A deserted highway somewhere on the outskirts of L.A. The middle of the night. The scene of an horrific car accident. A vehicle tears up and out leaps a lone figure with a film camera slung over his shoulder. He’s not interested in helping the victim or even cleaning up the scene, so further accidents are avoided, but he’s there to document for the nightly news. There’s a problem. The dead victim, having been thrown through the windscreen, lies too far from the car and so out of the light. The shot doesn’t work. The figure steps forward, grabs hold of the hapless departed and drags him into the car’s headlights. Problem solved. Perfect shot. The figure goes away happy, knowing he’ll make thousands with this few seconds of film, whilst also securing his place as the city’s leading late night freelance crime cameraman, or nightcrawler.
This unscrupulous behaviour is by no means the limit for Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom, protagonist of the debut feature from veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but it does perhaps most aptly iterate the willfully callus and negligent actions of a character that brings the term anti-hero to a new extreme. It can be hard to see past the intense bug-eyed stare and subtle skeletal grin that dominate Gyllenhal’s newly gaunt features, but once you do he appears in a certain light to take on a puppy-dog eagerness, perhaps prone to one who has chanced upon an occupation they are both good at and desperate to pursue, with no sympathy for the wider impact on the rest of society – like a schoolboy who has stumbled on the perfect method of skinning a cat, and so decides to practise on the family pet. His character is as anti-social as he is conniving, but despite this is incredibly fascinating, and watching him one can’t help but feel an inexplicable desire for him to succeed, however depraved and impenitent his actions become.
It is true that there is an intrigue and an allure to the dark side of life, not achievable in real life, that can be indulged through film, but how is it that film has developed to the point that characters such as Bloom can appear so much more intriguing than their heroic counterparts, and in counter-accordance to the traditions of the fate of the Hollywood anti-hero, yet don’t even get their comeuppance?
Firstly, what do we mean by an anti-hero? The dictionary definition states, ‘An antihero or antiheroine (sic) is a leading character in a story who, unlike a traditional hero, lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality.’ They are not the villain of the piece, the story hinges on them They are the key driving force in the film and, far from merely lacking in heroic qualities, they very often can take on incredibly heinous criminal traits. In real life you would never approach them, but in film you are afforded the opportunity to access their inner-world, and not always from the safety of the knowledge that what you’re watching is fiction. Some of the most interesting anti-heroes have been real people, transferred to the screen, indulged, contorted and sometimes over-glamorised – but real nonetheless.
The Rule of Comeuppance
From Paul Muni as the power-crazed Tony Camonte in Howard Hawk’s 1932 version of Scarface, all the way along a direct linear track to Leonardo DiCaprio’s depravity seeking, cash-as-power obsessed Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Hollywood has been preoccupied with the unscrupulous anti-hero for nearly as long as it has been producing films. Each new addition to the canon has paved the way for an even more extreme version some years later, and a character type once relegated to those born into the underclasses merely trying to claw themselves to a position of respectability (by screwing over those that would have done the same thing had they only thought of it first), the anti-hero has risen to cross the class divide to accommodate all comers. It is no longer a character exclusive to migrants entering the West and the working classes, patronised by left-leaning liberals, or demonised by right-wing stalwarts, but uncomfortably open to those born from privilege too.
Vito Corleone shoots dead Don Fanucci in The Godfather: Part II because he sees this as the only chance he might have to rise above the lot that has been forced upon him. He is from a world where nearly everyone he knows has been murdered in similar circumstances, and so for him his choice is simple: it’s either take power, or live life on his knees and risk becoming the next one gunned down. Fast forward nearly forty years to 2013 and we find Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in David Fincher’s remake of House of Cards updating Ian Richardson’s well-educated, well-bred Conservative MP (from the 1990 BBC original series) into an equally privileged Machiavellian Democrat who murders his close associate, Congressman Peter Russo, so that he can clear the path for his own trajectory to the top. There is no such need for social mobility here, merely a raw and unadulterated lust for power that seems to know no bounds.
