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The “Holy Crap, She’s Crazy!” Matrix

From ‘Fatal Attraction’ to ‘Titanic,’ ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ to ‘When the Bough Breaks,’ a definitive explanation of the nuttiest obsessed lovers in movie history

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

When the Bough Breaks stars Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall as John and Laura Taylor, a well-to-do couple who can’t have children and choose surrogacy as a way to become parents. The surrogate mother they choose ends up being a crazy person who falls in love with John and decides she wants to be his wife and a full-time mother to his child. It’s the kind of movie where the plot’s inertia can only move forward if nobody ever asks any questions about anything. Plus, all of the main characters make only bad decisions, which is to say, it’s a movie that exists solely for you to watch it and say, “Look how dumb this person is being” and “Look how crazy this other person is being,” which is to say, it is a fun movie, but not exactly a good movie.

The villain, Anna Walsh (played by Jaz Sinclair), is a fine-enough entry into the Upset Ex-Lovers movie universe (even though technically she’s not an ex-lover): She’s unstable, fond of knives, a convincing liar, willing to kill, and able to flicker her eyes between innocent and insane. She’s not the best or most nuanced or most convincing upset ex-lover, but she’s also not the worst. As a measure of categorization, here’s the “Upset Ex-Lovers Character Matrix,” plotting 17 different upset ex-lovers based on how crazy and how deadly they are:

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

This matrix raises some questions:

Is Morris Chestnut getting smarter in these kinds of movies?

In 2015’s The Perfect Guy, Morris Chestnut plays David King, the boyfriend to Leah Vaughn at the beginning of the film. Later in the movie, she ends up in a relationship with the psychotic Carter Duncan. After Carter reveals himself to be dangerous, Leah finds her way back to David. Their relationship rekindled, David tries to scare off Carter after the trio ends up in the same restaurant at the same time. It does not work. Twenty minutes later, David is dead and Carter is pursuing Leah harder than ever.

In When the Bough Breaks, Chestnut’s character John is the one who gets pursued. Despite attempting to do so, Anna is unable to kill him. He makes it to the end of the movie alive. So: Yes, Morris Chestnut is getting smarter in these kinds of movies.

Who’s the overall no. 1 upset ex-girlfriend or ex-wife?

Our contenders: Anna Walsh from When the Bough Breaks, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (though technically she’s not an “ex”), Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction, Stacy from Wayne’s World, Asami Yamazaki from Audition, Brandi Web from A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Lisa from Obsessed, Madison Bell from Swimfan, Julie Gianni from Vanilla Sky, and Adrian Forrester from The Crush.

We can eliminate Anna from When the Bough Breaks because she was never able to become completely intimidating while crazy. We can eliminate Stacy from Wayne’s World because the only thing she was ever guilty of was being annoying. We can eliminate Asami from Audition because that’s a horror movie so it (probably) doesn’t even belong here. We can eliminate Brandi from A Thin Line Between Love and Hate because while she was elite at making Crazy Person Face, she was not elite at doing Crazy Person Things. We can eliminate Lisa from Obsessed because she tried to hurt Beyoncé’s feelings. We can eliminate Madison from Swimfan because she forced her way into a final confrontation scene at a swimming pool but didn’t even know how to swim, so of course she ended up drowning. We can eliminate Julie from Vanilla Sky because a True Contender Upset Ex-Girlfriend or Ex-Wife has to have a couple of bodies in her prison jacket and the only person she ever managed to kill was herself. And we can eliminate Adrian from The Crush because she got knocked out with a single punch at the end of the movie.

That leaves us with the only two who ever really had a chance: Amy from Gone Girl and Alex from Fatal Attraction. Alex has been the standard bearer here for so long that it feels weird to try to unseat her, right? I mean honestly, I think you could be right with either one of these picks. I respect tradition though, and also think that in any draw or tie or toss-up in an argument like this, the title should always go to the reigning champion. So despite a very strong showing from Amy, the belt stays with Alex.

(Were this narrowed to a “Who’s the most conniving upset ex-girlfriend or ex-wife?” debate, then Amy wins by a large, large margin.)

Michael Ealy (Screen Gems)
Michael Ealy (Screen Gems)

Who’s the overall no. 1 upset ex-boyfriend or ex-husband?

Let’s say there are seven possible winners here. There’s David McCall from Fear, Bill from Kill Bill, Martin Burney from Sleeping With the Enemy, Charlie Venner from Straw Dogs, Carter from The Perfect Guy, Noah Sandborn from The Boy Next Door, and Cal Hockley from Titanic.

And let’s also say that within the borders of this particular question, “the overall no. 1 upset ex-boyfriend or ex-husband” means the one who was the most dastardly and the most dangerous and the most devastating. That being the case, we just have to look at how much destruction each guy caused to find our no. 1.

Seventh Place: Cal Hockley, Titanic: Cal has the least amount of blood on his hands. After Rose leaves him for Jack, Cal tries to kill both of them. That’s a not great thing to do, but he was unsuccessful so technically I think that means his only real crimes are (a) his eyebrows and (b) attempted murder. He’s easily the ex-lover here with the greatest chance at rehabilitation.

Sixth Place: Martin Burney, Sleeping With the Enemy: A husband so abusive and controlling that his wife faked her death in an attempt to get away from him. There’s always a part in movies like these where they try to make the husband or boyfriend look idyllic and likable. Martin Burney never quite pulled that off.

