Emotionally shallow, impulsive, and easily bored. Often charming and manipulative. Lacking in empathy and conscience. Potentially brutal. Sometimes as crazy as shit-house rats. Psychopaths, particularly those who are spectacularly violent, offer endless fodder for writers and film-makers.
These characters vary dramatically, spanning a wide continuum. Some have explosive rages; others are unflappably calm. Some are on the wrong side of the law, and others manage to play within the rules. But they all share lack of empathy and connection to others along with a penchant for some form of cruelty.
The List (Warning: SPOILERS):
#14 — Trevor (Tim Roth)
Made in Britain (1982)
Directed by Alan Clarke, Written by David Leland
In his screen debut, Tim Roth portrayed Trevor, a sixteen-year-old skinhead and juvenile delinquent, full of strutting, raging bravado — with a swastika tattooed to his forehead. After his day in court for attacking a Pakistani man and vandalizing his store, for which he doesn’t bother to feign a shred of remorse, Trevor is taken to a residential facility for a psychological evaluation. He rages at authority while holding his hand out for anything to which he feels entitled.
He promptly escapes, with his somewhat naive roommate in tow, engaging in some of his favorite pastimes: car theft, vandalism, and glue-sniffing. He also has an explosive temper. God help the staff in the facility’s cafeteria when Trevor learns he’s missed lunch while he was out jacking a car.
Memorable Quote: “Well, honestly speaking, I don’t honestly think I can keep the peace while I’m incarcerated in this shit house!”
#13 — Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Directed by: Milos Forman, Written by: Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman, Based on the Novel by Ken Kesey
A nurse entrusted with ministering to patients with severe mental illnesses, Nurse Ratched is unwaveringly calm, unbendingly dictatorial, and completely devoid of compassion. Louise Fletcher plays this role beautifully, with smooth restraint. On the surface she appears self-possessed, competent, and efficient. However her coolness segues seamlessly into cruelty. Her attack on Billy Bibbit, after he makes a brief foray into independence, is excruciating to watch. And no one will ever forget the brutal revenge exacted against resident troublemaker Randall McMurphy.
Memorable Quote: “If Mr. McMurphy doesn’t want to take his medication orally, I’m sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way. But I don’t think that he would like it”
#12 — Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Written & Directed by: David Lynch
When it comes to playing stark, raving nut jobs, Dennis Hopper was a master. His character was the highlight of what was — hands down — the most disturbing movie I saw during my undergraduate years in college.
Blue Velvet starts with Jeffrey, an innocent teen who makes an unpleasant discovery while walking through a cornfield. When you find a severed ear on your way home from school, you can be pretty sure that isn’t a good sign. This is the first breadcrumb on a trail leading him into Booth’s dark, vicious world.
Memorable Quote: “Suave! God damn, you’re one suave fucker.”
#11 — Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke)
Antibodies (Antikörpe) (2005)
Written & Directed by: Christian Alvart
Child rapist and serial killer Gabriel Engel was arrested in a dramatic police strike. Hoping to close a case in his own jurisdiction, small town cop Michael Martens travels to the big city to interrogate him. His encounter with Gabriel brings Michael in touch with darker parts of his own nature. And — in true Hannibal Lecter style — this nut job is damn good at getting into your head.
While I disliked this movie’s ending, overall, I found it fascinating and more compelling than the popular American film Silence of the Lambs.
Memorable Quote: “I look better in red.”
#10 — Bruno Antony (Robert Walker)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by: Raymond Chandler & Czenzi Ormonde, Based on the Novel by: Patricia Highsmith
His life would be so much better if he could just get rid of Daddy. Then he could live comfortably, on his father’s money, with his affectionate and looney mom. He just needs the right guy to help him pull off the perfect crime. When he chooses our hero, Guy Haines, as his unwilling accomplice, Guy’s life quickly spins out of control.
