The Top 10 Anti-Heroes in Film
Dictionary.com defines the antihero as “a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, a nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.” In short, the antihero is everything a hero isn’t; they are not brave, they are not selfless.
10. Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981)
Admittedly, I’d never heard of Escape from New York before I did my research. Admittedly, it’s an absolute shocker of a film. However, Snake Plissken belongs on this list. Come on, he’s got a beard, a tattoo, even an eye patch! He’s basically the most badass of pirates dumped into 1988 dystopian America! He has “testosterone for blood!” (Syfy.) He doesn’t care about anyone or anything, and you’d forgive him for shooting your own mother because he is just so damn cool. Snake is a former military fugitive who is offered immunity if he goes on a one-man mission to save the President. “President of what?” he replies. Oh, and he’s injected with explosives to make sure he doesn’t run away. No wonder he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder! A lot of Snake’s power as an antihero comes from the fact that, in a different circumstance, he’d probably be a great villain. He’s not a shy, retiring and reluctant hero. He just doesn’t care. “Anyone who comes into contact with this film goes to sleep wishing they could wake up as Snake Plissken” (Filmwerk.com, Aled Jones.)
9. Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971)
Clint Eastwood pretty much set the bar for the loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules. Inspector Harry Callahan’s cynical view of the world has left him with no choice but to operate outside of the law. He must cross ethical boundaries in order to pursue the justice he feels is good enough, since the higher powers are too inept to satisfy. Sure, he kills unarmed men and tortures criminals for information but these are all bad men and he is doing it for the greater good. Harry has to do what he has to do to save the missing girl. He has been suspended, demoted and transferred by his superiors for his personal methods at achieving justice, but we admire him because this does not appear to have hampered him at all. In a way, Eastwood presents us with a modern western where you “shoot first and ask questions later,” and it’s as if he sees something that his superiors do not. For example, when he tells the Mayor that he would shoot a man if he saw him chasing a woman with the intent to rape, the Mayor asks “Intent? How did you establish that?” Callahan replies with “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher’s knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.”
8. Léon in Léon: The Professional (1994)
Léon is an assassin, pure and simple. He makes a living by killing people. However, he is not portrayed by Jean Reno with the charisma or confident swagger of most movie assassins. He is quiet, withdrawn, even endearing when we see him watching a Gene Kelly film with “the rapt expression of a boy watching his first Disney” (EFilmCritic.com, Rob Gonsalves.) When 13-year-old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) comes to his door after her family are murdered, he reluctantly takes her in and, eventually, teaches her how to be a killer. This may sound almost cutesy as this child finds a new father figure, but it is far from it. Léon is never warm towards her, and in addition it is even suggested that Mathilda is sexually attracted to Léon. He manages to escape being viewed as the villain because he has a value system (“No women, no kids) and because that role of baddie belongs solely to Gary Oldman as drug-addicted corrupt cop Norman Stansfield. He is a fantastic take on the idea of an anti-hero and voted number 2 in Total Film’s feature, “50 Greatest Movie Antiheroes.”
7. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956)
The protagonist in AFI’s “Greatest American Western of all time” is a one Ethan Edwards, played by the great John Wayne. He is a Civil War veteran and a loner who goes out to find his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been abducted by Comanches. Edwards is not shy about expressing how he feels about the Comanches and that is where his character may come across as a little unheroic. Heroes aren’t usually racist and this is a trait of Edwards’ that director John Ford never quite resolves. A key example of this is when Edwards shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian, damning him to “wander forever between the winds.” He may not believe in this ancient myth, but he knows that the Indians do, so it is an additional insult. He also demonstrates antiheroic traits in other areas, such as his intolerance of civilized customs when he abruptly breaks up the funeral with: “Put an amen to it. There’s no more time for praying.” The famous last shot of the film is also indicative of his antiheroic behaviour. He voluntarily turns and walks away from the door, showing that he accepts his state of loneliness. These are just some examples; the film is full of them and this kind of character was very unusual back then. As a result, Ethan Edwards has been the model for “many iconic anti-heroes” (“AMC blog,” Michael Rowin.) However, on what scale he is antiheroic very much depends on your audience. Sian Griffiths, in her essay on “Ethan Edwards: Anti-Hero,” wonders, “Did the film’s first audience even question his hatred and desire for murder?” (“Borrow Horses” blog.) Would his attitude towards the Comanches have been considered quite so bad in 1956? It’s food for thought…
6. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007)
None other than Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors of our generation, could have pulled this off. Daniel Plainview is an incredibly complex character; he is incredibly charming but also cold-heartedly ambitious. You want to trust him, but you know you absolutely shouldn’t. He only sees the worst in people and yet, somehow, you know there’s a heart in there. He is perhaps the most odious character on this list, and yet you can’t help but be drawn in as he becomes so corrupt by greed and power that he is driven to solitary madness. No other actor could have successfully achieved this. Day-Lewis’ performance compliments the wonderful writing and Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing, and they (nearly) match his.
