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10 great antiheroes


Charles Foster Kane proves money and good intentions do not a hero make.

There’s nothing I love more than a really sneaky, unpredictable, hateful and delightfully ee-viyill* villain. Unless we’re talking about antiheroes. And if we are, well, that’s a horse — or should I say jackass? — of an entirely different color.

Few things are more intriguing than characters who do that wavering, drunken dance on the line between good and bad and seem to stumble onto both sides equally at random. Those are the people, the warts-and-all sorts, we root for because they are human in their imperfections. They are us, and us real-life dwellers can’t seem to resist seeing a bit of ourselves magnified and flung up on the silver screen.

Here’s a list of 10 antiheroes who’ve made me laugh, cry and feel guilty about liking them (just a tiny bit):

1. Charles Foster Kane, “Citizen Kane” — There are many who would argue that Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is most certainly a champion of the common man. Look again. Whatever good Kane achieves, there’s always an ulterior motive lurking in the corner: greed, the desire for control, arrogance. His ability to wrap these flaws in the cloak of good intentions makes him the quintessential, iconic antihero.

2. Alex, “A Clockwork Orange” — C.F. Kane may be an antihero for the ages, but Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the focus of Stanley Kubrick’s highly disturbing “A Clockwork Orange,” is nipping right at his heels. Or pointing a gun to the back of his head, more like. A rakehell who swigs drugged milk and patrols the streets of futuristic Britain raping women and revelling in mayhem — what’s to like about a guy like this? Alex has a few redeeming qualities that nudge him away from “villain,” but not so many that they make him good. He’s an antihero for the annals.


There are nicer people than Dee Dee -- we call them "losers."

3. Dee Dee Truitt, “The Opposite of Sex” — When a narrator describes her mother as “a loser bitch” and seduces her gay brother’s boy toy, you know you’re not in for a heart-warming tale. Savage wit, anything-but-good intentions and snarky condescension are all we get from the unflappable Dee Dee Truitt (Christina Ricci), one of the pluckiest, snidest and most irresistible characters ever created.

4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity” — What can you say about a bitter, broke leading man (John Cusack) so self-absorbed he’d rather stew about failed relationships than pay attention to the woman who loves him? It wouldn’t be incorrect to use words like “conceited jerk” or even “rampaging jackass” to describe Rob, a record store owner who elevates wallowing in self pity into an art. He’s not a nice guy, or even a halfway decent one, but that’s exactly why he’s such a compelling character.

5. Lester Burnham, “American Beauty” — Kevin Spacey has made a great and acclaimed career out of playing himself playing people who, uh, seem a whole lot like Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham, a lumpish, discontent and disengaged spectator in his own life, is no exception, but he is one of the sharpest characters Spacey’s put his sarcastic stamp on. When Lester finally jolts out of his coma, we’re cheering his efforts to embrace life. Or least buy a dime bag.

5. Danny Balint, “The Believer” — “Conflicted” hardly begins to describe Danny (Ryan Gosling, fearless in his quest to take difficult parts), a violent young man who turns on his Jewish upbringing to become a fiercely antisemitic KKK member. And herein lies the contradiction: Brutish as he is, Danny’s also an educated man capable of kindness and intelligent, rational thought. It’s hard to like a character like this, but it’s equally as hard not to find him truly fascinating. 

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

Good and bad do battle in Gerd Wiesler.

6. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, “The Lives of Others” — Nations that call themselves “Democratic Republics” tend to be anything but, so it seems that a man (Ulrich Mühe) who rises through the ranks of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, would qualify as a villain. But the rigid, grim Gerd Wiesler finds humanity in the couple he’s ordered to survail, and soon his own humanity emerges.

7. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” — It’s no secret I’m mad for Joaquin Phoenix in most anything, but resistance is futile when he plays men like the manipulative, shrewd and morally flexible Ray Elwood, who tolerates other people only as long as he can use them for something. He’s a real cad, to be sure, though there are moments where flashes of real feeling peek through, and those keep us coming back for more.

8. Sherry, “SherryBaby” — As a rule Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t sign on for parts that have less than 37 layers of complexity, but she outdoes herself here as Sherry, a fresh-out-of-prison ex-heroin addict working to get custody of the daughter she hasn’t seen in years. She’s rude, immature, brash, selfish and confrontational, and her love for her daughter is tainted by a sense of entitlement — Sherry’s hardly her child’s beacon of hope. Yet we cannot write her off because she sees herself clearly and tries, in her small way, to change. That’s my kind of woman: a real one.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

The only thing Bernie's good at? Losing. Hard.

