Psychopathy is a collection of traits that includes, according to the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy, lack of guilt, empathy, and deep emotional attachments to others; narcissism and superficial charm; dishonesty, manipulativeness, and reckless risk-taking.
In recent years, movie characters with many of these traits have provided some realistic examples of psychopathic behaviors.
Some other well-known characters, however, often have been misdiagnosed by viewers as psychopathic.
Here are the guys and girls who fit the bill…
Iago, Othello (1995)
Kenneth Branagh’s Iago in Othello (1995) displays many psychopathic features as he conspires to destroy his popular commanding officer, Othello.
The callous subordinate, jealous and bitter after being passed over for promotion, is manipulative and cunning as he schemes to deceive and use anyone around him– including his own wife– to bring down Othello by convincing him that his innocent wife Desdemona has been unfaithful.
The effort Iago puts into his elaborate machinations reflects his need for stimulation as well as his missing conscience. He lacks empathy, remorse, and a sense of guilt– and he has so much to be guilty about.
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men so accurately captures murderous psychopathic traits and behaviours that psychiatrists Samuel Leistedt and Paul Linkowski described him as a ‘most realistic’ and ‘a well-designed’ psychopathic character.
Chigurh represents an extremely rare individual: a highly psychopathic killer. He lacks remorse, emotional connections to others, and empathy. He kills in cold-blood—repeatedly—but in a proactive or instrumental manner. In other words, he plans his violence and does not simply react to situations violently.
Instrumental aggression is often seen in psychopathic criminals described by law enforcement psychological profilers.
Frank Booth, Blue Velvet (1986)
Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986) combines sexual sadism and psychopathy.
He abducts a man and the man’s child and uses his control over them to extort sex from his victim, the wife and mother of his prisoners.
Booth is a violent career criminal who lacks empathy, guilt, and close emotional ties to anyone. Like Anton Chigurh, Booth seems to satisfy the criteria of a classic, psychopathic criminal.
Holly, Badlands (1973)
Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Holly in Badlands (1973) captures the shocking indifference to appallingly immoral behaviour often seen in decidedly psychopathic persons.
Her near indifference to the string of murders committed by her boyfriend (based on real life spree killer Charles Starkweather) illustrates the shallow affect or emotional response often associated with psychopathy.
Dennis Peck, Internal Affairs (1990)
Corrupt police officer Dennis Peck, played by Richard Gere in Internal Affairs (1990), displays the superficial charm seen in many people with high psychopathy scores.
It provides a realistic and disturbing contrast to the menace Peck directs at an internal affairs officer who threatens his extensive criminal enterprise. Peck is amoral, without empathy and closer in temperament to Iago than to anyone else.
Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987) depicts a somewhat dramatic example of “corporate” psychopathy. Not all psychopathic individuals are violent or in jail.
Some are in board rooms, in corporations and, like Gekko, on Wall Street, where they manipulate, lie and cheat to make money without regard to the damage their actions inflict on society.
A small, preliminary study found that 4 percent of the corporate managers tested– as opposed to 1 percent of the general population– had significant psychopathic traits.
Gekko’s use of insider information, his manipulation and exploitation of others for his own gain, his lack of remorse and empathy for his victims and other unethical acts make him a prime candidate for inclusion in the 4 percent.
Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Malcolm McDowell portrays the violent, Beethoven-loving juvenile offender Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Just 17 years old, Alex has conduct disorder, not psychopathy.
While successful treatment of adult criminals with psychopathy is generally difficult to document, some but not all children and adolescents with antisocial traits and behaviors go on to develop full blown psychopathy.
In the movie, Alex apparently is on his way toward adult psychopathy. In the original version of Anthony Burgess’s novel, however, Alex abandons his violent lifestyle.
Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)
Norman Bates, the “psycho” in the Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), does not have a psychopathic personality. “Psycho” is an unfortunate word.
In common usage, it means both psychotic and psychopathic, two very different things.
Psychotic refers to a person who is legally insane, who has hallucinations and/or delusions and does not know right from wrong.
A psychopathic person is legally sane and knows the difference between right and wrong.
Norman Bates is psychotic; he believes his dead mother is alive. He hears her speak. He even sometimes thinks he is his dead mother. He loses touch with reality, something that is not a feature of psychopathy.
Jericho Stewart, Criminal (2016)
The psychopathic behaviour of Kevin Costner’s character, Jericho Stewart, in Criminal, is attributed to brain damage he suffered as a child.
His condition, sometimes called acquired psychopathy or pseudo-psychopathy, can be traced to damage to parts of his pre-frontal lobes.
In reality, this neurological condition is significantly different from developmental psychopathy but it can include some important features Stewart displays.
These include lack of empathy, inability to feel remorse, aggression and poor impulse control, planning and judgement. Stewart’s psychopathological behavior is so extreme, it is possible he had a predisposition toward developing psychopathy before his brain injury.
Travis Bickel, Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver (1976) portrays a socially isolated, highly troubled and, ultimately, antisocial and violent character.
Bickel’s violent behavior, however, does not mean he is psychopathic. For example, Bickel would like to connect to some people; he wants to have a girlfriend.
And he sincerely cares about the welfare of a child prostitute he encounters.
Bickle appears to have several features associated with schizotypal personality disorder which include difficulty starting and maintaining relationships and odd thought patterns and behaviours.
The extreme violence in Taxi Driver, however, is not characteristic of this personality disorder or, for that matter, any mental illness. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of crime.
CRIMINAL is available on Blu-ray, Ultra HD Blu-ray and DVD from 15 th August 2016.
Words by Dean A Haycock, PhD, the author of Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil and Characters on the Couch: Exploring Psychology through Literature and Film