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10 Essential Cinematic Antiheroes

10 Essential Cinematic Antiheroes

30 years since its release, the undersung “The King of Comedy” seems finally to be edging into the sun to take its deserved place as not just one of the finest, smartest and most daring Martin Scorsese movies, but one of the greatest American satire movies, period. It’s an excoriating, often excruciating watch, boasting razor-sharp insights into the excesses of celebrity culture and the quest for fame, but it’s also, most unforgettably, a character study of one Rupert Pupkin, delusional sociopath, shit-poor comedian and all-out creep. Pupkin, whom Robert De Niro doesn’t so much inhabit as crawl into, is simply one of the most offputting creations ever committed to celluloid — a dreadful squit of a man, talentless, self-aggrandizing, self-deceiving, pathetic — and at the same time one of the most compelling. In fact, it’s easy to see why its greatest asset is also perhaps the chief reason the film bombed all those years ago: Pupkin is cringingly, writhingly, cover-your-eyes-and-hide-behind-the-sofa difficult to watch, let alone gaze at unflinchingly, as does Scorsese’s camera, for nearly two hours. The film, which closes this year’s Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday evening in a restored print, met with a mixed critical reception too, some immediately hailing its discomfiting genius, others rejecting it outright. Pauline Kael, a member of the latter camp referred to Pupkin as “a nothing.” Respectfully, we disagree. He’s much, much less than that.

De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, goes down below zero, below nothing, into negative space, becoming, in the process, one of the absolute finest examples of the cinematic antihero we’ve ever seen. It’s a tradition in which De Niro and Scorsese had previously set a high watermark with Travis Bickle in 1976’s seminal “Taxi Driver,” and it got us thinking about other examples of this most awkward, and most potentially illuminating, of archetypes.

First, a note: the term “antihero” has been misapplied so often that it has kind of evolved a legitimate second definition (flawed hero with a dark side; villain we can’t help admiring) but, traditionalists that we are, we’re having none of that, so let’s talk about how we drew up the parameters for this short sampler, shall we? In classic literary criticism terms, an antihero is a central character in whom are absent any heroic qualities. So we’re not talking about this alcoholic-but-dedicated cop or that morally ambiguous nighttime crusader. The antiheroes we’re highlighting are not motivated by a desire for justice, or defense of the weak. They are not brave, they are not admirable. They are not cool. This is not a list where you’ll find Wolverine or Snake Plissken or Tyler Durden (though the Ed Norton Fight Club” character might qualify, thorny identity issues aside). Even Tony Montana and Don Corleone don’t quite suit our purposes — there’s an operatic glamor to their tragic, violent arcs that is too impressive for the sort of unsexy loserdom we want to celebrate here.

In fact, we went back to our inspiration and simply applied what we now call The Pupkin Rule: whatever you think of the character, is there even a sneaking part of you that would like to be him? If the answer’s no: antihero. And that is, we think, the crux of it, and the reason why the antihero can be a place of such profound and uncomfortable truth: if a hero is a guy who in some way you want to be, then the antihero is the one who, in your downest moments, you’re kind of afraid you are.

Johnny (David Thewlis) in Mike Leigh‘s “Naked” (1993)
“If you want to establish sympathy with your main character,” we remember reading in a screenwriting book once, “have him help an old person, small child or animal in the opening scenes.” The first thing we see Johnny, the protagonist of Mike Leigh‘s brilliant and harrowing “Naked” do is commit a rape. And an unambiguous, graphic rape at that. There’s a challenge implicit in an opening as shocking as that: we dare you to watch this guy, we dare you to become interested in his story. And yet we do, because Johnny is a brilliantly compelling creation, a fireball of snarling, spitting, class-inflected rage, intellectual snobbery and genuine intelligence who spews out bile and brilliance in roughly equal measures to anyone who’ll listen, and many who won’t, as he wends his eccentric way round the streets of a seedier part of London, and in and out of the lives of his ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharpe), her flatmate (Katrin Cartlidge) and their landlord (Greg Cruttwell). David Thewlis gives an absolutely towering performance, easily the best thing he’s ever done (and on the strength of which we’ve been duped into forking out good money for dreck like “The Island of Dr. Moreau“), and under Leigh’s direction the film becomes a masterclass in pivoting our sympathy and attention around this grotesque axis. But perhaps the most disturbing and clever thing about the film’s shape is that by the end Johnny — serial bully, psychological terrorist, misogynist (or maybe just vicious misanthrope), rapist — is in fact, not the villain of the piece (that “honor” goes to the landlord) and as detestable a human as he is, he is recognisably a human being.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Sidney Lumet‘s “Network” (1976)
He may have the most memorable line (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”) and it may have been a role that won Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar, but the thing that qualifies Howard Beale from Sidney Lumet‘s “Network” as an antihero, is just what a patsy he is. Buffeted about on the tides of his own manic disorder, and borne up and down by the whims and agendas of other, more coldly calculating characters, Beale is a tragic figure whose weaknesses are manipulated by others to boost TV ratings, and who is discarded (with extreme prejudice) once his usefulness ends. In the (just barely) exaggerated world of Lumet’s fictional TV station, Beale’s fatal flaw is that aside from being clearly in the throes of a breakdown, he is maybe the only honest person there, and his passionate and increasingly lunatic ravings actually come from a genuine if ineffectual desire to see things change. And as long as that plays to an audience, the powers that be, best personified by a sub-zero chilly Faye Dunaway as the cunning, amoral and ambitious Head of Programming, let him rant and rave on. In many ways “Network” is a companion piece to “The King of Comedy” as a biting satire on media consumption, but Beale doesn’t even have Pupkin’s agency. He’s playing a game that he doesn’t understand the rules of, against Grand Masters: he’s destined to lose, and he does.

Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) in Peter Yates‘ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973)
What would happen if you took one of those Robert Mitchum characters from a 1940s film noir or crime pic, aged him thirty years, and took away his cool? That’s Eddie Coyle. A brilliant, minor-key riff on (rather than outright deconstruction of) the Mitchum persona of his earlier years, the Coyle featured in the gritty, unglamorised Boston underworld of Peter Yates‘s terrific “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is so small-time as to be practically minute, and so long in the game as to be practically respectable. Aging and wearying of his crooked career the same way a guy who’s worked in the post office for 40 years might, Coyle does the single least noble thing he can do: in order to stay out of prison he resolves to turn snitch. But in true antihero form, he can’t even do that right — bothersome conscience aside, he ends up fingering guys who’ve already been caught and whose names are no use to the police, and ends up ultimately being set up to take the fall by a more cunning rat than himself. And the fall, when it comes, is so anticlimactic as to be maybe the perfect antiheroic end: passed out drunk, his pants soiled from a dropped beer that looks like a urine stain, Eddie is shot in the head in a moving car, before it and his body are abandoned in the parking lot of a bowling alley. It’s one of Mitchum’s greatest performances, because for a guy whose stock in trade was the laconic, morally ambiguous guy with a palpable air of danger, with Eddie Coyle he manages to turn down the volume on that bristling charisma, and show us someone not just broken, but desperate.

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in David Fincher‘s “The Social Network” (2010)
Lest for a moment you think all antiheroes have to lose, let’s talk about one who wins, and wins big. Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network,” is a textbook example of the guy you dislike, who you kind of hope to see brought low by his hubris and self-importance, but then that poetic thing happens where his self-importance is proven to have had actual foundation, and so actual importance (and wealth and fame and all the trappings) follow. The sharp, satirical bent of Aaron Sorkin‘s script and the leanness of David Fincher‘s direction took what could simply have been a biopic, or a topical news story-turned-movie, and turned it instead into something vital and unnerving — a comment on our modern times, and a pretty scathing one at that. But it’s Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg who is the great creation here, by turns manipulative and Machiavellian, and then socially inept and pathetic — he’s the ultimate loser-who-wins. And at the heart of his psychology is the fascinating push-pull shared by many of the antiheroes on our list: a broad streak of self-loathing that manifests itself as self-love. So perhaps that’s the reason the character still passes the Pupkin test: we might covet his power and influence and ludicrous wealth, but would any of us really want to wake up in the morning and be that character (not the real-life guy; that’s another question), with all the mortifications and pettinesses and jealousies we read into him?

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in Anthony Minghella‘s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
A recurring feature of many of the entries on this list is that our antiheroes are themselves in the throes of some kind of hero worship. Something about seeing how they fall drastically short (often in their own eyes) of the standards of the person they aspire to be highlights their antiheroic qualities: where their idol is successful, they are failures; where he is popular, they are outcasts; where he is glamorous, they are mundane. And having their dazzled adoration of their hero turn bitterly in on itself is where many of these films derive their dark power. Rupert Pupkin and Jerry Langford fit this model, as do Robert Ford and Jesse James, as do Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker (more on those latter two below). But one version who sprang from the written page was Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith‘s amoral, creepy chameleon, who’s been brought to the screen by John Malkovich, Barry Pepper, Alain Delon, Ian Hart, Dennis Hopper and Jonathan Kent, but is best known to general audiences as played by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella‘s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Damon’s Tom is a classic antihero, an amoral, blank slate whose only real characteristics are a sense of his own inadequacy and a desperate desire, not just to be with someone unattainable, but to actually be them — in this case golden boy Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). Tom’s covetousness of Dickie eventually turns murderous but it’s the knowledge that Greenleaf is just one in a series that really chills: Ripley’s is a hunger that can never truly be sated, and at his core is an emptiness that can’t be filled.

Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) in John Boulting‘s “Brighton Rock” (1947)
Forget the rather plodding recent remake with Sam Riley in the role, the Pinkie Brown who left the most indelible mark on us was Richard Attenborough in the 1947 British film directed by John Boulting. Based on Graham Greene‘s novel of the same name, the film features the astonishingly blackhearted Pinkie as the sudden de facto leader of a small gang of thugs who terrorise the eponymous seaside town. Murdering to cover up murders, and blackmailing and vicitmizing everyone he comes across, it’s in his treatment of Rose, the misguided dope of a girl who falls for him, that Pinkie’s character is most tellingly drawn. He fools her into marrying him so she can’t testify against him, and is only prevented from offing her too by the eleventh-hour intervention of the police. So far, so cut-and-dried villain, but while Attenborough’s Pinkie is undoubtedly that, what brings him back from caricature are the hints we get of his psychology — a self-hating but devout Roman Catholic, Pinkie is not amoral, but actively immoral, and believes he’s hell-bound. And as wicked as he thoroughly, undoubtedly is, the story puts us into a strange line of empathy with him, as contrasted with the petty somnambulism of the seaside town and the pleasure-seekers it attracts. Not to mention the abrasive and crude Ida (Hermione Baddely) whose moral “decency” (she tries to get him brought to justice) manages to come off as vulgar and small-minded. No, Pinkie is despicable, all right, but his character has complexities and contradictions that make him worthy of such fertile characterization, and of our fascination.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master” (2012)
There are some directors who make the antihero their stock in trade, and we’d put Paul Thomas Anderson at the top of that list. We could have chosen any number of his characters: Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis‘s characters both qualify from “There Will Be Blood” (Eli Sunday is the more obviously snivelling, but Daniel Plainview is a towering, raging antihero, too); Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love“; most characters in “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights“; indeed, we can go all the way back to John C. Reilly in “Hard Eight.” So with this wealth of choice, we went for the most recent, and in a way most archetypal: Joaquin Phoenix‘s fearless turn as Freddie Quell in “The Master.” Spiritually, mentally and emotionally broken (by which we mean shattered to smithereens) Quell’s volatility puts him almost beyond the reach of relatability, until he does yet another unexpected thing and takes the “help” offered to him by self-styled guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). As their fractured relationship spirals away from simple mentor/protege into something odder and less definable, with each somehow coming to define the other in questionable, unhealthy ways, Quell’s deep well of longing and hurt is gradually revealed, providing no excuses, but partial reasoning for his actions. It’s a relationship that must end, and can never really end in Quell’s favor as the balance of power is so thoroughly against him. And yet by the end, though there’s an even greater gulf between their circumstances than before, we feel that perhaps the only real difference between them is that Dodd believes he’s sane while Quell knows that he is not. Quell loses on every conceivable level, and we can’t stop watching.

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) in Andrew Dominik‘s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
Andrew Dominik may be another of those directors who is more likely to populate his films with antiheroes than anyone you could recognise as an outright hero, but while his more recent “Killing Them Softly” has its advocates among us, really it felt slight in its cynicism compared to the arching, aching loss and sadness that permeates his elegiac anti-western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” And a great part of the reason for that is the simply incomparable performance of Casey Affleck as the titular coward, possibly, hyperbole aside, this writer’s favourite screen performance of the past decade. Brad Pitt‘s casting here was clever too, and his performance is perfectly modulated in that he allows himself to be, essentially, peripheral to Affleck’s Ford. He’s the outline of a man, the shoes and clothes and hair and voice of a legend — he is what Ford is obsessed by, but the film is not about him. Instead it’s about hero worship turned twisted and sour, captured unforgettably in Affleck’s expression every time he looks at him: warring instincts of painful adoration and admiration, pierced by jealousy and cravenness and self-hatred. Like some of the other admirer/admired pairs on this list, the relationship turns violent, but here we go even deeper into the psychology of the antihero-as-killer. Ford just wants to be important to James, but without any of the necessary resources, it feels the only way he can make any sort of impression on his hero’s life is to end it. Directly and chillingly evoking other, more recent real-life assassinations (Mark Chapman killing Lennon, or John Hinckley’s Travis Bickle-inspired attempt on Reagan’s life both spring to mind), Affleck’s Ford is a scintillating study of misplaced ardor, the desire for notoriety and what results when you give an impotent, disaffected man a gun.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Alexander Mackendrick‘s “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957)
If you’re in any doubt over our love for Alexander Mackendrick‘s tar-black, cruel-hearted masterpiece “The Sweet Smell of Success,” you haven’t been paying very close attention. We include in almost any list we possibly can, and here it is again, this time because of its outstanding turn by Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the slippery, cocky lapdog and factotum of powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco is so willing to do anything to get a little of Hunsecker’s limelight that the desperation practially oozes from him like sweat, and it’s not just that he doesn’t mind who he steps on on his way up the ladder, he actively seeks opportunities to extort, cajole and manipulate if it’ll get him even half a rung higher. Contrast this quick-thinking irredeemably selfish persona with the fawning, grovelling way he attempts to ingratiate himself with Hunsecker and you have a particularly loathsome creation. And while in many other cases on this list, part of the fascination is in making us almost root for these unlikable characters, here we get the pleasure of watching Falco get his comeuppance, as he overplays his hand and all his delicate dastardly plans come tumbling down around his ears. The fact that most of this happens at the hands of other characters who are in no way better, but simply more powerful or luckier than he is, makes it all the more poetic.

