15. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Psychopath: Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen)
When Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the scene with his directorial debut at Sundance, few scenes were more talked about than the infamous torture scene starring Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and an unfortunate cop (Kirk Baltz).
While not visually graphic (see the deleted takes on the DVD for an idea of how it could’ve gone down), the enjoyment the unhinged gangster takes in the act is palpable as he alternates between maiming his victim and dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, a song that will be forever associated with this disturbing scene.
The behind-the-scenes trivia is fascinating, from the future tidbit that Mr. Blonde is the brother of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in Pulp Fiction, to the unease Madsen reportedly felt shooting his iconic scene (if that’s not a testament to both his humanity and skill as an actor, nothing is).
Though his role isn’t the biggest in the film’s ensemble, his crackling dialogue and the soft-spoken voice he uses throughout helps make the character unforgettable.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “Look kid, I’m not gonna bullshit you, okay? I don’t really give a good fuck what you know or don’t know, but I’m gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It’s amusing to me to torture a cop. You can say anything you want, ‘cause I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t gonna get.”
14. There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Psychopath: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)**
Ruthless. Conniving. Backstabbing. Daniel Plainview is all these things and, make no mistake, a pure psychopath. Portrayed by quite possibly the world’s greatest living actor, he pursues his goals with relentless focus, not so much struggling with the problem of greed as embracing it.
We watch as he embarks on a quest for money and oil in turn of the century California, letting no one stand in his way as he eliminates his opponents. By the end he’s lost everyone, animalistically consuming his steak lunch with zeal.
Regardless of whether Day-Lewis is scarier as Plainview here or Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, his starring role in this film gave writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson plenty of time to explore the loathsome character. It’s not surprising to learn that Anderson would have refused to make the movie if he couldn’t get DDL.
In the second of his three leading Oscar-winning performances (so far), Day-Lewis takes advantage of the free reign he’s given to develop the character (the film is only loosely based on the 1927 book Oil! by Upton Sinclair). He might go a bit over-the-top in the film’s final scene (cue the milkshake jokes), but will leave you feeling like you’ve just witnessed a master actor at his peak. It’s breathtaking work.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”
13. Cape Fear (1991)
The Psychopath: Max Cady (Robert De Niro)*
A rare example of a remake that’s more than serviceable, Martin Scorsese’s thriller adds moral ambiguity where the original 1962 film (itself based on the John D. MacDonald novel, The Executioners) kept its hero and villain starkly separated on the spectrum of good and evil.
While Scorsese wisely knew which aspects of the first film to retain, like Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score, he most noticeably upped the ante with the film’s antagonist – a recently released convict with an ax to grind.
Convincingly inhabited by De Niro (already no stranger to physically altering himself for roles), his Max Cady is a nasty but charming criminal covered in tattoos and sporting a similarly creepy set of chompers (transformed by a dentist, as opposed to makeup artists. Talk about dedication…).
He would ultimately lose the Oscar to someone playing an even more famous psychopath, but more on that later. His extensive preparation for the role, which also included learning a thick Southern drawl, impressively bulking up, and researching the crimes of sexual predators, created one of the most fearsome villains in recent cinematic history – a character that would do Robert Mitchum (the original Cady) proud.
The memorable Simpsons parody featuring Sideshow Bob in the De Niro role only further immortalizes his performance (winking imitation being the sincerest form of flattery).
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “I ain’t no white trash piece of shit. I’m better than you all! I can out-learn you. I can out-read you. I can out-think you. And I can out-philosophize you. And I’m gonna outlast you.”
12. Goodfellas (1990)
The Psychopath: Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci)**
The second Scorsese film on this list, Goodfellas features the fictionalization of a real-life gangster, Tommy DeSimone. According to Henry Hill, the former gangster whose life story is told in the film, Pesci’s performance was over 90% accurate, the main difference being the formidable size of the real-life Tommy. Other than that, the hotheaded, unpredictable, foul-mouthed mobster comes across as nothing short of alarmingly authentic.
The tense scene in which he goes from boisterous to serious to seemingly on the verge of violence, all in the matter of seconds, demonstrates a telltale attribute of the psychopath: an undercurrent of rage and aggression that can explode with ostensibly little provocation.
The fact that the scene was both based on a real incident related to Scorsese by Pesci and improvised at the former’s direction speaks to its effectiveness. That Joe Pesci managed to turn in a family-friendly performance that very same year in Home Alone only speaks to his talent as an actor.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know, maybe it’s me, I’m a little fucked up maybe, but, I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?”
11. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Psychopath: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)**
Looming over the narrative of this Coen brothers’ film like a demonic force of nature (reflected in the film’s excellent poster), Javier Bardem’s acclaimed performance has been called one of the most realistic on-screen portrayals of a psychopath.
