18 March 2017

Representations of Psychopathy in US Cinema

Ever since the early nineteenth century when Philippe Pinel described psychopathy as moral deficiency with no sign of mental impairment, scholars have taken an interest in the condition. The ensuing discussions emphasized the role of an unsympathetic environment in making an individual morally insane and on the society's responsibility in mitigating psychopathic behavior through moral therapy. A century later, scholars interpreted psychopathy from a sociological perspective, but which bore some resemblance to the nineteenth century moral discussion. For example, Harrington's Psychopaths (1973) and Smith's The Psychopath in Society (1978) suggest that an amoral society commending individualism and personal achievement provides an environment that rewards, and thus encourages, psychopathic behavior. They also suggested that psychopaths are more successful in adapting to such a society.

By the mid-to-late twentieth century, cinema directors had established a representation of psychopathy that more or less corresponded to the two above mentioned perspectives. However, a number of recent films are set apart from this dominant cinematic image by focusing on characters that do not correlate with those previous perspectives, thus diverging from the dominant discourse. This essay will discuss three such films: The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Gone Girl (2014), and Nightcrawler (2014). Although all three films have many common themes, the essay will look at a unique theme in each film that most strongly depicts society as amoral and unsympathetic.


The first act of The Talented Mr Ripley reveals the unsympathetic way that society treats people like Tom, the psychopathic character. Prior to his psychopathic actions, the film shows Tom in a humble background. Despite his talents, Tom has to do menial tasks to survive. Additionally, the film portrays him being dominated time and again by other characters: despite his reluctance, Mr. Greenleaf makes Tom go to Italy, while people like Freddie constantly patronize him. On top of that, the film also discloses a social disapproval of homosexuality, which causes Tom to lie about having a fiancee. As his character unfolds, Tom participates in a number of psychopathic acts ranging from manipulation to multiple murders.

The relationship between an unsympathetic environment and psychopathic tendency in an individual harkens back to the views of nineteenth-century scholars. They suggested that such an environment led an individual to become psychopathic. While the film does not explicitly depict Tom's environment to be a cause of his psychopathic behavior, it does suggest that Tom is subjected to an unsympathetic environment while displaying psychopathic tendencies.


Gone Girl highlights the role of an unsympathetic media in influencing the perception of a society that values image (of an individual or a situation) over truth. Ellen Abbott, a newscaster in the film, embodies a tendency to exaggerate the truth. Mundane actions like an accidental smile are analyzed as a symptom of sociopathy. Furthermore, Ellen's nonchalant apology to Nick in the final act suggests that such a practice had become commonplace. On top of that, the film also underscores the influence of media representation of public perception by, at times, disclosing reactions of unnamed characters. Ellen's false accusations of incest between Nick and his sister prompts two men to make jokes about "twincest." Additionally, it underlines, on multiple occasions, that the public reaction to any new information is dependent more on its delivery. Nick's initial appeals, which seem more natural, are met with skepticism; whereas, more calculated and rehearsed appeals are successful in encouraging sympathy.

Similar to less well-known theories of psychopathy, Gone Girl represents a psychopath being more adapted to this environment than other characters. Since the beginning of her plan, Amy goes to great lengths to ensure that her image is that of an innocent victim. She presents herself in a way that people will sympathize with her. In contrast to Amy, Nick appears incapable of doing so and therefore becomes ostracized by the media and the public alike. This portrayal in some ways corresponds to Harrington's and Smith's work, which suggests that psychopaths are more suited to adapting to an unsympathetic society.


Nightcrawler portrays how an amoral society favors psychopathic behavior. KWLA, a fictional cable news network, illustrates the work ethic of a for-profit organization. The film depicts how the company undermines moral concerns over pursuing financial gain. Many times, the obvious unethical means employed by Lou gets overlooked by Nina, the news director, as long as the product has a high market value. Incidents like accidents and deaths get stripped of their emotional value and are treated as commodities. Moreover, the film portrays how such a work environment favors someone who lacks, or is willing to forego, moral judgment. Lou gets more successful in his work, while Frank (the character voicing his moral concerns) often gets silenced. Finally, the film's climax shows an expansion of Lou's previously small enterprise.

This representation of psychopathic behavior being rewarded in an amoral society is discussed by Harrington and Smith. As a consequence, such rewards in a way promote further psychopathic behavior. A similar tendency is apparent in this film as well: as the film progresses, Lou becomes more successful and his actions become more psychopathic.

The relationship between an unsympathetic and amoral society and a psychopath represented in the three films to some extent aligns with the moral and sociological dimension of psychopathy. However, despite many common themes between the three films, each of them corresponds most strongly with a different aspect of the two discourses. The Talented Mr. Ripley hints at the role that an unsympathetic environment may play in inducing psychopathy; Gone Girl reveals how a psychopath may be better adapted at dealing with unsympathetic agents; Nightcrawler demonstrates how an amoral society rewards and thus promotes psychopathic behavior.

[This essay is by Salonika Neupane and is based on her graduation thesis in Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

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