Badfellas: Movie Psychos, Popular Culture, and Law

Nicole F. Rafter, Northeastern University

It is difficult to make meaningful observations about the legal messages of movies featuring psychopaths unless one first creates a category with coherent criteria for exclusion and inclusion. A useful definitional basis can be found in clinical psychologists' description of the psychopath as an unusually self-centered person who lacks a conscience. Analysis of about twenty movies whose protagonists meet this definition shows that psychopath films constitute a distinct genre, with its own stock characters and predictable themes. These movies are basically concerned with control--its loss and restoration. On the level of legal discourse, the theme of control plays out in demonstrations of the need for law. But these films are deeply skeptical about the ability of law to provide protection against the lawlessness that the psychopath embodies. Popular culture seems to mistrust law even while acknowledging a desperate need for it.

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Updated 05/20/2006