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An Analysis of 5 Crime Films

Updated on November 21, 2019
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My expertise is in music, criminology, sociology, and United States criminal law.

The films that will be discussed in this analysis are M, American Psycho, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rebel Without a Cause. These films specifically contain serial killer and psychopath themes. These two types of films can create ideas about offenders, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in dealing with these offenders, and provide some problematic portrayals. These films also show offenders and crime in comparison with the society they are a part of. These films also tie in other themes relevant to crime.

Rafter stated that serial killer films discuss the nature of criminals. Serial killer films gained popularity in the 1970s, and reflect ideologies of that time period regarding offenders. Notorious cases also furthered audience’s desires for serial killer films. Serial killer films are centrally concerned with “seriality and recurrent behavior,” and “construct a stereotype of the violent predator (Rafter, p.91).” These films can contain misconceptions about the concepts of psychopathy and serial homicide, which can impact public perception as well as policy.

Psycho films also discuss the nature of the offender. Psychopath movies are “films in which the main character lacks a conscience and exhibits other symptoms of psychopathy (Rafter, p.94). Many serial killer centered films contain psychopaths, but characters in other films including Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and even The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort display characteristics of psychopaths. These films can portray psychopaths incorrectly, and show the criminal justice system and medical institutions as ineffective.

M is a German film from 1931 about a serial killer who victimizes children. Because of the nature of Beckert’s crimes, he is pursued by both criminals and the police. Because of this the moral code of mainstream society as well as morality with criminals can be analyzed. In Germany during the time period that this film was made, there were major political and economic changes. At that time, over four million people were unemployed, the country was facing a bank crisis, and one year prior the Nazi Party rose as the second largest political party in the country.

In M, Beckert is branded on his back with the letter M, thus becoming marked as a murderer of children. This is a permanent marker, intending to forever label him and cause him public humiliation for his crimes. This film brings up discussion on how much privacy society has when faced with a larger security issue, the dehumanization and humanization of offenders, and members of society taking the law into their own hands. The film also displayed the means of catching an offender from the criminal and legal perspective.

Helen argued that the point of the movie is to “display the search for a criminal among the masses, meaning that society at large has to be subjected to dehumanizing techniques of bodily identification, since in the modern city’s vastness and anonymity, everyone is a potential suspect (Helen, p.5).” This could be seen as the director’s attempt to criticize techniques of the authorities and could make the audience wonder if their privacy or the safety of society is more important. One character in the film states that “The police are everywhere. There’s no privacy anymore, I’m fed up with it.” Another character states that the daily raids by the police have been interfering with her business activities. Another man complains that the police searched his home on the basis of an anonymous letter. At the same time, the police did not have a positive view of the public. They did not see the public’s information as helpful, due to conflicting eyewitness accounts and incorrect information.

The criminals saw the police’s methods as ineffective, which is why they decided to find the killer of children themselves. The most important motive for the criminals however, was protecting their criminal enterprise. With the frequent raids they were losing money, and the criminals were being put under more scrutiny. One of the criminals stated that they participate in crime as a way to make a living, and that M is a monster who must die. It was interesting to see the attacks on M from a group of criminals. At times among offenders including those who are incarcerated, sex offenders are victimized and placed at the lowest level of the social hierarchy.

Beckert is a character who is impulsive. One of the police officers remarked that “The difficulty in solving crimes like this comes from the fact that the criminal and the victim are connected only by chance, An instantaneous impulse is the killer’s only motive.” In a scene where Beckert sees a young girl who could potentially become one of his victims, he displays anxiety. This is intended to show the audience that he does not want to give into his urges. He is not overcome with delight, but rather struck with fear. The detectives used a graphologist who determined that the murderer’s handwriting displayed strong and pathological sexuality, signs of insanity, and a lazy and indolent personality.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most popular portrayals of a serial killer, and gave the public a glance into the workings of the FBI. Livingstone stated that the presentation of themes in The Silence of the Lambs include that “crime is mostly murder, killers are motivated by psychopathic fantasies, criminals are clever and methodical, and that crimes are solved by even more clever and methodical members of law enforcement who use complex technology.” (Livingstone, p.40).” The film can be viewed as making law enforcement and more specifically, the FBI out to be heroes. As Rafter noted, young women flocked to join the FBI after the release of The Silence of the Lambs. This celebration could also lead the public to be more accepting of the FBI using invasive methods when searching for an offender.

