Friday 21 September 2012

To Love a Psychopath: A Look at Film’s Most Interesting Psychopaths

(Cinemascope thanks Ms. Camiele White for this interesting look at the portrayal of psychopaths in cinema - there have never been any dearth of them, be it in reel or real life - from Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho to The Joker in Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Rises. Details about Ms. White can be found below the article)

Film has always been able to project the many nuances and oddities of humanity in stark fashion. Perhaps film’s most interesting concept is that of the psychopath. As far back as I can remember there’s always been a unique take on the psychotic mind, a mind so full of chilling hatred for humanity the person it inhabits has no qualms about destroying it… and in the most grisly fashion.

While watching The Cell I had a revelation: filmmakers have for years attempted to get their respective audiences to sympathise with their psychotic leads. And, I’ve gotta say, they’ve managed to make a believer out of me. For the most part, it’s been the men who’ve had a profound impact on me emotionally -- the women either end up seeming bitchy or just too emotionally flighty for me to relate. However, the men have such depth, such overwhelming intelligence it makes sense I’d connect with them.

As in The Cell, our unfortunate madman, Carl Stargher (played with great emotional depth by Vincent D’Onfrio), happens to have an illness that drives his insanity. His mind deteriorates to such a state that in the end he has no other option but to give in to the whims of his id, the hyper-aggressive beast slithering through his mind like a cocky eel. This prince of darkness, for lack of a better phrase, is a demon with an ego the size of its own planet, a creature that sees himself, as Katherine (a much understated Jennifer Lopez) puts it, “a king of a very twisted kingdom.” However, it’s the repressed child inside Stargher that ultimately comes into play. The push and pull of the innocent and the evil within him rips his mind to shreds, inducing a coma that stops him from being able to so much as move his baby toe, let alone murder anyone. The emotional pull of the character allowed me to actively see a different side of the so-called psychopath and give him a heart yearning to be set free from its damaged self.

It’s no surprise many a director and writer have portrayed their villains as nothing more than emotionally and spiritually damaged children. For Stargher, his life was full of sexual and mental abuse at the hands of his father and negligent, if not equally abused, mother. For a character like Norman Bates (Psycho), however, the line between his fantasy and his waking life is a bit more severe. In his case, he’s internalized the overbearing power of his mother, needing her almost tyrannical control of his life to balance out the softness most would, and unfortunately do, see as weakness. Perhaps the most chilling and heartbreaking scene is when we find out he’s been masquerading as the crazed matriarch, down to the very crackle and cadence of her voice. The precision of his portrayal is haunting, to the point that I found myself unable to do anything but feel for the poor man’s plight. Here he is, alone in a house the size of a small castle, and he has to run a business on his own, never having left the confines of this sanatorium that is his home. The struggle he has to be an adult is overshadowed by the overwhelming childlike innocence inside his heart, an innocence that forces him to act strictly on impulse. What his body wants and he desires is, of course, overpowered by the voice that eventually takes over his mind.

Then, of course, there are those characters created merely for the sake of destruction. The bloody rollercoaster that is Ichi the Killer is almost mindless slaughter throughout. However, it’s underscored with a sensitivity that’s quite surprising. The hapless killer Ichi is balanced by the cold precision of Kakihara, a man whose sole purpose is to seek and destroy. The iciness of Kakihara’s execution is breathtaking, an art unto itself. While Ichi is a sloppy and impulsive teenager living in a grown man’s body (abused and fearful like the two characters that precede him), Kakihara is very sure with his hand, taking life without so much as batting an eyelash.

Then there is the freakishly unfortunate type of psychopath, the kind birthed from a neglectful society and moulded into a veritable demon. Li’l Dice (La Cidadede Deus), for example, is a child so entrenched in the violence of his surroundings he becomes petulant. Once given the chance to wield his own weapon, he brandishes it almost cartoonishly, shooting anything that moves. Violence is nothing more than a game, humans merely points to add to his score. The absolute jubilation on his face as we watch him gun down innocent people in the streets haunted me for years after I first saw the film. And yet my heart beats with so much pain at seeing a boy, no more than 10 years old, so warped by his belief in his godlike power over human life he gives it or takes it based simply on his interest in the person in front of him. It not only struck fear in me in a way no other film villain had before or since, it made me re-analyze the things society holds dear, how a world so sure of its inherent goodness neglects to nurture the innocent.

