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Chilling portraits of sociopaths in film

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.

Dexter

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.)

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139 Comments on "Chilling portraits of sociopaths in film"

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  1. darwinsmom says:

    Hmmm, Oxy, I’ve been thinking about the movie I mentioned and war of the roses… in a way those movies wear a mask of wit and humor but take it off along the way.

    And BTW thanks for finding this thread again :-)

  2. Ox Drover says:

    Darwinsmom,

    “Humor” is always pain at some one else’s expense.

    Think of the old film thing of the banana peel on the street, cut to the man walking, then back to the banana, then the man’s foot hitting the peel, then the man falls and hurts his butt and EVERYONE ELSE LAUGHS….

    War of the Roses was one of those “funny” movies that was what two psychopaths were doing to each other, each one topping the other’s bad behavior….HA HA….NOT FUNNY! Too close to how my life has been.

  3. sea storm says:

    The movie “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer is a brilliant movie about a psychopath who uses psychological torture in the form of trying to convince his target that she is mentally ill. He undermines her by turning down the lights and telling her that they have not been turned down. She begins to doubt her instincts and perceptions. I find this disturbing to watch. She is like a gentle bunnyrabbit who is being toyed with by the cougar. Thinking that her husband is the darling that she married she has no reference to understand his manipulations.

    Charles Boyer, the husband, humiliates her in front of the servants, her few friends, and in the society that she longs to become part of. His contempt spreads insidiously to these very places that could be her refuge. He sets her up to look thoughtless, forgetful, and dishonest.

    In the beginning the husband love-bombs Ingrid Bergman crashing through her fragile boundaries. She is alone in the world and vulnerable. She responds with abandon to his fervent love making. As soon as he has her isolated he escalates his strategy: to destroy her emotionally and psychologically. This results in Ingrid becoming really unhinged and she is screaming, crying and frightened. She is the quintessential “Crazy woman”. Only a detective and her partially deaf maid see what he is doing.

    In the end Ingrid is rescued from being committed to an insane asylum and from her psychopath husband. If she hadn’t had that intervention she would have been destroyed. Most people don’t have someone come to their rescue and swoop them up to be completely rescued.
    Their only hope it that there are witnesses who can see what is happening.

    The more I think about it I think that it is a miracle that anyone can survive a psychopath’s undermining, lying, betrayal at all levels, fraud, swindling and slander.
    Anyone who can pull themselves up and out of that nightmare is amazingly strong and resilient even if they don’t think so.

    It would be interesting to see how Ingrid B. could re invent herself without a rescuer. Nowadays, thank God there is support like this blog to help survivors.

  4. Ox Drover says:

    Sea Storm, you are right, many of us ahve pulled ourselves out of the trap by the straps of our own boots…and finding LF has been a great boost to most of us. Whether we find it early or late.

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