The internet is full of “best psychopath films” lists, and there’s some great films in there, but from what I’ve seen, they do tend to cover the same, predictable, mainstream films about psychopaths. The ones most of us have heard of already, like the Hannibal Lecter films, or one of Quentin Tarantino’s several films that have memorable psychopathic characters in them, like Reservoir Dogs.
In this guide I want to suggest some more alternative films and performances, that readers may NOT have heard of so readily, that also contain interesting and/or frighteningly accurate depictions of psychopaths/sociopaths. There are lots of films out there that portray psychopaths in ways that are frightening, but also sometimes instructive and informative, that don’t get the attention I think they deserve.
I’m also going to mix this guide up, not just including the stereotypical, over-the-top frighteningly violent psychopath, but also films about those more sublimated, controlled, sneaky, calculating, manipulative psychopaths who don’t always go for violence as a default, but instead manipulate others to do their dirty work for them, or else get off more on psychologically torturing others rather than physically harming them.
Let’s get started with my top alternative films about psychopaths!
1. Tom Ripley in Ripley’s Game (2002)
First up is my personal favorite all time film psychopath – John Malkovich’s brilliant performance of Tom Ripley in Liliana Cavani’s 2002 film Ripley’s Game, itself a remake of Wim Wender’s 1977 film The American Friend.
There are several novel and film iterations of this particular story-line and character, but in my opinion, Malkovich’s performance as Ripley stands way above all the others and depicts absolutely perfectly and with nuance that more sneaky, calculating, manipulative, dead-eyed sociopath you will find in the outside world. The one that will use violence as and when needed, but doesn’t default to it and would rather get from A to B in more sneaky, manipulative ways.
Ripley’s Game follows the story of Tom Ripley, and criminal and manipulative art dealer, and in parallel the life of Jonathan Trevanny, a terminally ill craftsman. As neighbors, their lives intersect one evening at a party, when Ripley overhears Trevanny insulting him. This annoys Ripley, leading him to plot an elaborate, sneaky, and psychologically torturous revenge on Trevanny, manipulating his illness and desire for security for his family for his own amusement as payback for the slight Trevanny carelessly made against him.
Using an unsophisticated philistine gangster Reeves (Ray Winstone) as a middle-man, Ripley draws Trevanny further astray into more and more nefarious activity, manipulating his desire to see his family safe after his inevitable coming demise from cancer, leading to disastrous results for Trevanny.
I absolutely love this film, firstly because it’s so well played by Malkovich, but also because I’ve literally met psychopaths in the world that very closely resemble the Ripley character, in how they think, act and manipulate others for their own ends, taking an amusement in the suffering of others. If you haven’t see this film, be sure to catch it on Amazon Video.
2. John Ryder in The Hitcher (1986)
This brutally nihilistic but brilliant thriller from 1986 stars C Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey, a young wet-behind-the-ears guy traveling across the Texas desert, who bumps in an unknown hitcher, John Ryder played by Rutger Hauer.
This is drifting more back in the archetype of the crazy, unhinged, violent psychopath, one who immediately seems “off” within the first few minutes of meeting him, who doesn’t have a very convincing facade or mask of sanity, as many psychopaths do.
In fact, Rutger Hauer’s performance as the psychopathic Ryder is really over the top, turned up to 20, and mixes in aspects of psychosis with the general undertone of violent psychopathy. It’s graphic and gory, but brilliantly raw and frightening, with a great soundtrack to go with it which captures the expansive, bleak, nihilistic setting well.
Put simply, the John Halsey character, feeling sympathy for him in the pouring rain, gives Ryder a lift, and very quickly regrets it! A psychotic and crazy-making cat-and-mouse chase in the desert ensues, with Ryder’s character pursuing Halsey relentlessly after he escapes, but strangely not killing him when he has the chance, as he actually has other motives that are only really indirectly inferred and add to the mystique and irrational nature of the John Ryder character.
