Examples of unsympathetic, unchanging protagonists in film?
April 26, 2007 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Do you know of any films where the protagonist is not only unsympathetic, repressed, emotionally closed-off, etc, but does not change his personality throughout the course of the film? Bonus points for films based on a real person/story.

I realize this is kind of a tall order because the whole point is to have the protagonist change, have realizations about his self, go through a character arc, etc. The closest thing I can think of is Matt Damon's character in "The Good Shepherd," but even his character has moments of catharsis and change, however slight.

But I really need some examples of films, preferably bio-pics or movies based on true events, where the protagonist is kind of a dick (for whatever reason) and stays that way throughout the course of the film, yet is still compelling, due to his drive, talent, events of his life story etc. Every unsympathetic protagonist I've encountered in film has gone through a major change of character within the course of a film. Help me find the exceptions!
posted by np312 to Media & Arts (85 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Gee, Mike Leigh's "Naked" fits the bill entirely, and the main guy really is a total dick with almost no positive characteristics at all.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:56 PM on April 26, 2007


"Roger Dodger" fits the bill, too. Plus, it's a fun film.
posted by ad_hominem at 4:00 PM on April 26, 2007


I think Citizen Kane fits the bill. He does seem to have deathbed regrets, but there's not much of a repentance.

For some reason, I also think of Capt Jack Sparrow, who consistently treats people like shit, leaving them to die, etc., but he has his moments of heroism, I suppose.

(on preview, yes I said "fits the bill" independently)
posted by knave at 4:02 PM on April 26, 2007


Would hardboiled noir protagonists count? They often don't change much at all, although I guess they're more cynical than really unpleasant.

What about horror movies with the killer as the protagonist (like Peeping Tom?) Too evil?
posted by lemuria at 4:02 PM on April 26, 2007


The French Connection - The main character, Popeye (Gene Hackman), is pretty much a dick the whole time. And it's based on true events.
posted by falconred at 4:09 PM on April 26, 2007


Hmm, the character of Chad in 'The Company of Men' is pretty unapologetic. I'm not sure he's the chief protagonist, but he's certainly a key character.
posted by elendil71 at 4:09 PM on April 26, 2007


I think horror films and noir films are a bit off-track of what I'm looking for-- I should have specified character-based films, where the protagonist himself (as opposed to the crime he's solving, for example) draws the audience's attention, like in a bio-pic.

I think Jack Sparrow is far too likable a character even though he treats people badly, but Citizen Kane is an interesting idea... That grandeur and sadness... However he did have his Rosebud to balance/illuminate things about the condition of his soul. I guess I'm more looking for characters who lack a "Rosebud." (Good ideas tho, keep them coming!)
posted by np312 at 4:11 PM on April 26, 2007


And for Sci-fi, we cannot dismiss Snake Plisskin, everyone's fave.
posted by elendil71 at 4:12 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Graham in The Young Poisoner's Handbook. This is based on reality.
posted by pieoverdone at 4:12 PM on April 26, 2007


Pollock is somewhat like that, as far as I can recall.
posted by jimmythefish at 4:13 PM on April 26, 2007


Kevin Spacey's character in Swimming with Sharks.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:16 PM on April 26, 2007


How about Pi? Maybe Raging Bull? Dunno.
posted by phaedon at 4:18 PM on April 26, 2007


You already mentioned Matt Damon... Tom Ripley was a bit of an asshole right to the end.
posted by BorgLove at 4:20 PM on April 26, 2007


Though you could argue there is one scene of self-reflection/self-pity, Jake LaMotta's arrogance and violence is pretty consistent throughout Raging Bull. On preview, I second phaedon.
posted by annaramma at 4:25 PM on April 26, 2007


Napoleon Dynamite? (And I say this as a nerd: I fucking hated that guy.)

I never saw it, but from what I know of the man Cobb probably comes pretty close to what you're looking for.

And since South Park was made into a movie, you've got Eric Cartman.
posted by Cyrano at 4:25 PM on April 26, 2007


Mel Gibson in Payback?
posted by jtfowl0 at 4:26 PM on April 26, 2007


I found Gael Garcia Bernal's character to be extremely pathetic and self-absorbed, beginning to end, in The Science of Sleep.
posted by OpinioNate at 4:29 PM on April 26, 2007


Memento?
posted by Addlepated at 4:30 PM on April 26, 2007


The main character in Godard's Masculin Feminin.
posted by nasreddin at 4:30 PM on April 26, 2007


Aguirre, Wrath of God features someone who just gets worse and worse. Actually, that's true in just about every Werner Herzog movie.
posted by serazin at 4:33 PM on April 26, 2007


Mommie Dearest?
posted by lalex at 4:36 PM on April 26, 2007


Tentatively: American Psycho?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:37 PM on April 26, 2007


