Psychopathy as Victim of Cinematograph: Psychopaths in Film

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2801 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Jul 7, 2022

Words: 2801|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Jul 7, 2022

Table of contents

  1. Psychopathy in film
  2. Anton Chigurh
  3. Hannibal Lecter
  4. Conclusion

Films have always been a powerful medium to express ideas, evoke emotions, and start conversations. They are an integral part of our culture, helping to construct our views. It has been suggested that their widespread accessibility in today’s world through streaming services makes films have an even greater influence than any other art form. Films are a great medium to represent psychological phenomena and altered mental states. The audience witnessed the paranoid delusions, albeit dramatically edited, of John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A beautiful mind. The depiction of his psychosis through various cinematic audio-visual techniques allowed the viewer to not only empathize with Nash but experience something that most people never have. The depiction of psychiatric disorders in films generally falls under four genres; drama, crime fiction, suspense, and horror. The psychiatric disorder this essay will be focusing on is psychopathy and its depiction in film.

'Why Violent Video Games Shouldn't Be Banned'?

Psychopathy in film

There has been an odd fascination with psychopaths by the public, yet with all this curiosity it is a psychological concept that many do not understand.

The conceptualization of the psychopath continues to evolve, developing from a rather rudimentary understanding to the now more robust Psychopathy Checklist-revised (PCL-R) criteria. First introduced in 1991 by Robert Hare, and subsequently revised in 2003, the PCL-R has become the diagnostic tool within the medical and legal practice. However, it has received criticism within the psychiatric community due to clinicians’ overreliance of the criteria to diagnose psychopaths and its deviation from other conceptualized models. The confusion around defining and identifying psychopaths could be the potential reason why the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) does not have a classification for psychopaths, but rather groups similar traits under the broader term of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). However, psychopathy is a more severe, exaggerated form of APD, with only 1 in 5 APD individuals classified as psychopaths. The PCL-R draws much of its inspiration from the Cleckley criteria (first published in 1941), and has been updated throughout the years), which provides a more conceptual understanding of what a psychopath is. Cleckley defined the archetypical psychopath as a superficial, egocentric, disinhibited individual with no regard for the truth, and antisocial behavior.

This essay will attempt to evaluate the authenticity of two characters labeled as psychopaths in their respective movies which have become commercially and critically successful movies. The two characters selected for this essay are Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter from No Country for Old Men and The Silence of the Lambs respectively. Both films are classified broadly as thriller and crime fiction, with elements of detective fiction at the core of their plot. The extreme and haphazard character traits of psychopaths are useful to facilitate detective fiction plots revolving around crime and death. These two films have been selected, not simply because of their commercial success, but because of how iconic and influential these films have become amongst viewers. Currently, The Silence of the Lambs is ranked 23rd and No country for old men 158th in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Top 250 movies of all time, ranked by users. Additionally, the actors in both films, Javier Bardem in No country for old men and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Bardem) and Best Actor (Hopkins) in their respective films.

On a more personal note, the absurdity of both antagonists, and how far they deviate from “normal” in my opinion, have made them my favorite characters. As these characters are popularly characterized as psychopaths, this essay aims to explore the fidelity of these characters to clinical definitions of psychopathy. We will use a combination of Cleckley's criteria and PCL-R, which when combined, identify the most significant psychopathic traits needed to assess the portrayal of psychopathy in Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter.

Anton Chigurh

No Country for old men is a 2007 detective crime thriller, written and directed by the Coen brothers. Set in west Texas, Llewellyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), while hunting pronghorns in the desert, stumbles upon 2 million dollars from the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Chigurh, hired to recover the money, attempts to track Moss killing anyone that interferes with his plans. Chigurh is a hitman and an incredibly efficient one with his trademark captive bolt pistol. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to ensure Moss’ safety and track down Chigurh in what results in a cat and mouse thriller.

One of the most prominent features of Chigurh is his lack of emotion as he interacts with other characters, especially when killing them. This is evident from early scenes when he kills the deputy sheriff and later a civilian. The directors used a close-up shot with Chigurh in both scenes to emphasize the coldness in his expressionless face. After shooting the civilian in the forehead, he stood there watching blankly at the body not showing any reaction towards the death of a human being. Referring to both Cleckley’s checklist and PCL-R, the shallow effect is one of the main characteristics that is found in a psychopath. Empirical studies reinforce this characteristic as a strong indicator of psychopathy. Chigurh appears to be impenetrable to any form of empathy and is simply focused on the task at hand. His inability to converse with other characters and thus respond emotionally to them underpins his personality as psychopathic, however, it could be argued that he does not possess the superficial charm necessary to define most psychopaths. His lack of charm, a trait under the interpersonal heading for PCL-R, means Chigurh struggles to mingle with civilians. As he attempts to track Moss, he arrives at Moss’ housing estate and finds a woman who knows of Moss. He is unable to pick up on social cues to his advantage and thus extend courtesy, albeit if superficial, to extract information. He is ultimately left frustrated and leaves. Therefore, while he possesses the psychopathic features of intimidation and manipulation, Chigurh does not possess the glibness commonly found in psychopaths.

