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Hollywood's Darkest Cinematic Minds: 12 of the Most Complicated Characters in Movie History

Updated on November 23, 2019
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 14 years.

What is morality? According to the dictionary, it was a clear distinction between what was right and wrong; as well as good and bad behavior. What if someone wasn't born with the knowledge to determine those things? How they tell what was the right thing to do?

When it come to the human condition, good and evil are harder to define sometimes. The lines get blurred and unforgivable mistakes are made by people who often had the best of intentions. In the effort to cover up a minor crime, an even bigger crime gets committed. Look at most David Lynch films that had a contrast between good and bad behavior with a 1950s backdrop, such as Wild at Heart. It was a mixture of young love, sex and people going to extremes to get what they wanted.

In Hollywood, many films have tackled the complexity of the human condition whether it's through a simple black and white crime thriller, a horror film or a morality tale where no one was clearly good and bad. Here are a list of 12 movie characters who were so complex and fascinating that Dr. Freud could study them endless if they were based on real people. They're divided in different categories based on insanity, villainy, complicated men and ladies looking for trouble. Read on to see if one of your favorite film characters made the cut.

Psychosis on a Different Level

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho- Perkins played a man who was stuck with a fractured mind. He wanted to experience all of the physical pleasures an adult wanted to experience. He was attracted to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), but his mother prevented his desire from ever becoming a reality. It turns out that Norman's mother was just a figment of his tortured mind. A byproduct of growing up in a home dominated by a strong complicated mother who Norman leaned on a lot when he was younger. His relationship with her was still rocky at best, but he ended up killing her and taking over her identity in a way. Not fully, but just when he felt the situation required it. Norman's mother became a part of his personality that he could use whenever he felt the need to act out his violent tendencies. His mental state would always be an issue through the multiple Psycho sequels.
Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) in Identity- Premise sounded familiar: a bunch of strangers in different circumstances check into a rundown motel in the rain. What they didn't take into account was that there was a mysterious serial killer taking them out one by one for whatever reason. There was also the story of a serial killer inmate named Malcolm Rivers who had multiple personalities being evaluated. How were these two stories related? Closer than any viewer ever thought. Malcolm's complicated personalities appeared to be dueling within themselves to see which one was the last one standing. Which personality won out? His last remaining good one, or the one that had the capacity to kill? Watch and you be the judge.
Kevin (James McAvoy) in Split- Kevin was a young man who could be sweet and normal one minute before turning into a complete psychopath the next. Turned out Kevin had 23 established personalities rolling around inside of him. One additional personality might be coming to the forefront that was more dangerous than the others. He was also connected to the world of Unbreakable in a follow-up film Glass. Interesting to see how Kevin's dangerous personalities tied in with that world.

Duality of Men

Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) in Suspicion- On the surface, Grant's Aysgarth was a shallow playboy with nothing to offer his new wife, except his undying love. Unfortunately, that won't pay the bills that were starting to pile up. Lena (Joan Fontaine) believed that her loving new husband was plotting her demise by a sudden fascination with crime novels and a dark side that appeared to be rearing its ugly head. She started to question his every movement and realized that he was instead harboring a much softer side underneath all of his roguish swagger. He was planning to sacrifice himself; instead of his wife; to give her the financial security she needed. If the spouses talked their problems out sooner, they wouldn't have gone down those questionable paths in order to make the other happy.
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in In a Lonely Place- Bogart's Steele was a victim of misperception from the very beginning. He was a man who loved to write, drink and carouse. Unfortunately, two of those situations made him a suspect in the murder of a young woman he crossed paths with the night before. His neighbor (Gloria Grahame) became his alibi and then his fiancée, but even she started to doubt his innocence, especially when his wicked temper came out to greet her. The police and her own suspicions caused her to head for the hills before the true murderer was revealed. A story that showcased how that not everything was as black and white as it appeared to be. Dixon Steele was a character who was more than the sum of his surface parts.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) in Drive- Gosling's nameless character loved the thrill of being behind the wheel of a car, but he grew a stronger purpose by protecting the people he loved. His extreme toughness revealed a violent side that only came out when the woman he loved was being threatened. He would stop at nothing to keep her safe, even if it meant sacrificing his own life in the process. Did he do that? Hard to say.

Femme Fatales at their Worst

Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon- A prime example of where beauty and greed were a bad mix. Brigid loved Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), which she loved money more. Her actions led to a grim fate and being spurned by her lover without any money to show for it. Now, that was a cruel twist of fate.
Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) in The Big Sleep- Carmen was a rich young woman who always got what she wanted no matter how many laws were broken. She was a wild woman who loved to break the rules, even if it meant killing someone by accident or otherwise. Since she was never held accountable for actions, Vickers' Carmen was a woman who never heard the word "no" very often. When it was uttered, she didn't believe it existed. As a result, she looked for comfort and fun in all the wrong places, which led to her current predicament that no one could get her out of this time. The damage was finally done and psychiatric care was in her future because no one else could help her now.
Miranda (Marion Cotillard) in The Dark Knight Rises- The best way to describe this character is simple: a wolf in sheep's clothing. She pretended to be nice and sweet to our protagonist, but she was really a viper with a secret hidden agenda. Miranda worked to earn Bruce Wayne's trust before stabbing him in the back and taking everything that meant anything to him. Now, that was one wicked lady that you didn't want to scorn.

Pure Evil

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter- On the surface, he was a morality upstanding preacher. Underneath it all, he was a ruthless killer who would harm anyone who got in his way of a big payday. His latest targets were his two stepchildren. They knew where the money and would do anything to not let him have it. Mitchum made Powell all the more unnerving as he sprouting moral things and singing a particular song while doing some ungodly acts to others. It was downright subtle and terrifying at the same time.
Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet- Frank Booth was a showy individual who liked to huff some unknown gas and was full of sexual proclivities that needed to be filled by someone not interested in doing so (Isabella Rossellini). He was a violent individual who kidnapped his victim's family to get her to obey his every whim. Frank Booth was a man who didn't like it when people defied him and would get great pleasure out of causing pain. He was a man that no one should ever mess with; unless they're armed to the teeth.
Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Hannibal- Hannibal Lecter was a cannibalistic serial killer who would kill anyone that got in his way, except Special Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore). Why? He was fond of her and would do anything not to hurt her, even chop off his own hand to do so. He saved her life on at least one occasion and taught her how to understand the mind of a serial killer, even his own. Was he a perfect individual? Not by a long shot. He was someone who had layers, but you would run far away from him if you ran into him on the street. It's that simple: he's a killer with an intellect.

In the end, the human race is full of complicated characters that can either be helped; or should be locked away forever. Bad behavior wasn't always part of their DNA. Some of it came from learned experience based on being allowed to get away with too much over too many years. The case of characters like Carmen Sternwood, better known as the spoiled rich girl, who broke too many rules that was just shrugged or paid off by their loved ones. Instead of being held accountable, the questionable moments multiplied to the point where a major crime had to occur in order for it to stop.

Hollywood films were often more interesting because they depicted human behavior at their best, and more often people at their absolute worst. The latter category was good for demonstrating shock value to moviegoers who couldn't believe that someone so normal could break a cardinal rule, such as Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. He was a happily married family man who literally fell into a brief affair primarily accidentally and a little bit on impulse. The character seemed to have to wanted to see what it was like to have his cake and eat it too. Like most morality plays, he regretted it immediately because real life had consequences for following your every impulse. That's the lesson to learn. Think before you leap, because you could regret it immensely.

The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises
The Night of the Hunter
The Night of the Hunter

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