9. Bernie Lootz, “The Cooler” — Look up synonyms for “pathetic” in Merriam-Webster and you’ll likely find photos of Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) beside every single word. He’s unlucky to a fault, and what’s worse is that his bad luck is contagious — so much so that casino bosses use him to “cool off” gamblers on a hot streak. Yikes. There are many moments where you wonder what there is to like about this wimpy, hapless sadsack, but it all boils down to Macy, who plays Bernie as a man who accepts his faults and means well. Sometimes, that’s enough. 

10. Dawn Weiner, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — Todd Solondz doesn’t really people his movies with “happy,” or even marginally cheery, characters, but Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) may be a new low even for the guy who made “Happiness.” Dawn’s a clueless nerd, the target of frequent and vicious bullying, which might endear her to us if she weren’t so dismally dull, whiny and downright cruel. She’s the girl you feel sorry for, No. 3 on this list might say, “but in real life you wouldn’t be sitting next to her either.”

*Hedley Lamar-approved pronunciation
Honorable mentions: Luke (“Cool Hand Luke”); Miles (“Sideways”); Jim McAllister (“Election”); Ruth (“Citizen Ruth”)

18 Responses

  1. Nice call with the William H. Macy character from ‘The Cooler’. I remember seeing that movie a while ago, but I have fond memories of it. It’s not a film many people saw (I think), so good job giving it some love in your list.

    • William H. Macy is the ultimate antihero in almost anything, although he got to try his hand at action in “Jurassic Park 3.”

  2. Great list. Buffalo Soldiers is one of the most underrated films of recent years. More people really should see it.

    • Yes! I do enjoy a regular dose of Joaquin Phoenix, but “Buffalo Soldiers” is just a great film on its own.

  3. Uggh! You so beat me to the punch! I have this one outlined and was planning it for this week or next weeks.

    Nice call on Lester Burnham. Probably one of my favorite characters of all time and Spacey is riveting as him. American Beauty was an amazing film but Lester set the mood, and his life was what really resonated with me.

    And Fandango, you’re right. I haven’t seen that film in years and forgot about it! What an atrocity on my part!

    • Sorry Heather! Blame reeltoreel … mentioned Alex as an antihero and that sent me off on my tangent. Lester is one of the great antiheroes as far as I’m concerned — though I don’t love “American Beauty,” I loved Kevin Spacey in it. He was born to play that part.

  4. That’s an interesting list, I have thought about doing a list such as this, but have never completed the challenge…

    If I were to do one, my number 1 would be Luke, from Cool Hand Luke…

    He’s certainly a great example of an anti-hero, not to mention, the first time I heard the term anti-hero, was from a professor who used Luke as an example. So when I hear the term anti-hero, that’s automatically where my mind goes.

    • You know, I almost had him in there, and then I went with Bernie Lootz from “The Cooler.” Maybe I felt like Luke has gotten enough love over the years … but he’s definitely a great antihero, though many people might call him a hero (wrong). He has as many unlikable qualities as he has good ones.

  5. I love the “Hedley Lamarr-approved pronunciation” note. I watched “Blazing Saddles” a little while back and forgot how funny it is. No one makes movies like Mel Brooks anymore, unfortunately.

    I think I’ve watched Dom DeLuise chewing out the queens doing “The French Mistake” about 100 times in the past week or so.
    “WRONG!!! It’s so simple!!”

    • “Blazing Saddles” has colored my view of the world in many ways, but the most irreversible one is my inner pronunciation of the word “evil.” Every time I heard someone say it or I read it, I flash back to Hedley’s “repeat after me” scene. All the answers to life’s questions, I think, could be found in this or any of Mel Brooks’ movies.

      Fun fact: He shares my birthday. How awesome is that?

  6. […] M. Carter @ The Movies beat me to the punch here(here’s her Anti-Heros list), but I’ve had a draft sitting for a couple months unable to narrow my favorite Anti-Heroes […]

  7. LOVE that you included Bernie from The Cooler in your list!

    • Thanks, Jim. William H. Macy is my man, so I could not, in good conscience, leave out one of my favorite characters he ever played! Bernie’s a pathetic sadsack, but I love him anyway.

      Also: This is your first comment on my blog. Yippee! Come back soon.

  8. Interesting list. Good to see The Lives of Others on there.

    • One of the best movies ever made, and Gerd Wiesler is one of the most unforgettable characters.

  9. […] does so beautifully, first and foremost, is create a vivid, layered, flawed protagonist – the ultimate antihero — and populate his world with the people who believe they know him but, in the end, know […]

  10. […] M. Carter @ The Movies beat me to the punch here(here’s her Anti-Heroes list), but I’ve had a draft sitting for a couple months unable to narrow my favorite Anti-Heroes […]

  11. Great to see Alex from Clockwork Orange appear on this list Meredith. Very eclectic bunch of movies. I’d have Travis Bickle in my favourites though.

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