I haven't seen Willard, but from what I've read it may fit the bill.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:39 PM on April 26, 2007


george and martha?
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 4:41 PM on April 26, 2007


I think Versus fits pretty well from what I can remember.
posted by puke & cry at 4:41 PM on April 26, 2007


I second "Roger Dodger". Also thought of "American Psycho".
posted by lubujackson at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2007


I found both leads in Sideways exactly as described.
posted by nerdcore at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2007


In that recent film about Truman Capote (there were two released at almost the same time, and I can't remember which I saw), he was just as whiny and self-centered at the end as he was at the beginning. (Certainly, he was portrayed as having gone through a certain amount of personal change, but the overall portrayal was not very sympathetic.)
posted by Forktine at 4:43 PM on April 26, 2007


Without a doubt, Hud fits the bill. Great movie, too.
posted by dhammond at 4:46 PM on April 26, 2007


Roger Dodger is a great example.
posted by fire&wings at 4:48 PM on April 26, 2007


Seconding Pollock.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:49 PM on April 26, 2007


The Libertine. Just dreadful but a spot-on example of what you are looking for.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:52 PM on April 26, 2007


i just saw the machinist, and that definitely has what you're talking about.
posted by alkupe at 4:54 PM on April 26, 2007


Does Lili Taylor's character in I Shot Andy Warhol fit the bill? I remember her character being pretty much completely unlikable from beginning to end.
posted by arha at 4:59 PM on April 26, 2007


A Beautiful Mind? He's not really a dick, but is mentally ill and unapproachable.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:00 PM on April 26, 2007


Un Coeur en Hiver might work for you.
posted by JanetLand at 5:00 PM on April 26, 2007


Godzilla.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 5:02 PM on April 26, 2007


The Exterminator.
posted by Kirklander at 5:04 PM on April 26, 2007


I'm sorry. I meant to say The Exterminator 2.
posted by Kirklander at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2007


Croupier.
posted by jbickers at 5:06 PM on April 26, 2007


Seconding Croupier, great example. That movie permanently put me off Clive Owen.
posted by arha at 5:12 PM on April 26, 2007


Taxi Driver?
posted by crabintheocean at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2007


Ty Cobb in Cobb

Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.

James Bond.
posted by The World Famous at 5:23 PM on April 26, 2007


American Splendor? (except for the unsympathetic part)
posted by Pacheco at 5:25 PM on April 26, 2007


Seconding Chad in "In the Company of Men." Narcissistic, sadistic, cold and closed-off, and not only does he not change, you don't really realize just how awful he is until the end of the film.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:32 PM on April 26, 2007


There's a main character in "Kids" who remains a real turd all the way through the film, and might be what you are wanting.

The main character in the French film "Innocence" is exactly what you are looking for -- his lack of affect is really creepy.

Humbert Humbert in "Lolita" also lacks self-awareness and does not improve. I like the version with Jeremy Irons, but there are other adaptations available.

The title alone of "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer" gives you an idea of the film. I haven't seen it in a long time, though, so I'm not completely sure about whether there are any changes in the protagonist.

Several of the films by Catherine Breillat have aspects of this -- generally female characters who are behaving destructively either to themselves or to others, and displaying very little self-awareness.
posted by Forktine at 5:37 PM on April 26, 2007


The Brown Bunny, or any other Vincent Gallo film.
posted by contraption at 5:38 PM on April 26, 2007


The main guy in Falling Down fits your description pretty well.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 5:45 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Unsympathetic and unchanged? hmmm...

"Man Bites Dog" is a Belgian pseudo-documentary about a film crew following a serial killer around during his "career." Ben is a brilliantly awful monster.

Less well executed, "Natural Born Killers" explores some of the same conflict between the popularity of Mickey and Mallory and heinous nature of their behaviour.

"Chopper" is a bio-pic about Mark "Chopper" Read, an Australian "Stand-Over" man. (a criminal who tortures and robs other criminals). Eric Bana (Chopper) starts out cruel, sly, imprisoned and ignorant and winds up the same way, although he does lose his ears.

Some might argue with me, but I found Jack Nicholson's character in "Five Easy Pieces" to be unsympathetic, and he ran away from everything, again, at the end of the film. He didn't change, but maybe the audience felt sorry for him by the end (I didn't, but that's me).

Oh, and the crazy family in "The Devil's Rejects" is a disgustingly unsympathetic bunch. They don't change much over the course of the film, either. If you get to the end of that movie and aren't thinking, "somebody, shoot them," you probably weren't paying attention to the rest of the film.
posted by Crosius at 5:46 PM on April 26, 2007


I think Roger in "Roger Dodger" does change. I don't think the Roger at the beginning of the movie would have visited his sister's house as he does at the end. At the beginning, he is still upset over his relationship with his father and isn't in contact with his family at all.