Mavis (Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman‘s “Young Adult” (2011)
Well yes, perhaps there’s a tiny element of tokenism here, but while we had to rack our brains a minute for an antiheroine to include, once Mavis Gary occurred to us, we realised she fitted in perfectly with this low company. Really one of the most unlikable characters to carry a mainstream film in recent memory, the central character of Jason Reitman‘s Diablo Cody-scripted film is an unrepentant manipulator queen bee, whose motivation from the get-go is to win back a married ex not so much it seems because of some deep abiding love for the man, but out of pique and wounded pride. Abrasive, untruthful and, in her own way, a raging misogynist, Mavis certainly begins as a monster of self-involvement, but as her trip home unfurls, or should we say unravels, and she makes more and more tragic miscalculations and discovers that perhaps people aren’t quite so easily bullied as they were at high-school age, we start to see the edifice of this constructed version of herself crumble away to something more recognisably human underneath. And we still don’t like her. Even if her motivations are later revealed to have a little more foundation than we thought, by the end, Mavis’ character flaws and her capacity for self-delusion are such that she’s going to turn away from the possibility of actual change and help when it comes, and resume, we have to assume, something of her former life. All kudos to Theron for portraying such a character — we’d argue that her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” is the less brave performance — here she doesn’t even have physical ugliness to hide behind.

So maybe, as Pupkin himself would say, it’s better to be a king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime, but who said you couldn’t be both? This is a hugely subjective list of performances and characters that really left an impression on us, but we could have gone on forever — the antihero archetype has been around arguably as long as fiction and has spawned hundreds of movie iterations. The sweet, or rather sour, spot we tried to find historically really occurs after the idea of the film as morality play begins to be deconstructed, because though a case could be made for everyone from Buster Keaton‘s Stoneface to Sam Spade being part of this tradition, there was a tendency for the antiheroes of yore to be cut from decent cloth, be it ever so rough. And as we mentioned, the ones we are most interested in here are characters with whom we empathize, without ever really sympathizing, and the idea of watching movies revolving around completely unlikable, possibly despicable and base characters seems to have been an acquired taste, like olives, that cinemagoers started to find palatable only later, most notably in the experimental, deconstructionist ’70s. 

Still, there are some glaring omissions, notably droog Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” who we just felt has already had enough written about him in this context, so much so we don’t have a whole lot to add. That having an antihero as your main character is a difficult sell was demonstrated by the (relative) failure of then-sure-thing Jim Carrey‘s foray into the territory with “The Cable Guy.” And also in the realm of comedy, there’s Seth Rogen‘s schlubby security guard in “Observe and Report” but that’s a film that, with apologies to the many Playlisters who disagree, this writer just can’t get with. And those are just some fairly random mentions — at the less anti-dramatic end of the spectrum, there’s a whole rogues’ gallery of batshit weirdos — from Patrick Bateman to “Chopper” to “Bronson” to Michael Douglas‘s character in “Falling Down,” which on a different day, and with different parameters, we could have included. We also excluded foreign-language films simply for length’s sake, and because we could probably devote an entire list solely to French antiheroes alone (though while many of them fit the bill in most ways, they’re often still a teensy bit aspirational for us, with their cheekbones, casual sex and Gitanes). 

The King of Comedy” closes the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday April 27th and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Star Jerry Lewis is also being honored at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where his most recent film, “Max Rose,” will screen.

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