Anton Chigurh: “You mean the nature of this conversation?”
Carson Wells: “I mean the nature of you.” —No Country for Old Men (2005)
In A Nutshell
Everybody loves a psychopath . . . as long as he’s on the movie screen. Some of cinema’s greatest villains are psychos, but just how accurate are those characters? Forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt decided to find out. Leistedt spent years watching hundreds of films and classifying movie psychopaths, ranking them from least realistic to terrifyingly accurate. Anton Chigurh, of No Country for Old Men, came out on top.
The Whole Bushel
Cinema is full of psychopaths, from Alex DeLarge to Alex Forrest, but they’re not all created equal. In fact, some are downright unrealistic. Psychos have been manipulating their way across the silver screen since the silent era, and as our understanding of psychology evolves, so does the onscreen portrayal of these manipulative monsters.
So which of these baddies are true-to-life and which are nothing more than Hollywood hooey? That’s a question forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt wanted to answer. Originally, Leistedt planned on using movies to teach students about the traits of psychopaths, but over time, his quest turned into a full-fledged study. The good doctor teamed up with 10 other psychiatrists, and the group watched 400 movies over three years, analyzing antagonists and looking for emotionless villains who showed little remorse, controlled others, and showed no sympathy for their prey.
Unfortunately for fans of sci-fi and fantasy, Leistedt barred ghosts, gods, and evil wizards from consideration. (After all, this is supposed to be realistic.) Eventually, the team got down to 126 baddies: 105 men and 21 women. The scientists classified them according to various subtypes (as defined by Hugues Herve and Benjamin Karpman) and ranked the characters as accurate or inaccurate depictions.
For example, Michael Corleone from The Godfather movies is a secondary, macho psychopath which means he’s been shaped by his environment and intimidates others into doing his bidding. Gordon Gekko from Wall Street is a successful (or corporate) psychopath and manipulates poor Charlie Sheen into making his millions. And then there’s Annie Wilkes (of Misery) who’s actually a pseudopsychopath. This means she’s really a sociopath who displays antisocial behavior by tying up writers and doing very, very bad things to them.
However, the study concluded the most realistic psychopath of all time is none other than that cattle gun–carrying, bowl cut–sporting, coin-tossing hitman Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. According to Leistedt, Chigurh is a merciless killer who feels absolutely no remorse for blowing his victims apart with a shotgun. He’s very determined, has no empathy for his victims, and is incapable of emotions like love or shame. Leistedt wrote that Chigurh reminded of him actual contract killers he’d interviewed, and even compared Javier Bardem’s character to murderer Richard Kuklinski, the infamous “Ice Man.” Other extremely realistic psychos are Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert from M and Michael Rooker’s Henry from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
The study did offer a few surprises. For example, Norman Bates from Psycho isn’t actually a psychopath. Based on well-known serial killer Ed Gein, Bates is actually a psychotic—someone out of touch with reality. Most shockingly, Leistedt declared that Hannibal Lecter is actually quite unrealistic. The majority of psychopaths are nowhere near as intelligent as the liver-eating psychiatrist. While Hopkin’s Academy Award–winning performance is fantastic, the character just isn’t an accurate portrayal, especially when you factor in Hannibal’s fine taste and calm demeanor. But despite the Lecter letdown, Leistedt’s research is pretty interesting for profilers and cinephiles alike. Now if someone ever did some research on how many movie produces are psychopaths, that would be a truly terrifying study.