One of the trickiest things for a movie to pull off is the derailment of the narrative at the hands of a character we barely get any time with. We’re trucking along with a hero we like, and some plucky upstart with only a few lines of dialogue changes the game completely.
It seems deeply unfair, like young Bruce Wayne enjoying his delightfully privileged upbringing when a guy with a gun in an alleyway puts all of that to an end, launching a deep psychosis and a billion-dollar franchise. Tellingly, Tim Burton and company proved they couldn’t handle the random nature of the situation when they turned that grinning alley guy into The Joker. It’s closure we didn’t even know we needed.
Since embodying raw chance is a difficult job, it’s amazing when a movie uses it as an advantage, launches the story with it or hides it so thoroughly that we don’t even recognize how powerful a day player was. It can also be a powerful tool in seeing how the protagonist deals with the roadblock. Some rise to the occasion, others fall off the cliff, and still others grab their toys and go home.
5. The Helpful Policeman from Psycho
A perfect example of both inciting action and derailing everything, the Highway Patrolman played by Mort Mills in Psycho is solely responsible for Marion Crane going to the Bates Motel.
She falls asleep in her car after a long post-theft haul, and when the cop wakes her up for a nerve-wracking interrogation, he suggests helpfully that she sleep at the super safe motel up the road instead of on the shoulder. It’s the world’s worst advice, and things get stabby really quick.
It’s enough to make you wonder what the cop thought when he learned about the murders on the news and realized what he’d offhandedly sent this woman to her doom.
Marion isn’t exactly the standard type we’d cheer for, but Hitchcock masterfully puts us on her side through his camera’s gaze. We’re worried she’s going to get caught, so when she clears the policeman’s questions, his suggestion of a motel seems like a bonus bit of protection and safety. Probably the most shocking bait and switch of all time (remember when you thought the $40,000 MacGuffin would matter?), none of the movie’s story would happen if that damned cop hadn’t been trying to help out that damsel in distress.
In an alternate movie universe, the cop says nothing, Marion drives right past the Bates Motel and surprises Sam like she planned.
4. Tom Savini in Dawn of the Dead
Some people just wanna watch the world burn.
After Roger, Peter, Francine and Stephen cleverly escape Philadelphia, dodge a suspiciously large-headed zombie and create a mall wonderland through hard work and ingenuity, Tom Savini and his leather-bound pals destroy everything.
I’m not even sure what their long game was with this one. The gang populated by unnamed Motorcycle Raider after Motorcycle Raider breaks all the zombie barriers on their way in, so using the structure as a hideout isn’t in the cards, and they enjoy almost zero of the spoils as they’re gunned down or bitten to death. It’s a completely pointless exercise that serves only to fuck over the people who have sacrificed to create a safe environment in which to give birth.
It would have been even more serious if the original suicide ending had stayed. Imagine that you’re doing the best you can under apocalyptic circumstances when some hooligans bust up your sanctuary just so they can steal your tennis rackets. It’s almost as frustrating as surviving a night filled with undead monsters only to be killed by still-living racist rednecks.
Of course Zombie Patient Zero — a truly minor character that we never even get to meet in most movies — is the one who really blows it for all of humanity. Still, Savini is a pretty big bastard here.
3. The Sirens From O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers’ romp through Depression Era Mississippi is a series of brief encounters that shoot the heroes off in different directions, but the Sirens are the most minor of side characters, and they do the most damage. After one song (that they’re not even singing), they split up the trio, leaving Pete to get whipped, nearly killed and sent back to the prison farm with another half century of jail time added to his sentence.
Their witchery also convinces Delmar that Pete’s been turned into a toad, paving the way for a tree limb beating and earning devastation when the little warty thing is crushed. The whole mess is a serious obstacle that leads to the lowest point of an otherwise breezy adventure. Instead of scheming to get his wife back, Everett has to go rescue Pete which gets them in a fight with the KKK (naturally) and puts the team at their wits’ end.
Of course, the store manager who doesn’t carry Dapper Dan is a close second for the film’s worst minor villain.
2. The Doctor From Fight Club
Valerian root? Healthy natural sleep? Seeing dudes with testicular cancer to provide some introspective context? Great diagnosis, doc. If you had just given the narrator some damned Ambien like he wanted, a bunch of credit card company buildings wouldn’t have blown up, and Meatloaf would still be alive.
It might have also been great if you had spotted the clinical psychosis slumping over in front of you. Or, at the very least, recognized that the guy with black eyes from not sleeping had a serious issue instead of smugly shooing him out of the room so you could take a smoke break.
Jack’s Somber Voice Over may have had some genuine issues to work through, but with some real sleep medication, the narrator would have gotten on a normal schedule and Tyler Durden would have never gotten to rear his ugly, bald head.
1. The Cat Lady From The Wizard of Oz
First of all, yes, it’s a list with both Fight Club and The Wizard of Oz.
Secondly, who brings a cat to a hot air balloon launch?
One of the only aggravating things about Dorothy’s adventure in Oz is that she had the ability to return safely home as soon as she snags the ruby slippers from the dead witch feet. That’s the kind of information you’d like to have before walking 500 miles and risking certain death just to help out the leader of a country who was a jackass to you.
That irritating lesson is the only reason why Dorothy and the man behind the curtain don’t sail away into the clear blue sky at the end, and to get her out of the balloon that could have been her salvation, the production included a strategically placed cat lady in the crowd.
Again, a woman brought a cat to a public gathering.
Naturally, Toto chases after the cat (sort of proving that Miss Gulch was right to want to cart him off at the beginning), ruining everything and stranding Dorothy in the world she’d been trying to escape for two hours. Luckily there’s a Pink Bubble Ex Machina ready to explain that Dorothy could have woken up a long time ago.
But without those shoes, our hero would have been trapped. And that’s why you don’t bring a cat to a public event, people.