Act I: Stay with me on this one:
Below I've included the link to one of my old curated Letterboxd list titled "10 Absolutely Despicable Characters (That I Still Sort of Love)". I recommend you start by checking out that first (be sure to hit the "read notes" button at the top of the post), because I think it's an appropriate warm-up to what I'm about to suggest. Okay, go ahead, read it. I'll wait.
(Note: What is Letterboxd? An interesting, if underutilized, community for cinephiles--excellent if you're trying to get the hang of programming film series, posting film reviews, or simply want to record the films you've been watching)
All finished reading? Good, let’s get started.
Here's my proposal, in a nutshell: our knights in shining armors are dead and gone. Increasingly our so-called "heroes" are only referred to as such because an audience may simply associate the protagonist with the idea of "the hero." In truth, more often than not independent (and, increasingly, mainstream) film are churning out films that overlap "protagonist" and "antagonist."
“Ian, what you're suggesting is nothing revolutionary,” you might say, “cinema has always utilized the anti-hero." Good point, but I think American cinema has moved even beyond the anti-hero. The archetypal anti-hero redeems their flaws by the story's end. Moreover, we rarely used the anti-hero as protagonist, rather employed them more as a supporting character, a deuteragonist, if you will. (Take Blue Velvet’s Isabella Rossellini, or even Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Zuko.) The supporting anti-hero exists to temp and test our hero, before the hero restores balance and, ultimately, the anti-hero as well.
What I'm talking about goes one step beyond the anti-hero: we are now facing films where protagonists are flawed characters without redemption. Last year’s effort from Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine, offers a prime example, and in fact points back to possible origins of this "villain-as-protagonist" trend. If you haven't seen Jasmine yet, get off your hindquarters and do so. Blanchett currently holds the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, and for good reason. Blachett is beyond superb as Jasmine, the alcoholic, delusional, nervous-wreck of a former socialite come to rely on her white-trash sister. In a word, Jasmine is despicable: loveless towards her sister and her nephews, self-absorbed, superficial with her "friends", a compulsive-liar and an alcoholic. And yet, Allen takes clear steps to make the audience sympathize with Jasmine (I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll try to be light on detail here: her husband screws her up BIG time). Well, could it be that perhaps Allen wants us to sympathize with Jasmine so that we celebrate her imminent redemption?
Wrong. Jasmine receives, nor earns, no such second chance. Well then, you might ask, what was all of this for? Why didn't the film focus on, say, Jasmine's well-meaning, hard-working sister?
And here we arrive at my point: we don’t focus on Jasmine’s sister Ginger because that nice, homely sister doesn't interest anyone anymore. When we go to the movies, or read a book (Gone Girl is an awesome example; we’ll get to that more later), we want blood. We want carnage. We want ruin. We want to follow a character that is so despicable we can triumph at their ultimate defeat and misery. And yet, maybe there is an element of self-loathing in this ritual; after all, there were moments where we do sympathize with Jasmine. And thus, her defeat is, in a lesser way, our defeat. A way to keep our narcissism in check. Yet, consider: perhaps, this trend isn’t as new as it seems: perhaps movies have always functioned this way.
Act II: “I told you I’d be back.”
Many critics are calling Jasmine a "spiritual successor" to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, but I say that's being generous to Allen: Blue Jasmine is Streetcar, simply updated to match contemporary vernacular and setting. What does the update imply? Well, it means that Blanchett's Jasmine, while a brilliant characterization for sure, simply stands as an updated version of Vivien Leigh's Blanchett Dubois. Both are despicable; both are sympathetic; and both face horrible ends.
So let's recap: we've moved beyond the hero (who is, with the exception of some superhero movies, very out of place in today's culture), beyond the anti-hero (who is, if anything, today's version of a lightweight-hero), and have adopted the villain as our eyes in a film. Certainly I can't say this is universally applicable (when can you say that about anything?), but I can say that the trend is undeniably growing: in the past two years we’ve had Blue Jasmine, Only God Forgives, Behind the Candelabra, Side Effects, Seven Psychopaths, The Master, and most recently David Fincher’s Gone Girl.
In fact, let’s talk about Gone Girl for a moment, as the release of the film inspired me to revisit the topic of villainy as heroism in film. I think that audiences (not critics, surprisingly) have unfairly reduced the novel as “airport fiction” due to its genre and rampant popularity, but the plain truth is that the work employs eloquent prose, images both ugly and delicately beautiful, and two protagonists with fully fleshed-out psyches. It’s a peach of a piece.
Because of my love for the novel, I’ll admit I had concerns about a movie adaptation, especially due to the novel’s focus on the internal warfare within each character’s mind, arguably the one human thing film isn’t good at portraying. Luckily, I can say that the movie nailed it--everyone in my party thought so, and only one other member had read the book (that’s America for you, folks).
Back to my point: Gone Girl’s leading lady, Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne, is perhaps the best example of my theory. Amazing Amy is one vicious sociopath whose actions you don’t just take pleasure in watching, but that you can sympathize with--her motivations grow from a relatable hurt, the feeling of being cheated (again, no spoilers). Equally, her husband is a shmuck, and the only “redemption” the two receive is mutual life-long entrapment. Ultimately however, their games of cat-and-mouse prove hypnotic, both to read and to watch, because the chases are sensationalized--the two endanger each other for attention, tell their sides of the story with selfishness and unreliability, and alienate themselves from nearly every other person in their lives, and the entire time they remain muscled and beautiful. Amy and Nick Dunne make rotted ethical cores look attractive because they’re superficially a picture of the ideal all-American couple.
Ultimately then, I assert that audiences increasingly have appetites for villainy on screen, and recent film culture has been happy to satiate us. Yet on second glance, audiences may have acquired the taste for bad earlier than in the past two decades: indeed, perhaps we’ve loved to live out our guiltiest pleasures and experience our ultimate destructions vicariously on screen all the way back to 1951 with Streetcar, and wait, even farther back to 1941 with the morally bankrupt, and ultimately alienated Charles Foster Kane.
And how does that define us? As well-dressed savages with delusions of grandeur, bits of sadism, and hints of masochism?
Well, at least we’re well-dressed.
One last note: my key examples of Jasmine and Amy, may lead one to conclude that I have an agenda against women, or that my points only apply to this women. This is simply untrue; I simply picked them because I thought they’d be fun to dissect (and recall that I also briefly looked at Nick Dunne as subject, as well). If you’d like an example of male villains that I believe fall into my criteria: No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski, and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.)