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.


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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Ox Drover

Do you guys remember the “comedy” the WAR OF THE ROSES?

I remember watching that movie and laughing my ass off….until the end and then it hit me and I started actually crying….talk about psychopaths!!!!


purewater, I had the same response. I have the video at home… loved the movie, and fell for the ending, over and over… until I saw it again as it was on TV couple of weeks ago and instantly realized before watching it closely again, “sheesh, how many times did I watch this one, and only now do I know it’s about 2 spaths,” and the ending of the viscount made me puke. I just lost the ability to believe the lie.

Oxy, yes… it was dark comedy… I guess that’s why I liked it. Because it made you drop your smile from your face.

There’s a movie I can recomment, a Belgian one. It’s about a killer (can’t really call him serial, cause he kills whomever). The original title is ‘C’est arrivé pres de chez vous.’ (translation: It happened near you). The English title for it is “Man bites dog.” IMO the best way to view it is the uncensored movie. In short there are 3 guys who want to make a documatery portrait about someone for their thesis year. They end up making a documentary of a killer. He explains them how to best off people, old, young… how to weigh the bodies so they won’t resurface. He talks so coldly about these things as if he’s talking about a soccer game, and the total narcicist and charmer. What I love about that movie is that, he just not manages to charm the student guys but the viewer. The movie makers get in way over their head, step by step, eventually even being involved in a sick sadistic rape and American Psycho like murder. That’s when usually the audience realizes that what they’re watching is not funny at all, and that they are as much accomplices as the movie makers for having laughed at his humoresque and grotesque narcisism and cold bloodedness. Eventually they’re all killed by another psycho.

It’s a good thing the movie is in black and white. You lose count over the number of people die.

The censured deleted scenes are the rape-sadistic murder scene and one prior to that, which I think is the first scene where people start to cringe on their seats… They end up for once in a rich neighbourhood, break in a house, and Benoit kills the adult couple in there, and then it turns out that the couple has a kid who runs off into the woods behind the garden. Then Benoit makes them use their movie lights to go after him, catch him and kill the witness.

Anyway, it has a similar feel as War of the Roses… starts out as a comedy feel, but by the end you feel it’s dead serious, and you’ve been hit by a sledge hammer.

For me Natural Born Killers is but a pussy version of this one, which was made a couple of years prior to Natural Born Killers


It’s just a long list, those Movies/Tv Shows about spaths.

My spath husband watches shows/movies and takes a cue from them, copies some of the dialog, kinda like a personal development course.

What creeps me out is now that he’s got this girlfriend, she’s got cable and they likely watch Dexter. 1) It affirms for him that his thinking is NORMAL 2) It encourages him to kill b/c it’s NEEDED and it serves as a release.

I don’t live with hyperviligence anymore but I do have back up systems and know I can easily slip back into survival mode. One of many things I know about my spath is that he is DRAWN to those things like Tv/Movies that excuse, affirm, or in the Dexter example, elevate his spathyness into celebrated status.



I haven’t seen war of roses, but I have netflix and am gonna check if it’s on demand.

Ox Drover

It is an older movie, about a couple who are getting divorced and doing mean things to each other….it is “funny” in a nasty sort of way, but in the end, VERY SAD.


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 🙂

Ox Drover


“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.

sea storm

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.

Ox Drover

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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