At first glance, the term “anti-hero” may seem oxymoronic or nonsensical: You’re either a hero or you’re not. But what do we do about those characters we root for — and feel guilty about it? They’re unconventional heroes, ones who have the courage of their convictions — magnetically so — even if those convictions are disturbing, extreme or downright deranged. Here are the ten anti-heroes who make us most uncomfortable in our empathy.
10. “Snake” Plissken (Escape From New York , 1981)
High concept schlock director John Carpenter, hammy action star Kurt Russell and a dystopic future with Manhattan as a giant prison island? This is the adolescent fantasy realm of “Snake” Plissken, a foul-mouthed, swashbuckling (he even wears an eye patch, for crying out loud) convict who does good only as long as he’s paid for it. Russell plays “Snake” with a whisper-voiced, head-rocking cockiness culled from a thousand comic book tough guys.
9. Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999)
If Brad Pitt’s charismatic, I-don’t-give-a-bleep anarchist in Fight Club seems like a fantasy vision of what every pent-up, neutered American male wishes he could be, that’s because he is. He’s the anti-hero alter ego of Edward Norton’s nameless hero (got that?), a spokesman for destruction of the self. He’s also out to demolish the system whose secret fight clubs — an outlet for frustrated men who wish to cathartically unleash their rage — turn increasingly insane and unjustifiable. How long do we wish to follow this grunge dandy rebel?
8. Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941)
The title character of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, played by 25-year-old Welles himself, shifts from towering symbol of the American Dream to all-too-human destroyer of everything, sometimes within the same scene. He’s the most pitiable of anti-heroes — the love of the people closest to him is among the carnage left in his wake, and all his accrued power as newspaper baron and would-be political player can’t make up for the beloved sled of his truncated childhood.
7. Jack Carter (Get Carter, 1971)
The British answer to Dirty Harry stars Michael Caine as Jack Carter, a gangster with only one thing on his bitter, brutal mind: avenging his murdered brother. Caine’s laconic, dead-serious cool and dry wit — “You know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow” — charm us into this criminal’s bleak underworld and relentless sadism, which includes two drug-induced deaths. Never has pure vengeance looked so hip in the movies.
6. Ethan Edwards (The Searchers, 1956)
John Ford’s The Searchers has been called “the super-cult movie of the New Hollywood,” and for good reason — from Michael Corleone to Travis Bickle, many iconic anti-heroes have been modeled on The Searchers‘ protagonist, Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne in his greatest performance. A racist vigilante who spends years tracking down the Comanche who killed his family and kidnapped his niece, Edwards wants revenge at any price, including his own flesh and blood. He embodies American frontier justice at its darkest and most troubling.
5. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967)
Two of American history’s most infamous bandits were perfect fodder for appropriation in the ’60s, when the growing allure of anti-authoritarianism and outlaw adventure made Faye Dunaway’s smoldering Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty’s boyish Clyde Barrow anti-heroes for a new generation of discontented youth. Not a little hagiographic (the real robbers’ cold-bloodied killing is all but erased in the movie), the big screen Bonnie and Clyde are the last romantic couple in a world worse — and less alive — than they are.
4. Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971)
“Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!” Released at the crest of the late ’60s-early’70s counterculture, Dirty Harry unapologetically attacked “soft” liberals who would reason with evil (here incarnated by a psychopathic, murdering hippie) rather than confront it with brutal, not to mention unconstitutional, force. Dirty Harry lets its audience know it can like or hate cold cop Harry, but he’s going to do whatever he damn well pleases to get the job done.
3. Alex (A Clockwork Orange, 1971)
Vicious, immoral, unfeeling except for his love for Beethoven, A Clockwork Orange‘s gang leader is the juvenile delinquent of the future, drawn to “ultra-violence” for the sole purpose of exerting his unhesitating cruelty in the form of theft, rape and murder. Yet cloaked in white jump suit, suspenders, bowler and fake eyelash, Alex, as portrayed with unforgettable gusto by Malcolm MacDowell, also exudes a strange debonairness with the help of one of the slyest, nastiest grins in film history, one that may be a little too magnetic for comfort.
2. Michael Corleone (The Godfather, 1972)
It’s often forgotten, but Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone enters the three-part Godfather saga as the good son — a returning war hero who says of his mafia family, “That’s not me.” The transformation of this independent young man into an even more calculating and merciless version of his Don pop is the heart of the first Godfather‘s Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a resolutely American success story in which a “hero” comes closer to his family out of loyalty only to assume responsibility for it out of the hubris.
1. Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976)
“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Back from Vietnam and making a living steering a cab through the rough New York streets of the mid ’70s, Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickle, one of the actor’s most frighteningly real creations, is the caged, unadaptable outcast whose sensitivity to urban blight manifests as a growing vendetta against the entire world. For this reason, Bickle is our strangest, saddest anti-hero. A one-man mohawked army of delusional fury, Travis’ pathetic rage ironically makes him a hero, but Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese asks us how much we relate to him — and why.
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