrible with women. As gynecologists, their careers both create and affirm a regimented, clinical approach to the opposite sex. When an actress with ambiguous genitalia (Geneviève Bujold) enters their lives, they trade places so the charming Elliot can woo her while the introverted Beverly can have sex with her. It’s sick shit. Cronenberg portrays Elliot and Beverly as misunderstood geniuses, but any right-minded feminist critic could also call them misogynistic psychopaths. It’s that ambiguity in interpretation that makes the Mantle brothers so fascinating; just don’t ask us to tell them apart.
Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is not overtly chilling; that is her game. She manages to convince those around her of the purity of her soul (while snorting coke from a crucifix) all the while manipulating them for nothing more than sport. Her brand of frightening comes in the form of lethal seduction, blurring the lines between sexy and sadistic. Even though she gets her own in the end through a big reveal at her stepbrother’s funeral, the impending “Cruel Intentions” revival on NBC and the confirmed return of Ms. Merteuil means there are many more games to be played.
Even when he’s first introduced in The Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) already has blood on his misogynist hands. A self-anointed preacher, he ingratiates himself into rich widows’ lives with his charm and the word of God only to marry and murder them for their money. For him, these killings satisfy both his hatred of women and his greed. Powell is certainly remorseless, but he has convinced himself that, in some twisted way, he is doing God’s work. Both a seeming reverend and a serial killer, Powell is a visual embodiment of good versus evil, but in his case, hate always overpowers love.