There have been countless depictions of sociopaths and other predatory personalities in film. Most are pretty bad, incomplete and/or inaccurate. But some have been dead-on.
And so I’ve canvassed my memory for what I regard as several notably excellent portraits of sociopaths in film. I’d be curious what you think of these performances (if you’ve seen them), and eager to discover, through you, new film/television portraits of sociopaths that ring disturbingly true.
In no special order, I’ll start with the original foreign film, The Vanishing, 1986 (not the subsequent and lame Hollywood remake). The Vanishing delivers-up one of the most sinister depictions of a sociopath I’ve ever seen. The fright derives less from graphic violence (there is none) than from the movie’s success at immersing you into the compartmentalized world of its principal character, who is seamlessly managing the presentation of a normal, well-adjusted family man, as he simultaneously and covertly pursues his secret life and morbid agenda.
Next is Unlawful Entry, 1992, a movie starring Ray Liotta as a local cop who smoothly enters the life of a young neighborhood couple (actors Kurt Russell and Anne Archer). Although somewhat formulaic plot-wise, the movie’s performances are impressive. Liotta’s sociopath—glib, charming and seductive—will make the hair on your skin rise. And both Archer and Russell vividly express the tension and alarm arising from their slow awareness that Liotta isn’t who he appeared so convincingly to be.
Richard Gere, in a somewhat unheralded role, nails-down a sociopathic cop in Internal Affairs, 1990. Gere gives a riveting presentation of the sociopathic mentality. Andy Garcia (actor), an Internal Affairs cop in Gere’s department, finds himself in the unenviable position of having to confront the slowly unfolding breadth (and horror) of Gere’s sociopathy. Garcia is also incredible. As in Unlawful Entry, the movie accurately shows how sociopaths can invade, lodge themselves in, and violate innocent, dignified lives.
One of the greatest performances of a sociopath I’ve ever seen can be found in Episode#44 of the former HBO series Six Feet Under. The episode is called, “That’s My Dog.” In it, David (actor Michael C. Hall) extends a random act of help to a road-stranded stranger, Jake (actor Michael Weston). David then finds himself overpowered by Jake, who, in the course of the episode’s hour, manages to embody virtually every relevant, sinister quality for which the sociopath is notorious. Weston’s demonic performance is astonishing. Hall’s as the traumatized victim of a sadistic sociopath is equally amazing.
Great performance, yes. Sociopath? Maybe not.
Speaking of actor Michael C. Hall, I wonder what your take is on Dexter, the great Showtime Series in which Hall plays a sociopathic serial killer working, by day, as a Miami crime-scene forensics analyst?
I love this series, which is coming into its third season. But as disturbing a character as Dexter is, I would not characterize him as a sociopath. This is just a fun diagnostic quibble. Ostensibly, Dexter grows up a budding, violent sociopath. His father (or father-figure) recognizes the dark, evil side over which, as a boy and adolescent, Dexter seems to have little, and diminishing, control. The father sees that Dexter is compulsively, inexorably inclined to sadistic violence.
His solution is to somehow train Dexter to direct his sociopathic, homicidal proclivities towards cruel, menacing, destructive individuals. Best, if someone’s got to be snuffed-out by Dexter, it be someone the world will be better without!
And so Dexter becomes skilled, over time, at identifying individuals the world won’t miss; individuals as dangerous and creepy as he.
Why, then, is Dexter not really a sociopath—and indeed, diagnostically speaking, not even necessarily plausible? Because, despite his violent, murderous compulsions, Dexter is, first of all, a fundamentally sincere person. He is also loyal–for instance to his sister and a girlfriend. And while Dexter struggles to “feel” warm feelings, indeed anything—a struggle, incidentally, that he embraces—he knows how to have the backs of others, even where his self-interest may be at risk.
In a word, Dexter strives, against his darkest, most sordid inclinations, for growth. This is precisely what makes him and the series so fascinating, and precisely what rules him out as sociopath.
What do you think?
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)