Another character trait which ties in with his poverty of effect was his lack of remorse nor guilt. This was seen best in the penultimate scene where he kills Moss’ wife Carla Jean. Weeks after the shootout that ultimately resulted in Moss’ death, Carla Jean returns from her mother's funeral to find Chigurh patiently waiting in her bedroom. There is no soundtrack throughout the scene along with constant camera shifts from Carla’s face and Chigurh’s highlighting the polarising facial expressions. The scene ends with him leaving the house and stopping to check his boots, apparently for blood. These features have been discussed in studies, where it has been found that individuals with severe psychopathic traits show a marked lack of remorse and guilt.

Chigurh appears to be a man of his word as if there is sincerity in his actions at times. This can be seen in his conversation with Carla, when she questions the reason for his visit by saying, “You’ve got no cause to hurt me” for which he replies with, “No, but I gave him Moss my word.” Chigurh responded quickly, without hesitation sounding assured that what he was doing is the right thing. There is a level of sincerity in his words and actions, his own unique moral compass, and one that is acknowledged by his colleague Wells, “Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.” Additionally, Chigurh is adept at goal planning, waiting for the right time for Carla to be alone, and his ability to logically track down Moss. Both these traits are not found in the criteria, rather the opposite where impulsivity and insincerity are significant features identified by researchers.

Although Chigurh is a methodical and efficient killer, there are times where he acts recklessly, endangering his whole plan. While paying for fuel, the cashier engages in small talk with him much to the annoyance for Chigurh ultimately ending in a tense confrontation. He is irritated and decides to flip a coin for the cashier’s life. The cashier is not important in his plan and would only draw more attention from the police to himself. He would gain absolutely nothing for it but still does so for his own entertainment which alludes to his manipulative behavior as well. Recklessness, irresponsibility, and stimulation seeking are strong lifestyle and behavioral traits of psychopaths found in PCL-R.

Finally, Chigurh does not have any delusions, hallucinations nor other elements of psychosis. This is an important component in Cleckley’s criteria for identifying a psychopath, one that is absent of delusions and other irrational thoughts. He is aware of his actions and how it is wrong in the eyes of the law, but like many psychopaths, he just does not care. Additionally, psychopaths struggle to understand the gravity of their misconduct morally. This is exemplified in his final conversation with Wells before Chigurh kills him. Wells asks, “Do you have any notion of how goddamned crazy you are?” which confuses Chigurh, “You mean the nature of this conversation?”

After evaluating Chigurh’s personality in the film, his most evident traits of recklessness, ruthlessness, lack of psychosis, and poor effect leads to a diagnosis of psychopathy using the two criteria. This conclusion was reiterated in Leistedt and Linkowski’s analysis which found him to be one of the most realistic portrayals of a psychopath, classifying him as a primary, idiopathic psychopath. I agree with this, and I believe his other traits of sincerity and goal planning, which argue against his realistic portrayal, are not strong enough to negate his other more realistic traits.

Hannibal Lecter

Chigurh offers a point of comparison to another movie icon, Hannibal Lecter. Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most revered films of all time. The US Library of Congress considers it 'culturally, historically or aesthetically significant and has consequently selected it to be preserved in National Film Registry. Anthony Hopkins’ role as Lecter earned him his Best Actor Oscar Award with just only 20 minutes of screen time. The plot follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who has been assigned to interview Lecter to assist the FBI in capturing a serial killer named “Buffalo Bill”. Lecter is regarded as one of the most famous psychopaths in fiction and has garnered a cult following.

Lecter is a cunning manipulator, using his charisma and intelligence to charm people for his own personal gain. Lecter realizes that the FBI is helpless without his knowledge of the case to track down Buffalo Bill. He knows who the killer is, but selectively provides information until he strikes a deal with a senator, the mother of the recently kidnapped woman. Lecter isn’t able to fully showcase his charm while locked up, unlike in the later movies, but there are several scenes which shows his liking to Starling. When opening the files that Starling hands over, there’s a brief exchange of attraction when Lecter winks at her. Superficial charm and manipulation are strong factors, as discussed before, and Lecter is proficient in both. However, much of his charm stems from his high intelligence, which contrasts from the psychopathy criteria. His ability to outsmart criminal justice authorities and later the police when escaping indicates his superintelligence. It is also evident that he has a preference for intellectual pursuits such as music and fine art, which implies his high intellect. His cell is decorated with his own art showcasing his talent and imagination. When asked about his painting, he responds “That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?”. The Cleckley criteria mention that psychopaths may have good “intelligence” defining it as more clever than average. However, the more recent PCL-R makes no mention of intelligence. This difference could potentially be explained due to the different sample groups selected, as Cleckley used a sample with a disproportionate number of well-educated, middle and upper-middle-class persons. PCL-R found a poor relationship between superior intelligence and psychopathy. A 2018 meta-analysis also found that there was an inverse relationship between intelligence and psychopathy, and more broadly APD. O’Kane et al. reported an inverse relationship between PCL-R scores and IQ scores as well. While there is still conflicting literature on intelligence in psychopaths, recent research has found a weak relationship between the two. This is also linked with the finding that psychopaths are not commonly found to have prestigious careers. Lecter had an impressive career as a psychiatrist, one that requires a higher level of education and intelligence. In Lecter’s case, his intelligence has been overexaggerated, given the “Hollywood effect” and therefore referring to PCL-R and current literature I believe his intelligence and successful career indicate a less realistic depiction of a psychopath.