5. The Man with No Name in The Dollars Trilogy (1964-66)
Clint Eastwood twice? Damn right! In the case of The Dollars Trilogy, The Man with No Name is a killer. However, he is a killer of killers. Just like other characters on this list and other well-known ones such as TV’s Dexter, it’s hard to find a solid moral standpoint on murderers such as these. What separates The Man with No Name from a lot of other characters, though, is that he hardly possesses any positive traits and we know very little about him. He has no name, no past and no future. All we know is that he knows how to kill and has no problem being the one to shoot first. On the other hand, he is righteous and has a “true code of honour” (FemaleFirst.com, Helen Earnshaw.) Ironically, he also represents “the good” inThe Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He saves a woman who has been held captive because “I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help.” You can’t not like a character like that. He may be neither good nor bad but he’s honourable, which I guess makes him the ideal antihero.
4. Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999)
Tyler Durden is the man that everyone wishes they could be; free from the bonds of society, decency and morality! He’s also hot as all hell and lives in a huge, gothic house on Paper Street. He pretty much becomes a model for God to the rest of Project Mayhem, too! Throughout the film, he makes some incredibly insightful comments on how we have become consumed by capitalism and how “the things you own end up owning you.” He very nearly succeeds in making you scream “Hell yeah!” while you through your plasma TV out the window and run into the wilderness naked. However, the world isn’t ready for that yet (throwing TVs or your nakedness) and Tyler goes about “enlightening” the world in a less-than-constructive manner. He destroys franchises. He intends to blow up the buildings of major credit card companies and cause total chaos. I get his sentiment and I think he is a great character, but there’s no denying that he’s a bit of an ass!
3. D-Fens in Falling Down (1993)
It’s an unusually hot summers day in Los Angeles, and all Willaim “D-Fens” Foster wants to do is make it home for his daughter’s birthday party. On his way, he is overcharged by a convenience store owner, accosted by gang members, refused breakfast at a fast food place because he just missed the menu change-over and has his snow globe broken by a Neo-nazi. D-Fens is an ordinary working man that is one day pushed too damn far! He does what we all wish we could do when society gets to us: he gets even. He becomes a vigilante and becomes increasingly violent as his sanity starts “falling down.” We cannot commend what he does: he isa killer and violent vengeance is never OK. However, he is an incredibly easy character to sympathise with and that is what makes him an ideal anti-hero, because “there is a little D-Fens in all of us.” (“Layman’s Film” by Corey B.)
2. Michael Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy (1972-90)
When it comes to antiheroes, no one plays them better than Al Pacino. As Sonny inDog Day Afternoon, Carlito in Carlito’s Way, Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco and then of course there’s Heat and Scarface. Ever noticed that? He could be an axe-murdering maniac who kills your entire family and you’d still go,” Oh alright then, Al, because it’s you.” One of the things that puts Michael Corleone so high up on this list is that we see his transformation from returning war hero and good boy to calculating and merciless Don of the Corleone crime family. Across three whole films (and not short films, mind) we are shown how his integrity is corrupted and his goodness slowly chipped away until he eventually (SPOILER) dies alone in the garden of a Sicilian villa. Because we are shown every moment of Michael’s descent, we can understand it. “We regret it, but we relate to it” (Lit Reactor, Meredith Borders.)
1. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)
He is number 1 on Total Film’s Antihero list and Corey B called him “the epitome of an antihero” (Layman’s Film.) What makes Travis Bickle such a great antihero is that he is impossible to place. He is not a character that can simply be categorized, but then, surely that makes him all the more real? (SPOILER ALERT) When he goes on a bloody rampage at the film’s climax, is he acting heroically or is he a man whose increasingly-dark and cynical view of society has caused his mind to finally snap? When he goes to the public rally with a concealed weapon, does he really intend to assassinate Senator Palantine? When he shoots the robber in the convenience store, is this meant to be an act of heroism? Travis Bickle is good, bad, insane, heroic…as one character even calls him, “a walking contradiction.” He is Vietnam vet who has returned “caged, unadaptable” and an “outcast” and for that reason he is one of cinema’s “strangest, saddest” antiheroes (AMC Blog, Michael Rowin.)
Via The Script Lab
Written by Ally Sinyard