We get zero information about his childhood or backstory, but Anton Chigurh, singularly focused on recovering a large sum of money, is recognizably devoid of the smallest shred of empathy or remorse. His insistence on letting the flip of a coin decide the fate of his potential victims can be read as symbolic of the unpredictable nature of death and the chaos of violence, or simply as something he uses as the substitute for a clearly absent conscience.
Regardless, the hitman leaves an indelible impression as an unstoppable threat, or “the ultimate badass,” as one character attempts to describe him. Like the shark from Jaws, he represents an unfeeling instrument of destruction, made all the more memorable with his unique weapon of choice and even stranger haircut to match.
Adapted from a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the film went on to win Best Picture, a triumph largely owed to the strength of its cold-blooded villain.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”
10. Se7en (1995)
The Psychopath: John Doe (Kevin Spacey)
He doesn’t fully enter the picture till the third act, but when he does, covered in blood, it’s an entrance that completely shifts the direction of the rest of the film. The buildup prior to this point has been so intense, the crimes of the killer so ghastly, that the mystery man has become almost a mythic figure.
Cast only days before principal photography began, Kevin Spacey plays the killer with a shaved head and an unsettlingly calm, matter of fact line delivery. Wisely left out of the film’s marketing, his appearance comes as a genuine surprise (coincidentally, the film was released only a month after The Usual Suspects, which won Spacey his first Oscar).
Unlike some of the other characters on this list, John Doe doesn’t have a flamboyant personality or seem overtly insane. Rather, it’s the outlandishness and cruelty of his crimes, all of which we see only in their aftermath, that tell us his true nature (the “Sloth” victim being a particularly horrific standard by which many moviegoers have since measured all imagined tortures).
And finally, of course, there’s that ending – a coda so bleak and wrenching that the studio only acquiesced to using it when star Brad Pitt threatened to quit the film if it were changed. Se7en is all the better for it, as the final twist provides an appropriately grim finale to a fictional killing spree for the ages, proving two things once and for all: That director David Fincher was a force to be reckoned with, and that Kevin Spacey is capable of turning even the briefest of performances into a feat of greatness.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s… it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. And what I’ve done is going to be puzzled over, and studied, and followed… forever.”
9. Blue Velvet (1986)
The Psychopath: Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)
Agreeing to play an abusive, drug-sniffing, obscenity-spewing, perverted sicko wouldn’t be most actors’ idea of how to stage a comeback, but that’s just what Dennis Hopper did for David Lynch’s controversial mystery/psychological thriller.
Purported to have asked for the role by saying, “I’ve got to play Frank. Because I am Frank!” Hopper added his own personal touches to the role, such as suggesting which kind of drug Frank should be huffing during his scenes of brutality.
He doesn’t appear until a good way into the film, but when he does, we know we’ve entered a whole new hellish realm of the story. As a kidnapping rapist with a fetish for the object of the title, Frank is distinctive in having pretty much no redeemable traits whatsoever. Did Hopper go over the top? Perhaps, but the result is undeniably jarring and affecting.
His performance doesn’t feel fake or phoned in for a minute, and is usually what viewers remember most about the film. He ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination that year for a much lighter film – Hoosiers – but there’s no doubt that Blue Velvet helped raise his profile considerably.
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin’ gun, fucker! You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever! You understand, fuck? I’ll send ya straight to hell, fucker!”
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
The Psychopath: Henry (Michael Rooker)
He may be best known to mainstream audiences as Merle, Daryl’s racist brother on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but it was this low-budget shocker that undoubtedly jumpstarted Michael Rooker’s career. Shot on 16mm in 28 days for $110,000, John McNaughton’s film, loosely based on the crimes of real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, was so disturbing that the MPAA branded it with the dreaded X-rating.
This prompted a four-year delay before the film was properly released, and it ultimately went out unrated (the NC-17 rating was created that very year, largely in response to both this film and another non-pornographic but taboo-breaking indie, the aforementioned The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover).
The objections stemmed not just from the film’s violence, but from its general tone – it was simply too realistic to be seen as just another harmless horror film, at least in the eyes of the raters.
The film’s notoriety only ended up enhancing its reputation for fans of the genre. At the center of it all is Rooker as Henry, a dead-eyed, matricidal drifter who nonetheless maintains an air of charm as he goes about his mundane daily activities, which just so happen to include a murder here and there.
While the handheld home invasion sequence may be the film’s most sickening, its Henry’s final act that will leave viewers speechless. When the film was screened at Telluride, in fact, a distraught audience member confronted the director afterwards, telling him that he couldn’t end the movie like that. McNaughton plainly replied: “We just did.”
Memorable Psychopathic Quote: “Open your eyes, Otis. Look at the world. It’s either you, or them. You know what I mean.”