Lecter’s charm, superior intelligence, and manipulative skills have helped shape his apparent inflated ego. This was best seen in his first interaction with Starling where he was noticeably offended that an FBI trainee was sent to interview him. Upon showing him her temporary badge, he says, “Crawford sent a trainee to me”, emphasizing the “to me”, his face visibly disgusted. Lecter throughout the movie is portrayed as calm and in control and this is portrayed through his mannerisms and how he speaks. However, for this brief moment, a sense of displeasure can be heard in his voice. The director of the film also illustrates Lecter’s grandiose self-worth through camerawork, Lecter’s face dominates the camera shot allowing him to tower above other characters. This emphasizes his superior sense of self-worth, an interpersonal characteristic in the PCL-R.

One of the most striking and frightening features of Lecter was his lack of remorse. Two examples of this are when he attacked a nurse while having an ECG performed on him, “The doctors managed to reset her jaw more less. Saved one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.” Another is when he expressed his annoyance to Starling about interviewers, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Lack of remorse is one of the main features that make up poor effects in psychopaths. His lack of remorse helps him kill and act in a way that shocks viewers, but it is his calm persona that frightens them even more. But this calm and “always-in-control” attitude is not characteristic of a psychopath when referring to Cleckley’s criteria and PCL-R. Rather, it is impulsivity and irresponsibility that are commonly found in psychopaths. For Lecter, he is a calm and collected individual who is able to plan ahead. A great example is how he escapes by murdering the two policemen. He was always in control of the situation and this was portrayed by his swift and calculated movements, not gasping for breath, and humming to the music in the background. Even when being insulted by Starling or when Dr. Chilton tortures him, he never reacts unwisely or irrationally. However, it is worth noting that there is a level of impulsivity in how he murders one policeman, disemboweling and tying him up on top of the cage. But his overall composed demeanor throughout the movie does not personify a realistic psychopath. His unrealistic ability at killing people also brings his psychopathic personality into question. However, it was not explored in as great detail in this movie compared to the later movies.

There are a few core realistic psychopathic elements identified in Lecter’s personality such as his lack of remorse, his ability to exploit others, and his inflated self-worth. Nevertheless, many other character traits are exaggerated, such as his calm demeanor, his extraordinary ability to kill, without any indication of previous training, and most notably his intelligence and prosperous career. This exaggeration leads to a more dramatic portrayal of psychopathy but also makes Lecter an iconic fictional character (Mahn, 2013). In summary, I believe Lecter does not represent an accurate portrayal of a psychopath.

Get a custom paper now from our expert writers.


It is evident after analyzing these two films, that these characters are polarising in their portrayal of a psychopath. But, does realism matter? Economically, no. Both films went on to become incredibly successful movies, and the Hannibal series produced 3 more films and a TV show. However, the ubiquity of film makes it a very integral part of our culture and shapes our conceptions on ideas we know not too much about. Misconceptions can spread, and psychopathy is a topic that has fallen victim to that. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that psychopaths are all violent. This has been personified in Chigurh and Lecter, both have been given the “Hollywood effect”. The reality is very different. While studies have found that children with blunted affect, and diagnosed with APD, are more prone to engaging in violent activities in the future, not all psychopaths are violent. While Chigurh is considered the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath, psychopaths in movies are generally portrayed fictionally, with the desire to entertain, not educate. 

Image of Alex Wood
This essay was reviewed by
Alex Wood

Cite this Essay

Psychopathy as Victim of Cinematograph: Psychopaths in Film. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 19, 2024, from
“Psychopathy as Victim of Cinematograph: Psychopaths in Film.” GradesFixer, 07 Jul. 2022,
Psychopathy as Victim of Cinematograph: Psychopaths in Film. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 Jul. 2024].
Psychopathy as Victim of Cinematograph: Psychopaths in Film [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Jul 07 [cited 2024 Jul 19]. Available from:
Keep in mind: This sample was shared by another student.
  • 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help
  • Custom essay delivered in as few as 3 hours
Write my essay

Still can’t find what you need?

Browse our vast selection of original essay samples, each expertly formatted and styled


Where do you want us to send this sample?

    By clicking “Continue”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.


    Be careful. This essay is not unique

    This essay was donated by a student and is likely to have been used and submitted before

    Download this Sample

    Free samples may contain mistakes and not unique parts


    Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.



    Please check your inbox.

    We can write you a custom essay that will follow your exact instructions and meet the deadlines. Let's fix your grades together!


    Get Your
    Personalized Essay in 3 Hours or Less!

    We can help you get a better grade and deliver your task on time!
    • Instructions Followed To The Letter
    • Deadlines Met At Every Stage
    • Unique And Plagiarism Free
    Order your paper now