Lecter was viewed by the FBI as “a monster, a pure psychopath.” Rafter compared Buffalo Bill and Dr. Lecter, stating that Buffalo Bill is helpless in the face of his obsessions whereas Dr. Lecter is a predatory psychopath who does demonstrate the ability to stay on top of his madness (Rafter, p. 97). Not much is revealed about Buffalo Bill in the film. He uses victim’s kindness against them by using a help ruse, he was abused as a child, and he was unable to get sex change surgery so he kills women and wears their skin. When reflecting on Buffalo Bill, Lecter states that Bill was made a criminal through years of systemic abuse.

American Psycho is a film that centers around an investment banker named Patrick Bateman who is also a serial killer. This film plays into the idea of abnormal psychology as a cause of crime. Rafter explains that Bateman is “unable to love anything but his own body.” (Rafter, p. 69). In addition to those explanations, Rafter hypothesizes that Bateman too easily achieves success, has been deadened by the slick superficiality of the modern world, and could perhaps be mentally ill (Rafter, p. 91). This film does not really explain the reasons behind what led Bateman to become a serial killer. It is apparent in the film that part of Bateman’s motive for killing Paul Allen was envy. In one scene, they show off their business cards to one another and Bateman obsesses over the perfection of Allen’s card. Allen was a co-worker, but Bateman also engaged in killing random people. Bateman’s victims include a homeless man, a janitor, multiple women, and police officers during his attempt to escape the authorities.

Parry claimed that Bateman meets DSM-IV criteria for borderline personality disorder, including “frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, instability and extreme intensity in relationships, marked by splitting, unstable sense of self, impulsive behaviour, emotional lability and chronic feelings of emptiness, extreme anger-control problems, and paranoid thinking triggered by stress.” (Parry, 2009 p. 282). He is also likely to suffer from anti personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

American Psycho greatly satirizes American yuppie culture in the 1980s. That particular culture placed an emphasis on financial success that could cause strain within the people who could not attain it, or those trying to maintain it. Bateman kills a coworker who is better off than him, and kills members of society who are beneath him. When Bateman murders Allen with an axe, he screams, “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now you fuckin’ stupid bastard.” The film features the song ‘Hip to Be Square’ which attacks conformity.

Allué makes the statement that the killers in The Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho are different (Allué, p.10). Buffalo Bill was someone who could be ‘othered.’ He was oppressed by society because of his deviant sexuality. Bateman however was not othered, and fit into society as a heterosexual male. Stephen Harvey criticized the portrayal of Buffalo Bill by saying, “When we actually see Gumb in his natural habitat, he’s endowed with all the fag clichés homophobes have doted on for decades: bleached locks, whiny voice, frilly glad rags, and choicest of all, the love of a teensy white poodle named Precious (Allué, p.18).” This trope of an offender with a deviant sexuality has become unpopular with some groups. It is not a positive representation of homosexuals for example, if they are frequently seen by audiences as serial murderers.

The film We Need to Talk About Kevin focuses on a psychopathic juvenile named Kevin, and perhaps most importantly the stigma his mother lives with after he commits mass murder at his school with a bow and arrow after murdering his young sister and father. Throughout the film, Kevin is portrayed as troubled. Some elements of psychopathy can be noticed at an early age. Hare described various characteristics that are distinct from typical child development including “apparent indifference to the feelings of others, defiance of parents, persistent aggression, and continually in trouble and unresponsive to reprimands of punishment.” (Hare, 158). In a scene with Kevin as a toddler, his mother Eva tries to roll a ball to him so he can roll it back to her and to her disappointment he does not react at all when the ball makes contact with him. When Kevin is taken to a doctor, his eyes lazily follow the doctor’s finger when tested. With every activity, he appears to be uninterested.

