My top movie 10 characters of questionable sanity

We all know that moment within a film when you think, hold on a minute… I’m not sure if this character is a genius or actually utterly bonkers. That’s right, we’re taking madness… but not just any madness, the kind of madness that’s hiding itself under a veneer… that may not actually be madness at all. From descents into insanity to unfair imprisonments, secret second identities (that the character may or may not be aware of themselves) and threats only they can perceive, these are my top 10 characters whose sanity under question. (WARNING MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS)

0715-INCEPTION-movie-review_full_600Character: Cobb
Played by: Leonardo Di Caprio
Film: Inception (2010)
What madness beckons?: Is Cobb living in the real world or is he just trapped in a dream with his wife and children waiting for him to wake up?
Crazy or genius?: Up for debate. I say crazy.
“Ariadne: You might have the rest of the team convinced to carry on with this job, but they don’t know the truth.
Cobb: Truth? What truth?
Ariadne: The truth that at any minute, you might bring a freight train through the wall. The truth that Mal is bursting through your subconscious. And the truth that as we go deeper into Fischer, we’re also going deeper into you. And… I’m not sure we’re gonna like what we find.

trevor-reznik-the-machinist-_131936-fli_1365442805Character: Trevor Reznik
Played by: Chistian Bale
Film: The Machinist (2004)
What madness beckons?: After not sleeping for a year, Trevor is convinced he is being stalked by a fellow co-worker who is out to ruin his life… or is he?
Crazy or genius?: Sleep deprived hallucinations
“Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

TravisBickleCharacter: Travis Bickle
Played by: Robert DeNiro
Film: Taxi Driver (1976)
What madness beckons?: After being rejected by the woman he loves, Vietnam vet, Travis becomes obsessed with saving a child prostitute and ridding New York of the “filth” on its streets.
Crazy or genius?: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
“Travis Bickle: [Travis is trying his guns on the mirror] Huh? Huh?
Travis Bickle: Faster than you, fucking son of a… Saw you coming you fucking… shitheel.
Travis Bickle: I’m standing here; you make the move. You make the move. It’s your move…
Travis Bickle: Don’t try it you fuck.
Travis Bickle: You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.

Shutter IslandCharacter: Teddy Daniels
Played by: Leonardo Di Caprio
Film: Shutter Island (2010)
What madness beckons?: US Marshall, Teddy is investigating a murderess who has escaped from a mental institution… or is he?
Crazy or genius?: Paranoid delusions
“George Noyce: This is a game. All of this is for you. You’re not investigating anything. You’re a fucking rat in a maze.

psycho-anthony-perkins-as-norman-batesCharacter: Norman Bates
Played by: Anthony Perkins
Film: Psycho (1960)
What madness beckons?: Norman is an innkeeper under the thumb of his controlling mother… but she never seems to appear on screen.
Crazy or genius?: Totally (mother) fucking bonkers
“Norman Bates: You-you eat like a bird.
Marion Crane: [Looking around at the stuffed birds while eating] And you’d know, of course.
Norman Bates: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’ – it-it’s really a
Norman Bates: fals-fals-fals-falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But -I-I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know – taxidermy.

One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoos-NestCharacter: R.P. McMurphy
Played by: Jack Nicholson
Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
What madness beckons?: Criminal, McMurphy pleads insanity in the hope that getting himself admitted into a mental institute will be an easy ride, but he didn’t count on Nurse Ratched.
Crazy or genius?: Falsely accused
“McMurphy: I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.

imagesCharacter: Bruce Robertson
Played by: James McAvoy
Film: Filth (2013)
What madness beckons?: Detective Bruce Robertson is in line for a promotion but he’s also seeing farm animal’s heads on human bodies as well as demons from his past.
Crazy or genius?: Eaten alive by guilt
“Bladesey: What made you join the Force?
Bruce Robertson: Police oppression, brother.
Bladesey: You wanted to stamp it out from the inside?
Bruce Robertson: No, I wanted to be a part of it.

edward-norton-fight-club1Character: The Narrator
Played by: Edward Norton
Film: Fight Club (1999)
What madness beckons?: After a frustrated office worker meets a larger than life character called, Tyler Durden, the who set off on a programme of anarchy, but why is The Narrator’s girlfriend, Marla, so confused?
Crazy or genius?: Split personalities
“Narrator: Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler’s?

donnie-darko1Character: Donnie Darko
Played by: Jake Gyllenhaal
Film: Donnie Darko (2001)
What madness beckons?: Donnie keeps seeing a giant menacing bunny… one who keeps convincing him to commit crimes.
Crazy or genius?: Secret genius
“Donnie: Frank. When’s this gonna stop?
Frank: You should already know that

Black_Swan_filmCharacter: Nina Sayers
Played by: Natalie Portman
Film: Black Swan (2010)
What madness beckons?: Childlike Nina is perfect to play the virginal White Swan in Swan Lake but as she starts to embrace her dark side and explore the Black Swan, the edges of her sanity start to fray.
Crazy or genius?: Driven to madness by obsession
Erica: What happened to my sweet girl?
Nina: She’s gone!


  1. Very nice list here Abbi. Good to see Det. Bruce Robertson included with so many classic characters.

    1. Abbi

      Thanks! Filth really got to me and I found the character repulsive but also so sympathetic and I just thought the way they showed him unravelling was fascinating.

  2. Ahhh shutter island… Can leave even the watcher crazy haha

    1. Abbi

      Yeah it definitely leaves you guessing!

  3. Great picks! My favorite is definitely Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest. Love love love that film and character. 🙂

    1. Abbi

      Thanks! Have you read the book. It’s outstanding.

      1. Yep! 🙂 Actually, for me, I think it’s one of those rare occasions where I liked the movie even more. Book is great, though! Classic.

  4. MIB

    If you want to see some films featuring disturbing characters that somehow engender feelings of sympathy or audience support then you should watch some Korean films like Breathless (on Film 4 Sunday night) or the works of Kim Ki-Duk. 🙂

    1. Abbi

      I will definitely add it to my list. Unfortunately we don’t have Film 4. We stream all our TV through an Xbox so it’s a bit limited.

  5. Some great choices here.

  6. Fantastic list! Loved your picks.

  7. jennypugh

    A great list! I enjoyed Shutter Island a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a great film.

    1. Abbi

      Thanks. It’s really underrated!

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