Fifth Place: Carter Duncan, The Perfect Guy: Carter killed a couple of people, assaulted a couple of people, recorded the woman he was chasing having sex with her boyfriend and then emailed it to her coworkers and clients, and kidnapped a cat. He really diversified his evil. Maybe the most aggressively crazy thing he did, though, was break into his harassee’s home and suck on her toothbrush. (Here’s an admission: When I watched this movie, I knew that I wouldn’t be any good as the harassee in one of these situations because the whole time I was watching Carter — who is played by the exceptionally handsome Michael Ealy — I was like, “I could get him to change.”)

Fourth Place: David McCall, Fear: Out of all the guys on this list, Mark Wahlberg’s David McCall is, for sure, my favorite upset movie ex-boyfriend. I wish he could’ve finished higher here, as his performance was stunning, but he just didn’t kill enough people (which is a weird thing to dock points for).

Third Place: Noah Sandborn, The Boy Next Door: Sent sideways into craziness after his mother killed herself after his dad cheated on her. (His dad was his first murder victim.) There was never any hope for Noah. Poor kid. Poor murderous, psychotic, violently needy kid.

Second Place: Charlie Venner, Straw Dogs (the 2011 version): He didn’t kill more people than Noah Sandborn, but he was guilty of more rapes and complicit in more rapes. I don’t know that any of the guys on the list here made me feel as uncomfortable as Charlie did.

First Place: Bill, Kill Bill: The overall no. 1 upset ex-boyfriend or ex-husband.

Alicia Silverstone (Warner Bros.)
Alicia Silverstone (Warner Bros.)

Who had the creepiest relationship discussed here?

No question: It’s Nick and Adrian from The Crush. They never sleep together (they do kiss), but still: He’s a 28-year-old writer and she’s a 14-year-old 14-year-old. I can’t get past it. (There’s a scene in the movie where a different man imagines himself climbing into the bathtub with her and it’s even more unsettling than Nick and Adrian kissing.)

Sidebar: Adrian tried to kill a woman by dumping a bunch of wasps into a room that she was in. I respect that kind of dedication. She couldn’t find a gun to murder people with so she was like, “Fuck it, let me go on outside and find a wasp’s nest.”

Which obsessed lover has the worst idiosyncrasy?

This feels a lot like cheating because it’s from a horror movie, but it’s absolutely Asami Yamazaki from Audition. She keeps a man trapped in a sack as a pet of sorts. Add to that, she cut off several pieces of his body. And then to add to the “add to that,” she kept him alive by feeding him her own vomit. (It’s really bad.) (It’s worse than you’re even picturing.) (I’m going to tell you not to watch the clip on YouTube but you’re going to because you’re dumb.) (Don’t be so dumb all the time.)

Beyoncé (Screen Gems)
Beyoncé (Screen Gems)

What’s the best trope in these kinds of movies?

There are six main options here:

  1. The thing where we found out two-thirds of the way into the movie that a person is not who they say they are. The private investigator usually says something like, “There’s a reason we couldn’t find anything on Ryan Scott. Because his name’s not Ryan Scott. It’s Phillip Grey. He changed it two years ago after he was convicted of assault.”
  2. The thing where something terrible happens to a family pet. R.I.P. the dog that got its head cut off in Fear. R.I.P. to the bunny that got boiled in Fatal Attraction. R.I.P. to the cat that got slaughtered in When the Bough Breaks.
  3. The thing where somebody watches someone else through a window. If it’s the crazy person watching through the window, then the crazy person will make a crazy face while doing so. He or she will be especially livid if he or she sees the person he or she is crazy for standing by, looking at, talking to, or making love to someone else.
  4. The thing where a secondary character gets killed as a way to show us how crazy the crazy person is willing to get. This is why I don’t make friends with anyone.
  5. The thing where the crazy person dresses up as the person who the person they’re infatuated with is actually attracted to. The lamest of all of these.
  6. The thing where the significant other of the person being terrorized ends up having to fight the crazy person. The best example of this happened in Obsessed when Beyoncé came home and found a girl waiting for her husband in her bed. Beyoncé tried to leave, the girl ran up on her, they started to fight, and then during the fight, Beyoncé’s husband called. The girl ran to the phone, answered it, then Beyoncé ran over to it, tussled with the girl over the phone, FUCKING HEADBUTTED the girl, then said into the phone, “Derek, I’m gonna call you back,” then threw the phone down and kept fighting.

While I’m partial to the sixth option here, it seems pretty clear that the fourth one is the most important and best one.

Who’s the least-harmful upset ex-lover here?

I feel so bad that poor Stacy from Wayne’s World ends up getting lumped in with all of these psychos and maniacs. It’s like when they put Naz in Rikers Island.

What was the most IDGAF move an upset ex-lover pulled off?

“Tell me something, David. Do you believe in God?”

If an upset ex-lover says something like the above, as Julie did to David in Vanilla Sky while driving him around and questioning him about not loving her, then some very wicked shit is about to happen, and did happen when Julie sped up the car then drove it right the fuck off a bridge and dead into a wall on purpose. I think all any of us can ever hope for is to find someone who loves us enough to drive a car off a bridge and into a wall if they feel like we don’t love them enough.