I found this character more interesting and compelling than that other famous Hitchcockian killer, Norman Bates. Granted, Norman — dubbed by NPR as “a most terrifying mama’s boy” — brought the now well-known Oedipal psycho-killer into popular consciousness. However, I find Bruno more terrifying in that he is more believable, more competent, and more calculating. Also I would argue that Norman — whose grip on reality is tenuous at best — seemed more psychotic than psychopathic.
Memorable Quote: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you, Mr. Haines. It might disturb Mother.”
#9 — Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)
American Psycho (2000)
Written & Directed by: Hary Harron, Based on the Novel by Bret Easton Ellis
You never know what might set off a psychopath. Hostility. Boredom. Meeting someone whose business cards are nicer than his.
Patrick — the protagonist of this bloody, bizarre, rather brilliant satire of ’80s materialism and popular culture — is shallow, self-obsessed, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, and oblivious to the feelings of others. Everything you could ever want in a man, right? Big deal. That describes everyone who travels in his circles. In fact, the men in his crowd are so similar they keep forgetting each other’s names and faces and mistaking guys they meet for other people. Indistinguishable, interchangeable guys in insanely expensive designer suits. In a sense, this makes them almost invisible.
And even if Patrick were singled out as a murder suspect, it wouldn’t matter. No one would believe it. Not because he’s suspected of having scruples or moral character. Everyone thinks he is just too damn boring to be the perpetrator of a serious crime.
Memorable Quote: “Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?”
#8 — Maynard (Duane Whitaker)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Ah … this movie is overflowing with fodder for this list. But I decided to pick just one, so here’s the winner. This is one of the most inexplicably sadistic, bat-shit-crazy characters in the history of movies. Of course. Who else would take on Marcellus Wallace?
#7 — Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)
Breaking Bad (T.V. Series: 2008-2013)
Created By: Vince Gilligan
Gustavo Fring is cool, well-mannered, and unfailingly self-possessed. He is the owner of a successful chicken franchise and a methamphetamine distributor. His calm, poised exterior seldom wavers, even when ruthlessly murdering a man who has become a liability. Ah…that box cutter scene. :-O
Memorable Quote: “You are a wealthy man now. And one must learn to be rich. To be poor, anyone can manage.”
#6 — Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Written & Directed by: Tim Robbins, Based on the Book by: Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean’s faith leads her to work against capital punishment and to believe that every human is ultimately redeemable. I found her commitment to finding the light of God in every person, no matter what he’s done, inspiring. The world needs many more people like her. And I would have loved for her to have been right. But some people are simply evil and can’t be helped.
When I saw this movie, I was working as a counselor with troubled youth. I’d met a few who I believed to have antisocial personality disorder. This is a brutal thing to say about a teenager. But sometimes you just know. It’s not purely based on diagnostic criteria. You just get a “vibe.” There’s something missing in their eyes.
I experienced all this watching Sean Penn’s performance as convicted rapist and murderer Matthew Poncelet. He had that exact look in his eyes. I actually found the movie so disturbing I had to pause it and leave the room several times.
Memorable Quote: “It’s quiet. Only three days left. Plenty of time to read my bible and look for a loophole.”
#5 — Nate (Noah Taylor)
Red, White & Blue (2010)
Written & Directed by: Simon Rumley
The first two parts of the unholy trifecta therapists are told to watch out for, when assessing potential antisocial personality disorder in children, are:
#1 cruelty to animals &
#2 setting fires.
Guess what this guy did when he was a kid? He set his sister’s pet bird on fire.
As an adult, he found a niche with the US military, performing interrogations. A skill he puts to good use when his life goes down a darker path.
One of the things I appreciate about this film is the moral ambiguity of Nate’s character. He is undoubtedly a psychopath, and most people leave him cold. But he is capable of love, and of risking everything for the woman who has won his affection.
Memorable Quote: “You put a guy in a room with an interrogator, you ask him a question; 95% of the guys will tell you the answer straight away. Now I got a question for you, and I know you’re gonna tell me the answer. But unfortunately for you, I’m the guy they always bring in for the more headstrong 5 percent. And even more unfortunately for you, I’m a guy who really fucking loves his job.”
