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10 Essential Cinematic Antiheroes

by Jessica Kiang
April 25, 2013 3:48 PM
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Assassination of Jesse James Casey Affleck

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.

Sweet Smell of Success Curtis

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.

Young Adult Theron

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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  • NWOS | June 30, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    You are wrong to say that antiheroes are not cool.

    For one, many antiheroes, including Benjamin Braddock (who is undeservedly snubbed) or Jim Stark are only judged to be cool as the values or mores of society shift.

    For a great example of this read Ebert's two reviews of The Graduate, one he made as a young man and another 30 years after that. His opinions of Braddock's actions change as his values begin to align not with counterculture but with mainstream culture.

    Basically, an antihero often embodies a sub- or counter-culture because their values are seen as threatening or preverse, but when that culture becomes mainstream, the antihero is seen as cool after the fact. By ignoring this, you've left out countless antiheroes, whose image has changed to be viewed in a more favorable light.

  • kindred spirit | May 4, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Good call on Mavis in Young Adult. But you seem to have forgotten Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Talk about a classic antihero!

  • PatrickNell | April 30, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    Wait, I'm confused. "The Pupkin Rule"? So every character I wouldn't want to be is an anti-hero? That makes no sense. I think you're confusing your terms. As I read the comment section I realize more intelligent commenters are making more reasonable cases but something is definitely off in this post. In classical and earlier mythology, the hero tended to be a dashing, confident, stoic, intelligent, highly capable fighter and commander with few, if any, flaws. The classical antihero is the inversion of this. Where the hero is confident, the antihero is plagued by self-doubt. Where the hero is a respected fighter, the antihero is mediocre at best. Where the hero is brave and courageous, the antihero is frightened and cowardly. Where the hero gets all the ladies, the antihero can't even get the time of day. In short, while the traditional hero is a paragon of awesomeness, the classical antihero suffers from flaws and hindrances. Jessica Kiang's definition is "any unlikable character in cinema"... <That is such an juvenile way to put it. I mean, the biggest fault in this blog-post is the list itself. Young Adult? Jessica, you think Theron in Young Adult is among the 10 Essential "Antiheros" in Cinema History? Fire this girl right now from The Playlist...hahaha... usually The Playlist's blog-posts have some intellect in them... this post assumes the reader is a dumb film fan. I am insulted to read this as a film lover. Thank you, bye.

  • Fordwsh | April 30, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Reading this article and the comment section made me sick to my stomach. Are you all ill-begotten feeble-minded ninny's masquerading as film-buffs? Or do you all actually agree with this idiotic definition of "Antihero" being an unlikable character. This is an insult to all film-buffs worldwide, not to mention the intellectual film-goer. This article and these people who agree with it are the reasons why American cinema is at one of it's lowest points and only declining. Please, educate yourself before making a fool of yourself on the world wide web... This article is a miscarriage. I lost many respects for The Playlist for allowing this to be published. Lost a couple credibility points in my book but hey, at least you're succeeding in further stupidifying the average film-goer.

  • Dr PTA | April 30, 2013 9:01 PM

    @FORDWSH: Don't bother. You can't convince the stubborn-novice cinephile. They are a lost cause. I, along with many of my fellow cinephile -writer-friends saw this post and laughed at the authors misuse of the term and the list itself is unarguably a childish list. You can clearly see the authors misuse of the term antihero simply by taking a look at her list, it's that clear. One glance of the list and I left the page out of embarrassment for this blog but only returned to see if the author had given elaboration in the comment section, which she didn't... (another sign of amateurism) ... the author of this article surely needs to find a new profession. She writes well... but her intellect is on par with Esquire or People magazine..

