Good movies with bad protagonists (open spoilers)

The thread about The Searchers and Red River has me thinking about good movies with bad protagonists. Bad as in bad people, not badly acted or written. Most stories have main characters you can root for, even if they have flaws. But the main characters in some movies are deliberately awful. Some of these stories have hints of redemption at the end (The Searchers is like this), but occasionally there’s one where the protagonist remains horrible throughout.

One such movie is In the Company of Men. Chad and Howard are truly terrible people throughout the story. The movie is about misogyny and misanthropy, and it sticks with that theme. I believe it would have been a weaker story if either character had redeemed himself.

I’m tempted to say that Sideways is another example. Both Miles and Jack are pretty awful through most of the movie. At the end, though, it looks like Miles may have decided to try to be a better person.

I wouldn’t include Psycho, because Norman Bates isn’t the protagonist. Lila Crane is.

What other such movies are there?

Heh. As it happens, I recently saw a review of THE LAST OF SHEILA note that, hey, hang on a second: who are we supposed to be rooting for, here? I mean, okay, you can make a case that this or that main character is the least bad one, but that’s pretty much it.

Great little flick, though.

Most gangster movies.
In Once Upon a Time in America, James Woods’ character is merely the least evil of the bunch.
In Casino, Robert DeNiro’s character is merely the least evil of the bunch.
In Goodfellas, Ray Liotta’s character is merely the least evil of the bunch.

Many Paul Verhoeven movies.
In Flesh + Blood and Basic Instinct, there are no heroes. Some villains are more charismatic than others.

In Richard III and Macbeth, the good guys are bit parts. The villains are the lead roles.

I think Deathtrap fits.

Chad was the more evil. He conned Howard into the evil plot by pretending to be a jilted boyfriend as well.

At this point Chad, despite having previously told Howard that his girlfriend, Suzanne, had left him, shows Howard that she is still there, asleep in his bed. Chad says that he carried out the plan “because I could,” and cruelly asks Howard how it feels to have truly hurt someone. Howard, who had never done anything like that before, leaves, horrified.

Howard was another victim.

Try European films (yes, I know the qualifier “European” is a simplification, but it’s just more common across the pond). “Trainspotting” comes to mind, where everyone is a useless asshole. Or even better, “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”: they are all bad, no one is good, and who was ugly only the viewer has to decide.

Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole. He plays a cynical reporter who used the story of a mine cave-in to advance his career

The Warner Brothers gangster films documented men who were not sympathetic. The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, White Heat and (the original) Scarface are all about unsympathetic people. There’s no redemption at the end – only death.

It’s a comedy, but The War of the Roses makes the two protagonists nasty people by the end.

The TV show Buffalo Bill had the title character (Dabney Coleman) with no redeeming characteristics.

Maybe it’s a comedy, but at least one of the most bitter comedies made.

Bad Men of Tombstone (1949) – Unusual Western with no good guys.

The Baron of Arizona (1950) – Vin Price stars as swindler James Reavis, who pulls the long con and ends up owning Arizona in the 19th century… for a little while.

Inside Straight (1951) – David Brian is late 19th century ‘Frisco financial whiz Rip MacCool, a total prick (and chump) whose bad character is revealed in flashbacks during a three-million-dollar poker hand.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – PI Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a violent scumbag who solves nothing and gets his friends and associates menaced and/or killed.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – PR man Tony Curtis lacks ethics and integrity as he pursues success with powerful a-hole gossip columnist Burt Lancaster.

The Elegant Brute (1962) – A family of grifters who act like scamming is a family entitlement is out-scammed by the title character, played by gorgeous Ayako Wakao.

The Sword of Doom (1966) – Psychotic master swordsman Tatsuya Nakadai does some very naughty things before going full nutso after watching Toshiro Mifune waste a bunch of dudes.

The Wild Bunch (1969) - Doomed outlaws vs. despicable Mexican Army.

The Last Valley (1971) – Prussian mercenaries take over a German town full of ignorance during the 30 Years War and there is no one to root for (including Omar Shariff as the ineffectual voice of reason).

Michael Caine maybe seems like he’s an acceptable protagonist by dint of appearing opposite Laurence Olivier in SLEUTH, but he’s really just kind of a jerk: he’s sleeping with the other guy’s wife as the movie opens, and so he’s hired a private detective to investigate said other guy; and, when he gets presented with the chance to profit from some insurance fraud, he takes a break from casually badmouthing his customers to make a dishonest buck.

And then things start to spiral way out of control.

Silverado (1985) – Everyone other than Mal and assorted supporting characters is bad to some degree.

The best part about this film - well there are a lot of best parts but the only somewhat decent character, Tommy, is called useless by his girlfriend when he opts to go to Iggy Pop without her and ironically, the only character that doesn’t deserve his fate. Another good one where there are all bad guys is “In Bruges” . Even if there are redemption arcs in the movie, they are at best low-level criminals to world-class thugs, for the most part.

Enemy At The Gates.

I mean, who do we root for - Nazis or Commies? Me, I wish they’d have all killed each other, but Hollywood for some reason (hey, let’s ask Joe McCarthy. He might have an opinion :slight_smile: ) always goes easier on Communist Russia.

I mentioned Unforgiven in the Searchers thread, but a lot of Eastwood’s filmography has bad or downright evil protagonists: Dirty Harry (fascist), Josie Wales (murderer), High Plains Drifter (rapist, murderer, but he had the benefit of being an undead avenger (like The Crow))…

The Godfather series, of course.

Gone with the Wind.

The Wolf of Wall Street. Definitely the protagonist, and definitely bad.

The all-time winner has to be Birth of a Nation. Elsie Stoneman is the only redeemable character, and her fate is up in the air at the end. She may become another victim.

This reminded me of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Caine and Steve Martin both play fairly awful con artists. Plus (spoiled in case anyone hasn’t seen a 33 year old movie):

Glenne Headly, their target, turns out to be a con artist, too.

At that, Caine and Connery were both pretty much dicks in The Man Who Would Be King.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron won the Oscar for Best Actress for it.

It’s about a street prostitute who kills seven of her male clients.

I agree that Howard was a victim, and that he wasn’t as evil as Chad. Still, Howard was a horrible person from beginning to end. He was a weak man with a deep-rooted misogyny who happily took part in a plan to hurt a woman who in no way deserved it. And at the end of the movie Howard had still learned nothing. His final encounter with Christine shows that he still had a sense of entitlement and victimhood when it comes to women.

Bad Santa is another. Willie is horrible from beginning to end (as are Marcus and Gin). By the end of the movie, Willie has found a sense of purpose in life by beating the crap out of a kid.