Culture Warrior: The Allure of Horrible Protagonists

Culture WarriorWarning: This article contains spoilers for Young Adult, Shame, and The Descendants.

2011’s holiday movie season ended the year with a barrage of relatively conventional heroes. From Ethan Hunt saving the world from yet another MacGuffin to Sherlock Holmes solving an additional mystery to a cyberpunk and a journalist battling wealthy Swedish career-misogynist neo-Nazis, December was packed with varied iterations of good triumphing over its clearly delineated evil opposition.

In contrast, the holiday season’s slate of smaller-scale filmmaking brought forth several protagonists who function in strict contrast to your conventional hero. These protagonists are (decidedly) so toxic, broken, unheroic, and even unlikeable that they can’t even be deemed antiheroes. These characters (to varying degrees of success) challenge the assumed connection that filmic convention makes between the “main character” and the “film itself” by presenting protagonists who don’t triumph over adversity, who don’t fight or win a “good” battle, and who frankly don’t warrant an act of rooting.

These protagonists trip up an oft-unquestioned notion conditioned by cinematic tradition: that films should serve as a means of rooting for a clearly demarcated, pre-telegraphed, unassailable idea of goodness. These are three protagonists that we aren’t often asked to spend ninety minutes with.

Mavis Gary in Young Adult

Charlize Theron’s Mavis is an enduringly superficial grown-up adolescent whose delusional sense of self-importance seems to have arisen entirely from a myth she’s constructed around herself in her hometown of Mercury, MN as a success story living a life of luxury, celebrity, and big-city knowhow in the “Mini-Apple.” Young Adult follows a narrative familiar to many who have left their own small town for somewhere bigger and, by arbitrary association, “better” (a connection guided by the idea that population has a more direct intrinsic relationship with being “part” of “something”).

It’s appropriate that Young Adult received a holiday release, for that means many migrants in their 20s and 30s will see the film in their own Mercury. What Young Adult accomplishes quite devastatingly is pulling the veil away from Mavis’s (and her archetype’s) sense of entitlement and cultural distinction that her prodigal status ostensibly warrants. She finds out that the people of her hometown do not necessarily envy her life, but pity her, and her ignorance of this is part of the same delusion that allowed her to think she could steal her high school sweetheart away from his wife and daughter simply through her big city will.

I struggled with the ending of Young Adult for awhile, thinking it gestured toward a slight and convenient attempt at redemption for a character who needs a lot more help in order to change, but upon reflection it’s become clear that her “return to the Mini-Apple” and her act of leaving Mercury one last time fully situates Mavis back where we began with her. Even if a neighborhood party full of Mercureans tell her how sorry they feel for her single, childless, unfulfilled life, it only takes is one misguided soul who tells her how pretty she is for Mavis to return full-force to her self-destructive delusion. But perhaps most cynically of all, Young Adult never offers a third option between Mercury and the Mini-Apple.

Brandon Sullivan in Shame

Michael Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is something of a cipher. As a full-time sex addict, he simply seems to exist without context or history. Sure, it would have been cheap for the film to simplistically justify his sex addiction through, say, an abuse story, but that we don’t even know his history with his own sister, who plays a massive role in the film, gives Shame a minimalist approach to character tied with its quiet approach to style (both of these aspects stand in sharp contrast to Steve McQueen’s dynamic and historically specific first film Hunger).

Like Mavis, Brandon has two-sided life: the visible, “outside” life he has constructed for himself, and a sad private life, this one being sex addiction taken to eleven. The very attractive Fassbender is well chosen here, for (as in the sexual dynamic of Fish Tank), his looks make his conduct not seem as creepy or troubling at first. Take the first subway scene with the married woman for example, which begins as a quiet but enthralling exchange of looks, but then quickly morphs into something a bit more sinister as Brandon exits the train. His quick morph from flirtation to stalking complicates what may or may not have actually been happening. Though Shame is a decidedly un-sexy film, Fassbender is seductive enough on the surface to sell a truly unlikeable human being. Would anybody see Shame if the protagonist were ugly?

Similarly to Young Adult, Shame plants seeds of suggested redemption that are not followed up on for what is essentially an unredeemable character. The prospect of a real relationship quickly ends when feelings mix with sex, so our protagonist sinks to what is aesthetically presented as “the bottom,” from which convention tells us there is only one way left to go. That the climactic descent for Brandon consists of gay oral sex followed by an orgy at a brothel is a strange distinction – on Shame’s moral compass, how is this “worse” than sex depicted earlier with a classy, straight, solitary prostitute? The only valuable answer I can surmise is that no distinction exists. The notion that he has hit rock bottom is a false one – he’s only continuing a cycle that ostensibly existed well before the film’s timeline began. The film’s “ambiguous” ending insinuates that there are several things that can happen with the woman on the train. However, only one option makes sense.

Matt King in The Descendants

The Descendants represents the closest that these three films get to a conventional narrative arc of a broken character’s redemption, and is arguably Alexander Payne’s most traditional and predictable character arc to date. What characterizes Payne’s best work is his ability to make us empathize with antiheroes who we are given critical distance to through his incisive and modest-yet-quirky film style. George Clooney‘s Matt King seems oddly disparate in this respect. From the film’s opening narration, he’s surprisingly aware that he’s not a good father or husband, and he demonstrates this aspect in full force: he repeatedly fails to achieve parental authority with his daughters or their friends, he can’t communicate (much less empathize) with a confused younger daughter, and he constantly has to recruit the older daughter to do the actual parenting even as he takes them both on a hubristic, pseudo-revenge mission.

Matt’s anticipated confrontation with his dying wife’s mister was a surprisingly restrained and calculated moment for what was laid out as the film’s dramatic locus, but if we are as aware as Matt is about his status as a bad father (and thus not “distanced” critically any more than our self-critiquing subject), then are we meant to feel as satisfied and redeemed as he does afterward? Matt technically does “the good thing” by not selling his family’s land (has anything in a Payne film been as predictable as this?), but he’s (once again) so self-conscious about it that it he seems to be asking us directly to take his character’s transformation at his word. The final shot of The Descendants suggests a family recovered, but there is little that denotes Matt’s actual redemption beyond his own repeated insistence on it. More than any of these films, The Descendants confounds the assumed relationship between character and film.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that, during a tumultuous moment in American culture when honest and good people are routinely taken advantage of by the unchecked power of the few, we get a crop of small-scale films that ask audiences to spend several hours with “bad,” unheroic, unredeemable protagonists. I’m not quite sure what the answer to “why now” may be (if there is a cogent answer to be found), but these films collectively challenge the convention that filmic protagonists must be “worthy” ones, warranting an audience’s respect and energy from the get-go, rather than one of many potential lenses through which we can see America, whether that be a Minnesota small town, New York City, or the Hawaiian Islands. Most people aren’t heroes, so why should everyone on our movie screens be?

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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