If you don’t mind violence and want a really over-the-top, almost comically unhinged portrayal of a psychopath, be sure to check this 1986 film out (there is also a 2007 remake from Michael Bay’s production company, which I don’t personally rate. I much prefer the original).
3. Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000)
In fairness, this film does appear in some lists on film psychopaths, but still doesn’t get anywhere near the credit or attention it deserves, especially since in this film, you actually get two psychopaths for the price of one.
This film drops into the initially serene life of retired gangster Gal (Ray Winstone), who’s made his money and retired to Spain to live out his life with wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan character shatters this peace by appearing out of nowhere to cajole Gal into doing one last job. Gal initially refuses, leading to an explosive battle of wills as the relentless and unhinged Don won’t take no for an answer, with Gal having to take some drastic measures to restore his peaceful life.
Ben Kingsley’s brilliant performance as Don Logan has almost passed into crime film folklore because it’s so explosive and methodically rehearsed. However, Logan’s character, despite definitely having psychopathic traits, often drifts more into the psychotic sphere of personality – unhinged, unstable, volatile and out of touch with reality.
In terms of pure psychopathy though, it’s Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass character – the malevolent crime overlord who controls Don – that really fits the bill. His entire character exudes darkness and evil, and is another reason why this film is essential viewing for fans of psychopath films, alongside the more obviously explosive performance of Ben Kingsley as Don.
Sexy Beast is a little bit better known than some of the other films in this guide, but still a great watch for psychopathic characters. Check out my review of it here.
4. Terry In Muscle (2019)
Now let’s turn to a newer film from the last few years that really caught my attention when I first saw it as a brilliant and nuanced portrayal of a psychopath by Craig Fairbrass.
Gerard Johnson’s Muscle follows the life of downtrodden and emasculated Simon, played by Cavan Clerkin. His life isn’t really going anywhere, but he suddenly meets Craig Fairbrass’ Terry character in the local gym. The two initially seem to form an unusual positive training team, but Terry quickly ensconces and enmeshes himself into Simon’s life, leaving Simon unable to escape easily once he starts to realize who Terry really is.
Let’s start by saying that this film ISN’T another one of Fairbrass’ stereotypical “hardman” performances for which he is well known now. It’s more complex and nuanced than that. It’s an absolutely brilliantly played depiction of a psychopathic personality – how they present initially, how they wriggle into your life, how they behave when the mask comes off, the negative impact they have on your life if you ever let them get close.
It’s all there and writer/director Gerard Johnson and Fairbrass absolutely nail it to a tee – I’ve lived with these types of people before so I know an accurate depiction of a psychopath when I see one. This film can serve as a graphic warning of what would happen to any of us if we ever don’t set boundaries (like the weak Simon character), don’t ask questions, overlook glaring red flags and let these toxic people into our lives.
The film does contain some really graphic sexual scenes, but if this is not something that bothers you, it’s a brilliant alternative independent film about psychopaths. See my review of it here.
5. Charlie in Stoker (2013)
This one is shifting more back to the psychologically manipulative psychopath, but Matthew Goode’s performance as Charlie in the thriller Stoker is another great psychopath film performance that goes largely unnoticed in articles on the topic.
Park Chan-wook’s Stoker follows the life of India (Mia Wasikowska), a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of her father Richard, and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who doesn’t seem particularly upset by her husband’s passing. Soon after Richard’s funeral, his long lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears on the scene, charming his way into India and Evelyn’s life.
The front act initially works, but he starts to isolate Evelyn from other family members, and cross uncomfortable boundaries with India. Eventually, his real psychological state starts to become apparent, but not before he brings out some surprising things in India’s character that had been laying dormant, leading to some explosive showdowns where India has to decide on her loyalties between Evelyn and Charlie.
I picked this film because it’s perhaps the best depiction of what psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley called The Mask of Sanity – that charming, engaging front act psychopaths must put up to convince others around them that they are a normal person, instead of the toxic, disordered mess they actually are.