#4 — Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson)
Luther (T.V. Series: 2010-2013)
Created by: Neil Cross
Brilliant and calculating, Alice is one cold, twisted character. I am willing to accept that — for reasons known only to herself — she felt compelled to murder her parents in cold blood. But, seriously — what kind of sick bitch kills her own dog?
Yet through the genius of this series — and the two lead performances — she and Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) form a tacit partnership. Luther, who lives with exceptional awareness of his own dark side, recognizes Alice for who she is and quickly learns that’s she’s a useful person to have on his side. He certainly wouldn’t want her as an enemy. They gradually form an odd but compelling friendship.
Memorable Quote: “This is a black hole. It consumes matter, sucks it in, and crushes it beyond existence. When I first heard that, I thought that’s evil in its most pure. Something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.”
#3 — Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare)
Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
This is one of the most brilliant movies of all time. The criminals in this film range from mean-spirited and stupid to coldly brutal, with Gaear Grimsrud being at the top of the scale.
He’s basically a hollow shell of a human being, rarely speaking and not hesitating to kill someone in cold blood, even if it’s just for the sheer hell of it. The chemistry between him and his chatty sidekick Carl (Steve Buscemi) — who is sleazy but less cold-blooded, with an eye for prostitutes — is priceless. Gaear is strictly business, as in “Shut the fuck up! Or I’ll throw you back in the trunk, you know?” And he sure is handy with a wood chipper.
Memorable Quote: “I need unguent.”
#2 — Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton)
Fargo (T.V. Series: 2014)
Created by: Noah Hawley
Hired hit man Lorne Malvo drifts into town and wreaks havoc wherever he goes. Not always with overt acts of malfeasance — all he needs is a well placed word here and there. Unerringly calm, cunning, and loquacious, Lorne delights in twisting the course of peoples’ lives, sometimes for his own gain and sometimes for the sheer pleasure of fucking with people.
He also has a chameleon-like ability to morph into whatever form he needs to. In one well-conceived scheme, to evade suspicion, he poses as a small-town minister. “Have a blessed day.”
Memorable Quote: “It’s already “dog-eat-dog,” friend. Not sure what worse a bunch of zombies could do.”
#1 — Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen, Based on the Novel by Cormac McCarthy
In contrast to Malvo’s loquacious charm, Chigurh is taciturn, stone-faced, and emotionless. Along with his dogged determination and fierce survival skills, this makes him a perfect killer for hire. You are unlikely to survive an encounter with him, but he might — just to make things interesting — offer to spare your life if you win a coin toss.
His ruthlessness, ferocity, and utter lack of emotion are chillingly real. As fictional psychopaths go, it is impossible to top him.
Memorable Quote: “And you know what’s going to happen now. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it.”
Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman)
Fargo (2014 Series)
Created by: Noah Hawley
He seems an unlikely candidate for this list, but he is as soulless a character as I’ve ever seen on screen.
He is the flip side of Lorne Malvo. While Malvo is confident and ruthless, Lester is quiet, self-effacing, and easily bullied. And he has lived for a long time as a productive, law-abiding citizen. But when an impulsive act of violence cracks this meek, diffident exterior, we gradually see who he really is, a person with no genuine emotional attachments.
This is revealed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, when he sends his adoring young wife into his office, like a canary in a mine, to avoid a killer’s bullet. His reaction to her death? “Ah, geez.”
Memorable Quote: “Let’s just say there’s a lot of blood.”
Adelai Niska (Michael Fairman)
Created By: Joss Whedon
I had to include this interplanetary crime boss because — quite simply — Firefly is the best damn T.V. show in the ‘verse.
He looks like a beloved grandfather or a college professor, but he’s a ruthless bastard. He gets little screen time throughout the series, but he is unforgettable. In “War Stories” we see him watching Mal and Wash in a desperate struggle to survive prolonged torture with a pleasant look of mild amusement on his face.
Memorable Quote: “Oh, you do not like I kill this man?…My wife’s nephew. At dinner I am getting earful. There is no way out of that.”
Who would be your top pick for this list?