Kevin’s mother Eva faced daily harassment and rejection stemming from her son’s actions. She has to constantly evaluate situations and actively avoids people who would recognize her. She is constantly alone and avoided by coworkers. During one scene, Eva is shown trying to remove red paint that was thrown onto her home. In another scene, Eva encounters two women who are mothers of Kevin’s victims. One of the women slaps Eva in the face and says “I hope you rot in hell, you fucking bitch.” After witnessing the exchange, a man ran up and offered to call the police but Eva insisted angrily that she was fine.

Melendez et al. found that familial shame and stigma are reinforced by notions that family members are accountable for the actions of one another. In the same study, it was alarming that the overwhelming majority of sole culpability was believed to be attached to the mother and nearly no one attributed blame to a mass murderer’s father. Placing a courtesy stigma onto mothers for the actions of their children and not the fathers is attached to the roles that mothers are supposed to have. Because of her son’s actions, she can no longer live a normal life.

The film also seems to touch on the theme of hypermasculinity concerning young male offenders. Phipps notes that the hypermasculine persona “functions as a symbolic mask that the character pieces together from personal conflicts, trauma, and personal fantasies.” When Kevin was a child he enjoyed being read Robin Hood, and when he became a teenager his father bought him a bow and arrow. Kevin began to enjoy archery, at the same time connecting that enjoyment with the heroism of Robin Hood through his fantasies. Kevin later uses that same bow and arrow to murder people at his school.

One characteristic of hypermasculinity is never showing emotions. When Kevin’s sister loses her eye, he tells her to “Suck it up.” Kevin remains a cold character throughout the entire movie, and mostly toward his mother. In an analysis by Farr looking at school shooters, all of the shooters reported some combination of Adolescent Insider Masculinity problems. Kevin also displays these characteristics such as hinting at rampage plans, displaying signs of entitlement, and love of guns/other weaponry (Farr, p.9).”

Kevin constantly manipulates his mother and father, trying to always appear as a pleasant and happy son for his father. He also consistently mocks his mother when disciplined, and displays aggressive behavior throughout his childhood. At one point in the film it is suggested that Kevin is to blame for his sister losing an eye due to ingesting drain cleaner. It would have seemed appropriate for his parents to take him to a psychologist after nonstop inappropriate and aggressive behavior, but they never did.

The film does show that Kevin was a troubled child since birth, and completely avoids any discussion of treatment. Kevin expresses fear to his mother when he is soon to be placed in a prison for adults. At the same time, Kevin does not express remorse for his crimes, and continues to manipulate his mother even though she is his only visitor. This could lead audiences to support juveniles getting appropriate mental health treatment, in a time where there have been multiple mass shootings perpetrated by mentally ill juveniles. This could also perpetuate biological theories concerning offenders, that some are just born bad and are deserving of incarceration.

The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause addresses juvenile delinquency, and can be analyzed in terms of social class and gender. The film reflects concerns of the time period, as there was an explosion of juvenile delinquents depicted in the media. Rebel Without a Cause was among many films banned in some places out of fears that youth behavior would be negatively influenced.

The film’s delinquent characters were also not the typically portrayed lower class hoodlum delinquents found in other films of the 1950’s. The three teens were upper middle class. Jim’s parents had the financial means to move when their son got into trouble, and Judy was also from a good home. Blackboard Jungle, which was also released in 1955 featured delinquents from an inner city school.

A significant feature of this film is that all of the characters with the exception of Plato’s maid, were white. It is interesting that “in making the link between changes in crime policy and race, scholars argue that as adult and juvenile crime became more closely associated with blacks, punitive policies became more popular.” Rebel Without a Cause had a message that the criminal justice system and society could benefit from listening to troubled, white teenagers. The police chief took the time to speak to each of the teenagers in a way that was almost paternal. The actors in the criminal justice system in this film believed that the youth were misunderstood. In the beginning of the film, Sal Mineo’s character Plato is being questioned about shooting puppies. The police chief later asks the family maid if Plato had ever seen a psychiatrist. The maid says the mother did not believe in “head shrinkers” to which the police chief replies “well maybe she better start.” This dialogue reflects the perspective shift in the 1950’s of psychological causes of crime, as well as the system turning away from incarceration.

