Humans are highly emotional creatures, and as such we're fascinated by the idea of living without emotion. What must it be like to feel no empathy for your fellow beings, to do whatever you want without thought for others? Mental health experts don't always agree on the use of terms like “sociopath,” “psychopath,” or “antisocial personality disorder,” but those words are generally employed to describe the same condition: a person who has trouble identifying emotionally with others, and who has a hard time understanding the notions of morality that most of us take for granted.
For years, sociopaths and psychopaths have been fertile subjects for screenwriters and filmmakers – arguably as far back as silent films like Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), but certainly since Hitchcock's Psycho became a hit in 1960. In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn gave us Drive, which met with a great deal of praise from critics and film fans. It was on many people's best-of-year lists, but whether or not everyone who praised it truly understood it is up for debate, as the film is still being discussed and analyzed to this day. In honor of the Driver – that mysterious, nameless man of few words – here's a buzzlist of Top 5 Sociopaths On Film:
Memento (2000) – Christopher Nolan's adaptation of his younger brother Johnathan's short story “Memento Mori” is told backwards and inside out. Initially, it appears that Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is on a righteous quest to find his wife's killer, but things become murky as events progress (or regress). While Leonard isn't a sociopath per se, his lack of ability to retain information about people and the decisions he makes regarding his own psyche effectively make him one. The film is an utterly fascinating deconstruction of the concepts of identity, meaning, and purpose in human life.
No Country for Old Men (2007) – Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is not only a hit-man who pursues his quarry without rest or pity, he's a force of nature who seems to be violence incarnate. He represents the idea of relentless, lawless mayhem that causes Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) to consider giving up on his life's work. What makes Chigurh so frightening is that he sees himself as nothing more than an instrument of chance. Using a coin to decide the fates of his victims, he dispassionately murders them with a tool for slaughtering cattle. He's less man than killing machine.
Taxi Driver (1976) – Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a former Marine who drives a cab in Manhattan. It's terrifying to watch him slide from relative normalcy into the extreme depths of mental illness. In addition to a great performance from Albert Brooks, Taxi Driver shares something else with Drive: a surreal and ambiguous ending that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Could Travis Bickle ever really return from the heart of grinning insanity into which he falls over the course of the film? “Didn't you ever try lookin' at your own eyeballs in the mirror?”
The Minus Man (1999) – Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson) travels the country with a mysterious flask. He isn't without compassion, but his psychology is too close to the traditional serial-killer profile: he can't relate to women, and he can't fit into normal society. The film uses Wilson's innocent face and good-natured bewilderment to turn him into emotional blank who is genuinely confused about how to respond to those around him. The Minus Man's methodical pacing, dreamlike vibe, and use of sunlight as a metaphor for psychological emptiness make it almost a sister film to Drive.
Drive (2011) – The Driver (Ryan Gosling) goes through life pretending to be in a movie. He has the quiet nobility of a romantic hero; but underneath his serene front, he's frantically trying to figure out how make people think he's a real boy. Drive can be read as a horror film, a love story, a crime thriller, a morality tale, or all of the above. Does the Driver achieve his goal of becoming “a real human being / and a real hero”? Is being a good person ever anything other than the sum of morally considered choices? In the end, you'll just have to decide if he looks like a good-guy to you.
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