Horror films typically come to mind when discussing psychopathic main characters. However, many excellent films outside the horror genre delve into the psychology of a person who lacks empathy or remorse. Here are 15 gripping films about psychopaths.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Widely considered one of the greatest living actors, Daniel Day-Lewis gave an Oscar-winning performance with his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, an oilman dead set on becoming rich. Plainview stops at nothing in his ruthless pursuit of wealth during California's oil boom and exhibits a chilling lack of emotion in his business and personal dealings.
The film, which was loosely based on a Upton Sinclair novel, received rave reviews and great critical acclaim. The American Film Institute said Day-Lewis' masterful work ensured that “‘Daniel Plainview' will haunt the history of film for generations to come.”
2. Basic Instinct (1992)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, Basic Instinct stars Sharon Stone as the murderous novelist Catherine Tramell and Michael Douglas as the detective who investigates her when her boyfriend is found stabbed with an ice pick. Tramell is cold and calculating as she uses and manipulates men throughout the film.
The character Catherine Trammell allegedly inspired a real-life murderer. Luka Magnotta was found guilty of killing a woman he'd met online. He used a black screwdriver that had been painted silver, possibly to look like the icepick from the film, and he used the alias “Tramell.” Chilling.
3. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Directed by Anthony Minghella and based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, this psychological thriller stars Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. The film follows Tom Ripley, a charming but sociopathic impostor obsessed with the life of a wealthy socialite he meets in Italy.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was praised for its stylish direction, superb performances, and engaging plot. It received five Academy Award nominations and won the BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay.
4. The King of Comedy (1982)
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis, this black comedy explores the dark side of celebrity culture and the lengths some people will go to achieve fame. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a delusional aspiring comedian who becomes fixated on a popular talk show host (Lewis) and hatches a plan to kidnap him to get a spot on his show.
The King of Comedy was praised for its biting satire, strong performances, and bold direction. It has since become a cult classic and is regarded as one of Scorsese's best films. Todd Phillips' Joker took inspiration from this film.
5. Joker (2019)
Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, this comic book adaptation is a dark and gritty character study that explores the origins of the iconic Batman villain, the Joker. Phoenix delivers a mesmerizing performance as Arthur Fleck, a struggling stand-up comedian who descends into madness and becomes a symbol of anarchy and chaos in Gotham City.
Joker was praised for its bold and provocative storytelling, stunning visuals, and exceptional performances. It was a commercial and critical success, grossing over $1 billion worldwide and winning two Academy Awards. It is one of the most polarizing depictions of the Joker.
6. The House That Jack Built (2018)
Directed by Lars von Trier and starring Matt Dillon, this controversial film follows the twisted exploits of Jack, a brilliant but sadistic serial killer. The House That Jack Built was praised for its bold and daring storytelling, stunning visuals, and powerful performances.
However, it also garnered significant criticism for its graphic violence and disturbing subject matter. The film is one of the most interesting depictions of psychopaths we've seen, as it plays on the main character's OCD as a tool to tell the story.
7. Seven Psychopaths (2012)
This black comedy crime film, starring Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken, follows a struggling screenwriter entangled in the criminal underworld after his friends kidnap a gangster's beloved dog. Directed by Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths was praised for its sharp writing, clever humor, and strong performances.
It was a critical and commercial success and earned McDonagh a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
This psychological thriller, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, follows a successful surgeon whose idyllic life is upended when a boy with a mysterious connection to his past enters his life.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer was praised for its unsettling atmosphere, superb performances, and thought-provoking themes. It won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
9. Thoroughbreds (2017)
Written and directed by Cory Finley and starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, this dark comedy thriller follows two estranged childhood friends who reconnect and hatch a plan to murder one of their stepfathers.
It was a critical success and established director Cory Finley as a promising new voice in American independent cinema. Many cinephiles think that Thoroughbreds is a vastly underrated film.
10. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is a classic film that follows the story of Alex, a violent delinquent who undergoes experimental aversion therapy to cure his antisocial behavior. The film explores themes of free will, morality, and the use of violence in society.
Despite its controversial subject matter, the film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of cinema. Actor Malcolm McDowell earned huge acclaim for his portrayal of the sadistic character.
11. Zodiac (2007)
Based on the true story of the Zodiac Killer, this crime thriller stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. as journalists who become obsessed with solving the case. The Zodiac Killer was a real serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film follows the investigation led by police and journalists as they try to uncover the killer's identity.
The film received critical acclaim for its gripping storytelling, strong performances, and accurate portrayal of the era. This is one of David Fincher's best films, earning a 7.7 rating on IMDb.
12. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller that explores the relationship between a mother, Eva, and her son, Kevin, who displays sociopathic behavior from a young age. The film explores themes of motherhood, nature vs. nurture, and the consequences of failing to address mental health issues.
The film received critical acclaim for its powerful performances, thought-provoking themes, and uncompromising portrayal of complex subjects. Although We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't traditional horror, many people have said that it still deeply scared them.
13. Misery (1990)
Misery might be one of the most infamous spooky stories about a woman losing her mind. When a famous author is found after a car accident by one of his fans, he realizes she's not there to rescue him, but to keep him captative for her own abuse and wants.
14. One Hour Photo (2002)
Robin Williams is remembered for his comedic roles, but his 2002 movie, One Hour Photo is a lot darker and creepier than most of the films he's in. Williams plays a mentally unstable photo developer who becomes obsessed with a family from their photos.
15. Funny Games (1997)
Funny Games isn't funny at all, and really, it's a dark and terrifying film. When two young men take a family hostage in their cabin, they force the family to play terrible and violent games for their own amusement.