Sociopaths on Film: The Monster as Performance


It’s difficult to describe how I felt seeing the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, first on the Twitter account of an actor-friend, and immediately afterwards on the Washington Post’s website. How much could a man in his 40s mean to me as an individual, considering we had never met? Well, he meant a lot.


I admired Hoffman as an artist, because he was an intellectual actor focused on craft as opposed to celebrity. On another level, I admired Hoffman for his fluid monstrosity in presentation, a trait some critics are still trying to tease out now that he’s gone. The NYTimes said, “He did not care if we liked any of these sad specimens, [his characters in film]. The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him — a truth about ourselves that we might otherwise have preferred to avoid. He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”


In those terms, Hoffman was a monster himself, using his physicality and presence on film in order to make the viewer face darker issues in themselves. Why did we enjoy Hoffman’s Lester Bangs in Almost Famous? Did we pity him, or was his character an echo chamber inside those of us who believe we are inherently and deeply “uncool”? Playing Truman Capote in one of my favorite films, Hoffman spoke in a lilting lisp as the infamous author, telling a young girl, “Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they’re always wrong.”

Even in campy films like Charlie Wilson’s War, Hoffman incited both laughter and winces of discomfort playing Gust Avrakotos. Though his character was played for laughs alongside Tom Hanks’ leading role, Hoffman embodied Avrakotos’ very real rage. The scene in which he explodes is funny, engrossing and disturbing to watch, and that is the crux of Hoffman’s work as a literary monster on film.

In order to fully comprehend what the acting and writing world has lost in Hoffman’s death, it’s useful for us to consider him alongside his kindred spirits. Most interesting to me are actors who are able to suspend our impressions of them in their private lives, in order to perform something alien and disturbing on screen. Hoffman did it with The Master, Capote and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but of course other actors have illuminated human error and monstrosity with varying levels of success. Out of respect for Hoffman’s work, I’d like to examine similar performances by his fellow actors, using his power on screen as a jumping off point for analysis.


The real monstrosity in Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is not the fact that he eats people for fun. This has been the tragic failure in the fiction and follow-up films that have churned out since the release of Silence of the Lambs in 1991. What most Hannibal-canon pieces miss is his intellect, not borne of his sociopathy, but entwined with it in a way that makes him fascinating and terrifying to fellow intellectual characters like Clarice Starling. Roger Ebert writes, “They share so much. Both are ostracized by the worlds they want to inhabit–Lecter, by the human race because he is a serial killer and a cannibal, and Clarice, by the law enforcement profession because she is a woman.”


We wonder: how can a man be both refined in his movements and savage in his desire? Benjamin Studebaker, in his proposed “Morality for Sociopaths,” writes, “What about morally abnormal individuals, who do not have the altruistic and social impulses many moral theories assume? Can they be incorporated into a moral theory? I not only think we can incorporate these individuals, but that we must do so, because if we do not, these individuals will act in harmful ways that our moral theories fail to anticipate.” Our attempts to anticipate Lecter’s actions in Silence of the Lambs creates wonderful tension, and therein lies the success of the film.

Ebert also wrote in his review of Hopkins’ perfomarance, “He is so . . . still. Standing erect, at relaxed attention, in his prison jump suit, he looks like a waxwork of himself. On her next visit, he is erect, and then very slightly recoils, and then opens his mouth, and I at least was made to think of a cobra. His approach to Lecter’s personality (Hopkins says on his commentary track) was inspired by HAL 9000 in “2001”: He is a dispassionate, brilliant machine, superb at logic, deficient in emotions.” Lecter as a monster works well because of his complicated ethical make-up. Because of all his conflicting interests, we are unsure at all times how he will react to stimuli.

On playing with audience anticipation, the original casting of Tony Perkins as Norman Bates was a shot in the dark that succeeded. Perkins had some moderate success as a leading man in romantic comedies before Psycho, but his public discomfort with women (being a semi-closeted gay man) swirled around the Hollywood rumor mill and altered the public’s reception of him. Hitchcock played to his audience’s latent homophobia by casting handsome, unassuming Perkins as a twisted murderer in Psycho. What resulted was one of my favorite performances on screen, ever.


Norman Bates is a man tortured by his femininity, which manifests itself as a jealous version of his dead mother inside his own mind. While he feels a romantic pull toward Marion Crane, the side of him that fears women and intimacy enacts violence to protect Norman, and he ends up killing Marion without fully remembering that it was him.

More interesting than Norman Bates himself is Perkins-as-Bates, a complex construct of social norms and celebrity, hand-formed by Alfred Hitchcock to create fear and discomfort in the viewer. Bates’ desires are taboo, as Perkins’ were at the time, and the audience is unable to view the fictional character without considering the reality of the actor playing him. This is a double monstrosity in fiction, and it makes Psycho as historically fascinating as it is fascinating on a literary level.