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Good list; great definition. I would add that the performance should be absolutely cringeworthy... like watching Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the original "The Office." So, for those of you that have or have not seen the minor film (though some call it a masterpiece of sorts), "Cutter's Way," I submit John Heard's performance as the eponymous Vietnam vet, Alex Cutter. (Can't paste a YouTube clip here, but search for "Cutters Way It Was In My Driveway" for a sampling of Heard's acting chops). Heard seemingly channels poet Charles Bukowski in bringing the acid-tongued, stream-of-consciousness ramblings of Cutter to life. It's probably Heard's best performance, and he plays off Jeff Bridges in a way that nearly (but certainly does not) make him likable. He's a bastard, an honest asshole, moving beyond mere curmudgeon into a mean ol' sonofabitch... but because of, and by the end in spite of, his nature, he digs deep into a murder mystery that takes him into the even weirder, meaner halls of the disgustingly rich.

  • JRDonug | April 28, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    According to the author of this article and everyone who agrees with her definition of "anti-hero"... An "anti-villian" would be any character in cinema history you love/like or wish you could "be"... I hope this comment brings understanding to people who are being led to believe a false cinematic term by the novice writer of this article. I wish there was some way a more experienced/intelligent cinematic writer could re-vamp this travesty of writing/list-making haha. Thank you!

  • Hughey Bifouf | April 28, 2013 12:19 AMReply

    The one inclusion I'd deem as the most warranted: Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.

  • DG | April 26, 2013 12:20 PMReply

    What about Reese Witherspoon in Election?

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:52 PM

    Redact: Because, Mavis.

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:32 PM

    Yeah, this list has no females, and yet... some of the best antiheroes according to The Playlist's definition are antiheroines. Good choice on Witherspoon's "Election" turn... a solid performance that makes the character seem cringeworthy and very real.

  • John | April 26, 2013 11:58 AMReply

    Completely agree that, by your own definition, Freddie Quell wouldn't qualify as an anti-hero. And admission aside, you couldn't come up with more than one female antihero?

  • SL | April 26, 2013 2:11 AMReply

    Although I know it's impossible to think of every anti-hero, I feel like Patrick Bateman from "American Psycho" needs to be on this list.

  • DG | April 25, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Agree with Freddy Quell but disagree with the assertion that most of P.T.A's protags are anti-heros, especially Sandler's Barry Egan. I think one of the defining characteristics of the anti-hero is the inability to change, grow, or learn anything from their actions, and Egan has an arc in Punch Drunk Love that finds him (heroically) transforming from an alienated, anxiety-ridden caricature to someone capable of triumphantly defending his love and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. Daniel Plainview and Paul Sunday also seem like anti-heros on paper but in the greater context of the movie, and as the symbols of early, burgeoning American industry, they take on mythical proportions that too me places them, if not in the realm of heroism then at least into the canon of outsiders. Great article though, and another good reminder that I really need to check out Young Adult.

  • DG | April 25, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Agree with Freddy Quell but disagree with the assertion that most of P.T.A's protags are anti-heros, especially Sandler's Barry Egan. I think one of the defining characteristics of the anti-hero is the inability to change, grow, or learn anything from their actions, and Egan has an arc in Punch Drunk Love that finds him (heroically) transforming from an alienated, anxiety-ridden caricature to someone capable of triumphantly defending his love and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. Daniel Plainview and Paul Sunday also seem like anti-heros on paper but in the greater context of the movie, and as the symbols of early, burgeoning American industry, they take on mythical proportions that too me places them, if not in the realm of heroism then at least into the canon of outsiders. Great article though, and another good reminder that I really need to check out Young Adult.

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Here's a tribute to the wonderful film that is: "The Friend's of Eddie Coyle".
    (No links allowed it seems. Go to YT and search for "Friends of Eddie Coyle Tribute Project"
    Yes, we are no Mitchum, Yates, Jordon or Keats but we loved the movie so much and wanted to do a project so...Also, what's wrong with exposing it to the modern audience? Hope many newer and older film buffs who missed it back in the day will get around to viewing this 1973 classic and read the George V. Higgins novel that 80% of the film's dialogue is sourced from. Responsible comments welcome. Thanks!

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 9:01 PM

    *Meant to type: "Friends" of Eddie Coyle.... The lost discipline of proof reading. :-)

  • oogle monster | April 25, 2013 8:46 PMReply

    Playlist, I know we get in arguments from time to time but I forgive you for everything seeing that you put Charlize Theron's career second-best performance on this list. THANK YOU! Young Adult is such a great film.