I also think Roger realizes that his womanizing ways may not be the way to happiness. I think he does a nice thing by going to Nick's school and making Nick look good in front of the (age-appropriate) girls in the cafeteria. Roger at the beginning wouldn't have done that. I think he's less of a dick at the end.

As to the question, I can't believe I'm admitting to having seen this, but in the movie Party Monster the 2 main characters are awful people all the way through. It's a biopic.
posted by bluefly at 5:48 PM on April 26, 2007


The two that come most readily to mind are Jason Statham's character in Crank and Mark Wahlberg's in The Departed.

But then, that's probably because I've watched both fairly recently.

On closer look, you said 'repressed', so that probably doesn't totally fit Crank, bit I think the 'bit of a dick' part still could make it work.
posted by quin at 6:07 PM on April 26, 2007


the anthony hopkins character in 'remains of the day?'
posted by brandz at 6:23 PM on April 26, 2007


Humbert Humbert in "Lolita" also lacks self-awareness and does not improve. I like the version with Jeremy Irons, but there are other adaptations available.

Other versions? There's another one besides one you mentioned and the Kubrick version (which I much prefer)?

Maybe I'm abnormal, but I have great sympathy for both Humbert and Kane (in Citizen Kane). They have horrible traits, but they're still vulnerable and, in some ways, likable.

But if we forget about that, we can add some other Kubrick films to the list. I don't think any of his characters are completely unsympathetic, but they are certainly anti-heroes who don't redeem themselves. I'm thinking of Redmond in "Barry Lyndon", Alex in "A Clockwork Orange", Jack in "The Shining" and Johnny in "The killing."
posted by grumblebee at 6:29 PM on April 26, 2007


Wow. I thought Hopkin's character was one of the most sympathetic I'd ever seen! And he does go through a change at the end.
posted by grumblebee at 6:30 PM on April 26, 2007


yes, I was going to suggest Hopkins in Remains of the Day. He's not a dick, but he is very repressed and emotionally unavailable, and he is unable or unwilling to change that.
posted by deadcowdan at 6:34 PM on April 26, 2007


Peeping Tom
posted by rhizome at 6:38 PM on April 26, 2007


Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate. Wikipedia describes his character as "odious."
posted by hooray at 6:41 PM on April 26, 2007


seconding Memento
posted by unSane at 6:44 PM on April 26, 2007


Dirty Harry? Actually probably a lot of Clint Eastwood movies would fit, but at least Dirty Harry is (sort of) based on real events.
posted by yellowlightman at 6:55 PM on April 26, 2007


Johnny Depp in Secret Window?
posted by AlliKat75 at 6:58 PM on April 26, 2007


Seconding Falling Down. Also, though I haven't seen them, I am guessing both Garfield movies.
posted by one_bean at 7:06 PM on April 26, 2007


Well first, changing is part of the definition of the term "protagonist," no?

Second, I don't think that Roger Dodger is the protagonist of that film at all - his nephew is.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:29 PM on April 26, 2007


In Le Temps Qui Reste:

Romain, a 31-year-old homosexual photographer, finds out he is terminally ill and has only three months to live. He rejects the treatment for his brain cancer that might offer him a slim chance of survival.

Romain exhibits both a selfishness and a recklessness. He realizes that his good looks give him a certain amount of leeway and he tests the forbearance of the people who care for him. He chases away his lover Sasha and delights in antagonizing his sister. The only person in whom he confides about his illness is his grandmother Laura.
posted by catburger at 7:30 PM on April 26, 2007


Seconding Hud. It came to mind immediately upon reading your question.
posted by modernpoverty at 8:12 PM on April 26, 2007


1. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and the dozen other Lecter-movies. (That character being kind of based on every serial killer ever...)

2. Eraserhead. (Which is only based on whatever bizarness David Lynch was smoking in film school...)
posted by emmatwofour at 8:47 PM on April 26, 2007


"Roger Dodger" fits the bill

I disagree. Others I've talked to side with you but I believe Roger's behaviour changes rather drastically spoilers when Huston leaves him. Everything he does after that is a reaction to her giving him the boot. Not a traditional arc but he is not a constant. end of spoilers

The French Connection

Again, I disagree. I think it's implied in the final shots that he's a different man.

Without a doubt, Hud fits the bill.

Again, I disagree. Not a traditional arc but he's certainly changed by the events in the film. Look at the way he treats Patricia Neal before and after.

or any other Vincent Gallo film.

He's only made 2 (if you're talking directing) and he definitely changes in the first.

Five Easy Pieces is the best suggestion in the thread, imo. It's what I came in to suggest.

Others:

possibly Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge (depending on your interpretation of the beginning)--certainly not a traditional arc.