Though Norman Bates is a human monster who plays with concepts of gender, it is disappointingly difficult to find many female characters who do the same work. It also goes without saying that female sociopaths on screen are usually dismissed as mentally ill or straight-up evil. There’s not much grey space in film for women of Hannibal Lecter’s intellect and rage.


One wonders what actresses like Rose McGowan would capable of, given better opportunities.

monster6The first figure that comes to mind is Charlize Theron’s work in Monster, playing Aileen Wuornos, infamous prostitute and murderer of seven men. Female director (they’re not often recognized) Patty Jenkins seems aware of the public’s admiration for Theron, who was considered a pretty, uncomplicated leading lady before Monster‘s release. Though not an auteur like Hitchcock, Jenkins did manipulate audience conceptions of women who look like Charlize Theron by tying her identity to women who look like Wuornos. The film pokes at a specifically female rage, borne out of circumstance and Wuornos’ sociopathic half-romance with her lover Selby Wall, played by Christina Ricci in the film.


12757426_galOther female actors who portray psychopaths (or at least chilling, monstrous sociopaths) include Glenn Close, Angelina Jolie and Kathy Bates. I would argue that each of these women saw a change in their public persona following the release of films in which they played sociopaths.

In fact, Close has been quoted as regretting large chunks of her performance in Fatal Attraction, as her character worked to further stigmatize mental illness, specifically in women. She said once, “That movie struck a very, very raw nerve. At the time, feminists hated the movie, and that was shocking to me. They felt they’d been betrayed because it was a single, working woman who was supposed to be the source of all evil. But now Alex is considered a heroine.” While I take issue with her definition of Alex as a “heroine,” I will admit that a woman like Alex is more tolerable and interesting on screen once she’s aligned with some kindred figures.


Though Fatal Attraction is characterized more as a psychological thriller than a horror film, Misery contains the characteristic emanations of dread that typically come hand in hand with films based on Stephen King novels. Bates in Misery is not typically championed by the folks Glenn Close vaguely calls “feminists,” because her aggression toward the film’s protagonist is not based on any kind of oppression. She is simply unattached to reality, and more concerned with the affairs of a fictional character named Misery than in fostering a connection with other humans. This makes Kathy Bates’ character a pure, more clean monster, and she is performed with great care. Bates delivers all dialogue with stone-dead eyes which don’t change based on what she’s doing with her voice or mouth, and the effect is stunning.



tumblr_mj7bt66Xw91rl9fu9o1_250If Bates in Misery is controlled, sleek monstrosity, then Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is monstrous-female chaos. Lisa Rowe is only tangentially connected to characters like Winona Ryder’s Susanna, using others for her amusement or as a means to her own ends. What’s most disturbing about Lisa is her gangly, frantic movement on screen. She is physically like-able and watchable, as a dynamic character in an otherwise stagnant setting (a mental institution). At the climax of the film (in the tunnels below the institution), she reveals herself to be just as unstable as the rest of the inmates, despite her quick thinking and persuasive charm.


Additionally interesting in Girl, Interrupted is the age of the characters (Jolie was 24 when she played Lisa Rowe). Much has been written about the sociopathic adolescent or young adult, but film has yet to catch up fully with what we now about brain development and culture. In a response to the uptick in school shootings since the ’90s, characters in films like Elephant and We Need to Talk about Kevin question the roots of sociopathy in teenagers (although only male teenagers, interestingly.) One might argue that characters like Regina George occupy a space marked both “female” and “without empathy,” but those characters are almost always played for laughs, or their threats are minimized. (After all, women are only socially violent, right?) I’ve been told that Luther‘s Alice Morgan is a female monster to watch, but I haven’t yet watched the show.


The teen shooters in Elephant are, in typical Gus Van Sant style, portrayed in quiet moments as weak and terrified. Through their actions could be construed as monstrous, they are not masterminds, or even deft manipulators of their surrounding. They are not clean monsters like Annie Wilkes, but outsiders driven to violence through systematic alienation by their peers. This explanation for a very real threat plays out in a complicated way on screen, and the murky ethics of Elephant may have affected its success. Still, it’s a hauntingly beautiful depiction of teenagers experiencing their own growing monstrosity.


We Need to Talk about Kevin shares some aspects in cinematography with Elephant (light streaming into dark rooms, pastel colors and washed out, deadpan faces), but Ezra Miller’s performance blows anything in Elephant right out of the water. Miller’s Kevin is a return to performances like Anthony Hopkins’ in Silence of the Lambs, as the viewer witnesses his sheer glee in playing a sociopath. Miller’s eyes positively gleam with his character’s building, ominous energy. The viewer knows from the start of the film that Kevin is destined for something great and terrible, and his dark, unfeeling psychee unfolds as we reach the film’s climax in the school gym.


ezra-miller-photo-140Because of Ezra Miller’s handsome, devious-looking face, we might compare him to Christian Bale in American Psycho, a performance that calls to mind real-life, classically attractive murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. Performances like this operate as monstrosities of expectation. The female viewer desires characters like Patrick Bateman or Dexter Morgan on an aesthetic level, which allows these characters to subvert our expectations of what a handsome, charming man is capable of. (Bateman fits this analysis more neatly because he never rouses our sympathy, though Dexter treads into anti-hero territory more often than I’m comfortable with.)



