Can you think of the last lead character in a film who wasn’t morally ambiguous? Addicted to drugs? A bad parent? Rather wanton with their violence? These are all the hallmarks of the modern film hero – scarred and left to navigate a newly-fractured world (read: their father didn’t love them) – but this fashion for the anti-hero has a long history. From Dirty Harry to Mad Max to Daniel Craig’s moody Bond, cinema capitalizes on our love for the rugged outsider who refuses to comply to established order. We watch films about anti-heroes because we like to see ourselves in them, despite lacking their guncraft, ruthlessness, or bold fashion sense. Here are a few of my favourites:
Barry Lyndon (1975) – Amazon Prime
Kubrick’s under-appreciated masterpiece, based on a novel by Thackeray, sees roguish hero Barry (Ryan O’Neal) work his way to the top of 18th Century society, cheating and corrupting, but also being cheated and corrupted. Every frame is gorgeous (many were based on Hogarth paintings), with some lit by candlelight, some featuring a smorgasbord of stately homes, and all featuring sumptuous costumes. The casting is also very fine, with a host of character actors that dip in and then die. By the end of the film, we’re not entirely sure if we actually like Barry or not, but one can’t help but admire him.
Cool Hand Luke (1967) – Amazon Prime
Surely nobody can eat fifty boiled eggs? You’ll have to watch to find out in the remarkably quotable Paul Newman film. Luke begins as a decorated war hero arrested for destroying parking meters (an entirely noble cause) and embodies the anti-hero’s essential need to defy and challenge – it doesn’t matter what. Caught up in a brutal prison system for this inconsequential crime, he clashes with the sadistic guards and fights with the other prisoners, resolving never to submit.
Léon: The Professional (1994) – Amazon Prime/Netflix
This film has it all. Natalie Portman – in her first film role as 12-year-old Mathilda – becomes the apprentice of solitary hitman Léon (Jean Reno) after seeing her whole family murdered. Wanting to revenge herself against the culprit – corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (played sickeningly (well) by Gary Oldman) – Mathilda is trained by Léon in the ways of a hitman. The film has since become a cult classic but isn’t one for people who aren’t fans of violence. Also the inspiration for that catchy Alt-J song (the one that goes ‘Thiiiis is from. Thiiiis is from. This is from Mathilda’)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – Amazon Prime/Netflix
James Dean is an actor that you feel you must have seen before – his name, after all, is the byword for devilish Hollywood heartthrob and you had his poster on your wall – but he only ever made eight films before his death at 24, and if you’ve not seen East of Eden, Giant, or this, where have you seen him? In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean moves to a new town to start a new life but gets caught in conflict with the local toughs after he falls for their leader’s girlfriend.
The red leather jacket, white t-shirt, and surly smoulder make you wonder if people ever actually behaved and dressed like the film (playing chicken by driving cars off a cliff being the main example) or whether it was only ever a cooked-up Hollywood world. The film’s good fun, but I’m guessing the latter.
Looper (2012) – Netflix
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a ‘looper’, a hitman of the future tasked with killing the mob’s targets. The twist is, the victims have been sent back in time for execution, and Gordon-Levitt’s latest job is to kill his future self (played by a supremely grim Bruce Willis). Looper is also a rare beast – a time travel film that vaguely makes sense (12 Monkeys, Willis’ previous time travel fare is also good value).
SLC Punk! (1998) – Amazon Prime
Two best friends decide to become punks in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1985, interacting with the cliques that litter the city, and doing their best to avoid being labelled ‘poseurs’. Matthew Lillard (an actor whom I’m told is best known for portraying Shaggy in live-action Scooby-Doo films) is excellent as the unruly son of rich ‘Reagan Republicans’. The filming is energetic, and our heroes’ transitions are sure to raise wry smiles of embarrassed recognition.
The Social Network (2010) – Netflix
Watch this film, partly because it’s one of the best and most deftly written films of this millennium, but also because Mark Zuckerberg hates how it depicts him. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of the Facebook founder as socially inept but wildly driven shows the latest incarnation of the film antihero – the single-minded CEO who’ll do anything to succeed, whether that be cutting out an interfering best friend out of the company or sacrificing any semblance of a romantic relationship. Directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the success story is brutal and bleak, but utterly engrossing.