However, it doesn’t matter how much energy psychopaths pour into this act, eventually the mask starts to drop, and their real nature starts to come out, with the lies they’ve spun starting to unravel. This film brilliantly depicts this process, but also how manipulative and charming psychopaths can initially be, wrapping people round their little finger psychologically, and isolating them from anyone who might help them see through the front act.
There’s little bits of violence in this film, but it isn’t really the focus – again, it’s more about the conniving and manipulative psychological aspects of psychopathy. If this is more your bag, Stoker is an excellent thriller that depicts a pathological personality at work.
See my full review of it here.
6. Vincent in Collateral (2004)
This is a bit more of a mainstream film, but it’s probably one of Michael Mann’s films that gets less attention because of all the other great ones.
Collateral depicts the seemingly mundane life of LA cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx), just going about his day until Vincent (Tom Cruise) suddenly drops in for a ride. It quickly becomes brutally apparent to Max that Vincent is a hit-man, but there’s no backing out from there for Max, as Vincent effectively holds him at gunpoint and makes him drive him round the city to a series of other hits. Through a battle of wills and an amazing coincidence, Max is eventually forced to resist Vincent, but can he stop him killing someone he now cares about?
Collateral is a bit better known of a film, but I’ve not seen the sociopathic aspect of Cruise’s character covered so much. He perfectly depicts the lack of conscience or empathy of a psychopath with his brutal language, emotional detachment and cold rationalizations. I also like how the early dynamic between Max and Vincent also captures that very real “something missing” aspect of interacting with real-life sociopaths, that’s there to see if you’re observant enough.
They can seem engaging, conversational, talk-the-talk, say all the right things at the right time, but there’s still something missing, something not there with these people, that puts intuitive people off. Jamie Fox’s Max character brilliantly captures this, and is a lesson in spotting these people in the real world – the lack of real feeling or emotion.
See my review of Collateral here.
7. Gangster in Gangster No. 1 (2000)
Now we’re back to a more straightforward depiction of an openly horrible and violent psychopath – Paul Bettany’s performance as “Gangster” in Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1
This film covers the rise through the London underworld criminal ranks of an un-named Gangster, played by Paul Bettany and later by Malcolm McDowell. Initially, respected crime boss Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) takes Gangster under his wing, but he later ends up betraying Freddie and taking his place.
With this film, there’s no psychological nuance or subtlety to Bettany’s performance – it’s just an uncomplicated, straight up depiction of a horrible, violent, soulless psychopath. But very well done. There’s lots of gruesome violence, and the interplay between The Gangster character and the initial boss Freddie who he betrays, cleverly depicts the intense envy that’s often at play with power fixated psychopaths, who have no center of their own and will happily throw others under the bus to advance their own position.
If you want to see an uncomplicated, straight up horrible psychopath in a film, this one is for you. See my full review of it here.
8. Jacques Mesrine in Mesrine (2008)
Again this is a more uncomplicated psychopath performance from the brilliant Vincent Cassel, from the 2008 film Mesrine, directed by Jean-François Richet.
Mesrine depicts the life of actual French criminal Jacques Mesrine, as he returns corrupted and de-sensitized from the Algerian war, and his attempts to live a straight life soon fall off the rails, as he drifts more and more into a criminal lifestyle. Charismatic, engaging and humorous, but also explosively violent and abusive, the film captures the volatility of Mesrine’s post-war life, as he forms and destroys relationships, and ultimately himself due to a determination to live a dishonest life.
This film performance can be a more conflicting one, because Cassel’s performance is so charismatic, engaging, and even sometimes funny. He brings the Mesrine character to life. But there’s no doubt that character depicted is still a psychopath – he’s dishonest and abusive, and kills people without a second thought, and the connection of this heartless behavior with traumatic experiences in the Algerian war is made clear.
Despite being almost likeable at points, the Mesrine character is still a criminal and a psychopath. But the film is entertaining and a great watch. See my review of it here (the film actually comes in two parts – The Death Instinct and Public Enemy Number 1).