In fact, contemporary film has given us many examples of the classically-attractive male actor cast as a monstrous character. These actors are not manipulated physically (as Charlize Theron was for Monster), but their appearances are played as deviously misleading, or more interestingly as spheres of their monstrosity. I think here of Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs, Red Eye and Batman Begins. Murphy, when playing a monster, is usually paired with a woman who misunderstands his intentions at the beginning of the film, seeing only his large eyes and boyish charm.



Though characters like this might be a reading of the threat of masculinity to unsuspecting women, they’re also significantly less complex than some of the other human monsters I’ve discussed. I believe actors like Cillian Murphy are best used in roles which ignore their physical appearances, like Scarecrow in Batman Begins. There’s just nothing so interesting as Murphy’s line in that movie, a feminine-looking criminal mastermind surrounded by his brute thugs: “He’s here! The Bat…man…” Something interesting is at play here with Scarecrow’s desires, as he considers Batman a fellow monster in a lot of ways.



Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy also brought us another sociopathic peformance by Heath Ledger. This role has been talked about with such frenzy since the film’s release that it almost seems ham-handed to go over it again. In short, Ledger’s Joker is a patchwork of breathy line delivery, a reptilian tongue that darts out to punctuate his assertions, and twitchy, animal-like movements, and it’s such an enjoyable spectacle.


As far as the monstrous performance as spectacle, one might look no further than Jack Nicholson in (everything) The Shining. Nicholson, of course, played Joker at one point himself, and it’s no mysterious connection between these performances. Jack Torrance is a violent cartoon, all eyebrows, licked-up lips and sneers. In the otherwise buzzingly stagnant Overlook Hotel, Jack breathes maniacal life into the frame.

The Shining 1

Paddy Constantine, one of my favorite actors, exhibits what looks like manic psychopathy in many of his roles as well. His work calls to mind another of my favorites, Sam Rockwell, in films like Seven Psychopaths and Charlie’s Angels (don’t hit me, it has its moments!)

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Nicholson, Rockwell and Constantine, like the late Hoffman, have made careers out of their intense and wrathful line delivery. Though a slightly different persona, Kevin Spacey has done much of the same. While Nicholson and Hoffman always appear to be barely containing their anger, Spacey is unnervingly good at it, in films and series like Se7en, The Usual Suspects and House of Cards.


One might compare Spacey’s cool-headed sociopath to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, a role made memorable by Bardem’s masterful line delivery and the character’s unfortunate, but somehow menacing, bowl cut.


tumblr_lnzw9wBQOL1qzstkbSo what is so chilling about all of these performances? Film critics tend to cite emotion in actors’ eyes (or lack of emotion) as a deciding factor. Roger Ebert uses the phrase “terrifying smile” in his review of Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men and writes that Christian Bale “allows [Bateman] to leap joyfully into despicability.” Further, Ebert writes, “There is no instinct for self-preservation [in Bale’s performance], and that is one mark of a good actor.” This is almost an assertion that an actor must remove (or silence) his or her own ego in order to portray someone whose own ego (or id?) rules their actions.

Did Philip Seymour Hoffman remove his own ethical understandings of the world from his mental front burner to make room for characters like Lancaster Dodd in The Master? Whatever his process entailed, it was certainly becoming a masterwork, as evidenced by his resume. The emotional gravity in his death for those who obsess over media like me, is that we may not have an actor skillful and complex enough to fill his place on screen. There are many actors who can play human monsters, but there was only one Philip Seymour Hoffman. The experience of watching him explore a character’s psyche will be sorely missed.


Final note: In my research into sociopaths and/or human-monsters on screen, I was unable to find many actors of color who had played characters of this ire (with the exception of Javier Bardem or some great actors in Korean films). I’d like to humbly and earnestly request some help on the subject. Anyone have suggestions? My list is almost entirely older white dudes.


4 thoughts on “Sociopaths on Film: The Monster as Performance

  1. westwickletimes

    Nice article. Love Tony Perkins too. Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter is also brilliant; an unexpected, totally unhinged performance. Have been wracking my brain for some psycho’s of colour:
    From the Wire: Omar, Brother Mouzone, Stringer Bell and Snoop.
    Gus Fring from Breaking Bad.
    Man on the moment Chiwetel Ejiofor as the sword wielding hit-man in Serenity.
    Denzel Washington in Training Day.
    Forrest Witaker as real life nut-job Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland
    Pandit Bhanji better known as Sir Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast.
    Li’l Ze in City of God.
    Darth Vader at a stretch due to the timeless performance of James Earl Jones.
    I’ll think of some more and get back to you.: )

    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks for reading, and I really appreciate the suggestions! I’m really pissed at myself for omitting Forrest Whitaker. I loved him so much as Idi Amin!


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