  • Noah | April 25, 2013 8:40 PMReply

    Naked does not begin with a rape. Watch the scene again. Mike Leigh has dismissed this many times.

  • TheoC | April 25, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    The writer puts in a disclaimer/explanation of the parameters for inclusion on the list, commentors bitch about the reasoning?? Read the thing.

    Superb list well written. Affleck's Robert Ford creeps me the fuck out.

  • Shalala | April 25, 2013 8:23 PM

    Well I've read the "thing" and it's surely a well-written article, but the author is using a well-known and well-understood term (that's been understood for decades) and re-defining it as "a character you don't like"... or... "a character you don't love." The list is quite silly in and of itself, evident of a novice film-buff. Aside of the aforementioned absentees, where's Clint in Unforgiven? Min-sik Choi in Oldboy? <2 I'd strongly consider. Hope the author understands she has published an amateur article disguised as a well-written piece... :\ She's probably new to the PLAYLIST... much to learn!

  • droop | April 25, 2013 6:39 PMReply

    you clearly didn't understand the master, freddie quell is no antihero and certainly does not belong on this list, and your assessment of him and the movie are just so off the mark. he absolutely has virtues. he is kind, loyal, courageous and humble. the worst

  • Andrew | April 25, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    The King of Comedy is my favorite Scorsese film.

    And glad to see I'm not the only one who views Casey Affleck's performance as Robert Ford one of the absolute greats of recent memory. I mean, geez, it's one of my favorite performances of all-time.

  • yer | April 25, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    The King of Comedy is such an underrated film. An excellent companion piece to Taxi Driver and features one of De Niro's finest performances.

  • wes | April 25, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    I can't bring myself to watch Naked even though it's sitting in my Netflix queue.

  • Ummmm | April 25, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    Your list is missing the essential anti-hero in cinema history: Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Also good mentions could have been Hackman in The Conversation, or Gould in The Long Goodbye. No offense to the author but... this list is rubbish.

  • ORO | April 29, 2013 11:04 PM

    Actually I take that back. I redact my statement. I did some further research and realized UMMMM was closer than I thought. The author of the article is a bit off in her definition. This whole article/comment is a bit sticky. Makes me question peoples credibility/gullibility these days. Where are the intelligent cinephiles at? UMMMM at least makes an intelligent and intriguing counter argument. The author has no retort? Pity...

  • Oro | April 29, 2013 5:19 PM

    Actually, if you look up the definition/history of the term, it's much closer to that described in the article than that which you've described in your comment.

  • UMMMM | April 25, 2013 4:59 PM

    And yes, I read *your* definition of an "anti-hero"... which is basically just unlikeable characters. Not the true meaning of anti-hero. By your logic - Every unlikeable character is an anti-hero or yet, every character in history not portraying heroic qualities is an anti-hero. The point of the term anti-hero is supposed to be attached to characters that go against the conventions of the "hero" and are flawed/troubled. It's what Alan Moore/Frank Miller brought to Comic Books in 1986, and what Jake Gittes/Harry Caul are to perfection. The fact that your bending the definition to your own benefit allowing Theron from Young Adult onto this list is absurd.

  • Chris | April 25, 2013 4:29 PMReply

    What about Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66??

  • Xian | April 30, 2013 4:18 PM

    Indeed... he's very much the antihero by Playlist's definition. Totally cringeworthy performance.

  • Todd | April 25, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    A sizeable chunk of Jack Nicholson films (Five Easy Pieces, Cuckoo's Nest, etc...)

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:43 PM

    Oops. I meant to say that I agree with Harley Quinn's reply to Mr. Todd's initial comment.

  • JP G | April 25, 2013 8:42 PM

    Agree with Todd. It's almost like Nicholson forced his way into the article's definition of "anti-hero" in many of his roles or that it is just what we came to expect of him. In the case of the former, it's like when one tries to be funny, they aren't as funny as they are when not trying. :-)

  • Harley Quinn | April 25, 2013 5:58 PM

    I agree that in my opinion many of Jack's roles are anti heroes, but he just makes them all too cool, at least for this particular list.

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