Though the emotionally crippled and socially ignored seem to have an overwhelming spot in cinematic history, it’s those who quite literally toe the line between genius and insanity that have made the biggest impression on me. The king of hyper-egoism, The Joker (played with unerring brilliance by the late Heath Ledger) manages to take his genius and morph it into an exacting idea of justice. His understanding of order is predicated on the idea that chaos must be the dominating presence in his world. His platform is simple: if you “introduce a little chaos”, you teach the world to see itself for what it really is -- a mess of humanity trying desperately to contain its emotions. But what if we let those impulses run free? What if people simply allowed the world to implode? His analogy of the death of a squadron of soldiers versus the impending doom of a senator, for instance, paints a very disturbing picture of the presupposed order of things. How do we value the life of one over that of the many, the faceless, and still call ourselves a beacon of all living things? The Joker’s turn as the “agent of chaos” took my mind and melted it into every part of my body.

Clyde Shelton (Law Abiding Citizen) was a man whose sole purpose was to be the active mind behind the CIA’s steel-like brutality. His wasn’t ostentatious shows of murder. Whatever blatant gore there was in his killings were underscored with a quiet intelligence. He’s a tightly wound clock ticking and working with bone-chilling precision. He was always four or five steps ahead of anyone who tried to corner him. His massacres were methodical, almost poetic, really. He orchestrated some of the most complex executions, taking every possible outcome into consideration down to the way the mind perceives and reacts. From his clinical dismemberment of the man who got away with murdering his wife and daughter to the complete annihilation of the very system that saw said murderer get off scot-free, I was beside myself with my attraction to this man - and I don’t find Gerard Butler particularly appealing. But it was his mind, that never-ending, ever-ticking calculator that fueled my desire to see him actually... win.

And that’s what it ultimately comes down to. In some cases, I beg for these people to succeed in their almost perverse flights of egotism. For me, it all starts in the mind. I believe it to be the sexiest part of the human makeup. Those who push their minds to do more than just ponder aimlessly on the obvious make my blood boil, if I’m not being too bold. How it works, it supposes things, how it manages to solve life as if it were a puzzle, it excites me. As The Joker made very plain, all it takes is a little push to force gravity to become nothing more than a concept, a theory able to be moulded and bent to fit the schema of human impulse.

Some of these characters have haunted me. I’ve been emotionally compromised, left in a state of spiritual unrest, and had my impulses heated to ignitable degrees. I’ve left the cinema at times believing I’ve become a completely different person. Then again, isn’t that the point of a film - to entertain and enlighten? 

Camiele White suffers from too much film information. In order to remedy her psychosis she’s decided to write about it. Right now, she’s trying something a bit different and writes has her own blog called Madasa Writing. If you want to engage in a little conversation (at your own risk) she can be reached at cmlewhite at gmail [dot] com.


Gregory Roy said...

Interesting post. I feel like no one ever evokes sympathy for Norman Bates. Most people just think of him as just crazy and that's it. But I definitely think its worth bringing up.

Camiele said...

I know I should do so more often, but I wanted to take the chance to comment to say thank you to Shubhajit and his audience for giving me the chance to get out my (long-winded) craziness.

I'm glad to know readers enjoy my writing :)

~Camiele White

Shubhajit said...

You're most welcome Camiele. Looking forward to many more such "long-winded craziness" from you :)

Shubhajit said...


Well, Norman Bates was not just a one-dimensional cold blooded monster, he was also a victim in some way. But yes, its difficult to quantify what one emotionally feels with regards to him - and so this does make for an interesting discussion. Thanks for stopping by.

Sam Juliano said...

Most interesting look at an always resurrected sub-genre, and Ms. white is up to the task. I was thinking too of AMERICAN PSYCHO, though that one is aiming for something else of course.