Masculinity is a theme in the film that can explicitly be noticed in James Dean’s character Jim. Jim attempts to prove himself to the school gang, defending himself when they call him a chicken. Throughout the film, Jim has multiple outbursts of anger and is incensed by his father’s weak masculinity. In one scene, Jim screams and puts his hand around his father’s throat after his father does not stand up to his mother in a family argument. Jim also mocks his father for cleaning up a spill while wearing an apron, and challenges him to let the mother see the mess. This can tie in with We Need to Talk About Kevin, which also suggests that aggression can come from hypermasculinity.

In closing, all of these films can affect public perception of the criminal justice system and criminals. These films show a world that the public will most likely never experience, so the representation of these various aspects including serial homicide are important. The latent themes in an early film such as M are still relevant to today’s society. These themes include the idea of justice, differences between types of offenders, and what is behind a serial murderer. We Need to Talk About Kevin provides a perspective on juvenile offenders with personality disorders. It is relevant in a society where mass murders in schools are amplified by the media. It was also important that the film highlighted the stigma his mother faced, as a relative of a mass murderer. The film also shows that there is more work to be done regarding treating youths with psychopathic traits. American Psycho, about a serial murderer also raises questions about what our society views as success. These movies all differ with their levels of graphic violence. American Psycho is arguably the most graphic, but part of what frightens the audience of The Silence of the Lambs is that it discusses ideas behind offender motives, and shows the after effects of murder. The Silence of the Lambs shows corpses and the skin of victims being used as well as the investigation process that follows. American Psycho shows brutal murder, but then continues to the next act of violence. We Need to Talk About Kevin also focuses more on the after effects of a crime, and considers stigmatization. Rebel Without a Cause is an interesting contrast to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both of these films deal with similar issues regarding juveniles, but take place in different time periods. The portrayal of the offenders in these films and the society that they are each a part of are reflective of the public’s ideas about crime and offenders.


Allué, S. (2002). The Aesthetics of Serial Killing: Working Against Ethics in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1988) AND "American Psycho" (1991). Atlantis, 24(2), 7-24.

Demme, J. (Director), & Utt, K., Saxon, E., & Bozman, R. (Producers). (2001). The Silence of the Lambs [Motion picture on DVD]. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.

Farr, K. (2017). Adolescent Rampage School Shootings: Responses to Failing Masculinity Performances by Already-Troubled Boys. Gender Issues, Gender Issues, 10/19/2017.

Harron, M. (Director). (2000). American Psycho [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Lionsgate Films.

Lang, F. (Director). (1931). M [Motion picture on DVD]. Germany: Nero-Film.

Livingston, Jay. (1994). Crime and the media: Myths and reality. (The United States of Violence: A Special Section) (Cover Story). USA Today (Magazine),122(2588), 40.

Melendez, M., Lichtenstein, B., & Dolliver, M. (2016). Mothers of Mass Murderers: Exploring Public Blame for the Mothers of School Shooters through an Application of Courtesy Stigma to the Columbine and Newtown Tragedies. Deviant Behavior, 1-12.

Parry, W. (2009). Diagnosing an American Psycho. International Review of Psychiatry, 2009, Vol.21(3), P.281-282, 21(3), 281-282.

Phipps, Gregory. (2015). Constructing Masks of Hypermasculinity: The Depiction of Rampage School Shootings in Contemporary American Novels. Studies in the Novel,47(1), 99-115.

Rafter, N. H. (2006). Shots in the mirror crime films and society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ramsay, L., Ramsay, L., Kinnear, R. S., Roeg, L., Fox, J., Salerno, R., Greenwood, J. (Writers). (2011). We need to talk about Kevin [Motion picture on DVD].

Ray, N. (Director). (1955). Rebel Without a Cause [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Warner Bros.


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