Hombre, if you consider Russell the main character.

My memory may be wrong but Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy might fit--the lead from After Hours may also fit.

Most anyone in any Michael Haneke movie would also fit.
posted by dobbs at 8:54 PM on April 26, 2007


Arrgh. I meant Rossellini not Huston.
posted by dobbs at 8:55 PM on April 26, 2007


mp312, essentially what you're looking for are 1 or 2 act films. You'd be hard pressed to find a 3 act film where the protaganist doesn't change.

George and Martha is a really interesting suggestion. Every time I think, 'True' my brain disagrees. Repeat.
posted by dobbs at 9:00 PM on April 26, 2007


Maybe Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation"

Sort of a non-interesting average guy who starts out sad and boring, does a few things that make him seem a bit unsavoury, a few things that make him seem a bit nice, but essentially, he's just adrift for the whole film, which ends with the character's revealed plusses and minuses more or less equal.

Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte was definitely the sympathetic character, not Bill Murray's Bob Harris.
posted by Crosius at 10:55 PM on April 26, 2007


I can't think of any movies that haven't already been suggested, but how about a TV series? House is a pretty big jerk

reg
posted by legotech at 10:57 PM on April 26, 2007


But he's a sympathetic jerk - people care about him.

Still, it's a good point - situational shows can't have the characters grow too much, or the programmes dynamic changes and you've got a new show.
posted by Crosius at 11:03 PM on April 26, 2007


Pefume. Baby Face.
posted by brujita at 11:18 PM on April 26, 2007


Got another one - Paul Bettany's character in "Gangster No. 1"

It's very hard to sympathise with a character who tortures and kills a man with a hatchet as a gambit to get in tight with the boss.

Every other character in the film (who doesn't die) turns away from their crime-filled past, but the protagonist angrily refuses to change.
posted by Crosius at 11:28 PM on April 26, 2007


Jack Nicholson in About Schmit?
posted by salmacis at 2:14 AM on April 27, 2007


Humbert Humbert in "Lolita" also lacks self-awareness and does not improve. I like the version with Jeremy Irons, but there are other adaptations available.

Other versions? There's another one besides one you mentioned and the Kubrick version (which I much prefer)?


My bad -- I thought there was a third, but IMDB agrees with you (well, except for a rather long list of sexploitation films using "Lolita" in the title). Honestly, I prefer the book.
posted by Forktine at 3:39 AM on April 27, 2007


Not a biopic, but The Rachael Papers is
horrid. Based on a Martin Amis novel. Neither the movie, nor the book give you the resolution you feel the protagonist deserves.

Seconding the Ty Cobb movie.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:45 AM on April 27, 2007


From tv - Dr. Gregory House, in 'House'
posted by daveyt at 6:15 AM on April 27, 2007


sorry, missed the above.
posted by daveyt at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2007


Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:37 AM on April 27, 2007


Patton
posted by kirkaracha at 7:39 AM on April 27, 2007


Patch Adams.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:56 AM on April 27, 2007


Please don't tell me I'm the only person who thought Andy Kaufman was a real jerk.

Though it's a very liberal interpretation of 'biopic', Malkovich's F. W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire seems to meet your requirements.

Alan Dershowitz as portrayed by Ron Silver: cold and emotionally unavailable, consumed by his work, unconcerned with truth, impenetrable, judgmental, usury, and unchanging.

Though I've not confirmed it, I have heard that Dead Ringers is loosely based on a true story (though it was definitely a twisted novel), and those guys only got worse throughout the film.

Also, Orson Welles as portrayed by Liev Schreiber. Only changes at the end if comeuppance counts.
posted by zebra3 at 9:00 AM on April 27, 2007


I'll put a word on for Paul Schrader's Affliction; both the main characters, father (James Coburn) and son (Nick Nolte), are compelling and unpleasant (although perhaps not wholly unsympathetic).
posted by hydatius at 12:01 PM on April 27, 2007


I'm a little late to the discussion, but I thought I'd recommend Le Samouraï. Alain Delon's character is a rather taciturn hitman who completes his tasks with near clockwork perfection. The film has very little dialogue and only a couple instances of gunfire, but is at its heart a neo-noir film. The ending, which can be open to multiple interpretations, is the only part of the movie that could be seen as a major change of character with the protagonist.
posted by shoseph at 11:29 AM on May 1, 2007


And I'm very late to the discussion, but...

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo's character) in Breathless. A liar and very juvenile, so...emotionally stunted, rather than closed-off, I guess.

Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Also emotionally stunted.

Georges (Daniel Auteil's character) in Cache (Hidden). Repressed, emotionally closed-off, doesn't really change much.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:24 AM on September 3, 2007


« Older Business plan authoring services?   |   Vegetables are DELICIOUS. Just like baby animals. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.