Class aside, Underwood’s story can sound typical. Surely he’s just Camonte in Scarface, Dickie Attenborough as Pinkie in the Boulting brothers’ Brighton Rock (1947), Vito Corleone, or most recently Jordan Belfort. Each player is merely manipulating the gears of a failing and institutionally corrupt system to their own ends. But Underwood is not like those aforementioned. Newton’s Third Law dictates that each action has an equal and opposite reaction, and film law is no different. In just the same way that a girl who has sex in a seventies horror film invariably won’t see the end credits, so it is that any unscrupulous film activity ends with the downfall of the wrong-doer, however much the audience ends up rooting for them. Not so for Frank Underwood. Without wanting to ruin the end of the second series, Frank has won. It doesn’t matter what happens to him next. He has taken what he wants and callously murdered, lied and cheated his way to the top, and for some reason, we have an intrinsic respect for him.
For years it seemed that this rule of comeuppance was typical to the Hollywood anti-hero. They either get their just deserts in one way or another, or they are redeemed via some kind of selfless act for another (often ending in their own loss of life), and thus going distinctly against their anti-hero character traits. In the case of the former some of the punishments may not have seemed to fit the crimes: Belfort ends up teaching sales-techniques to desperate Australians, and Henry Hill from 1990’s Goodfellas retires into victim-protection. But remember that in each of these cases the two protagonists were finally being forced to join the life that they had purposefully tried so hard to avoid all those years. The latter case is also writhe with many recent examples, Clive Owen’s alcoholic lapsed freedom-fighter Theo in 2006’s Children of Men giving his life so that mankind can survive, or Leonardo DiCaprio as the Zimbabwean diamond smuggler, who dies at the end of Blood Diamond (2006) so that the father and son from Sierra Leone might live.
It’s all about Context
As the anti-hero developed over the years it soon became the case that context acted as a key contributor for the audience’s reaction toward them. Those born into a rough world, such as Vito, can be forgiven their actions, particularly if they are far from being the worst of their contemporaries. Henry Hill is forgiven a multitude of sins, including deception, bribery, domestic violence, adultery, extortion, because of the allure that his character brings, shown effectively through the eyes of his wife, and the sexiness of the world that Martin Scorsese creates; but also because he is by no means the worst of his associates. Joe Pesci’s Tommy and Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy are so far ahead of him in the gangster stakes that they mock him for throwing up when they are forced to dig up a long-dead corpse in one of the film’s more gruesome scenes. Plus, Scorsese is careful not to show Hill ever murdering anyone (whether he actually did is another matter), whereas we see Tommy shooting dead a lone barman merely for swearing at him. Tommy later pays with his life. By 1990, it seemed then that if the character was not going to pay with his life then the filmmaker had to make sure of his context, and the exact crimes that he was committing.
Film has long been a forum for people to live out vicariously the hidden desires for the darker side of life that they are too scared and moral to act upon in the real world, and so this audacity to enact so brazenly in ways where others would only dream of brings with it an incredible allure. Hence the popularity of gangster films, in comparison to people’s real life attitude toward organised crime. Charm also brings with it a strange kind of respectability. Isn’t there just a small part of us that condones uber-anti-hero Dr Hannibal Lecter’s atrocious and inhumane actions, because he chooses where possible to ‘eat the rude’? It seems that myriad sins are forgiven if a character is charming, intelligent, attractive or all of the above. Lecter is a very fine example, perhaps the finest of all anti-heroes: suave, sophisticated, highly intelligent and a wholly fascinating character, but despite this his creator Thomas Harris was careful not to make him the soul central character in any of the stories, despite the fact that he naturally comes to the forefront none the less. The fact that he is a serial killer, a cannibal and a psychopath means that he can’t take centre stage, for fear of alienating the audience. Rather we are allowed to glimpse him from a safe distance not unlike the way Victorian audiences might have visited jails to peer in morbid fascination at the murderers and madmen from the safety of a viewing platform. In the eighteenth century people may have enjoyed swapping stories of famous highwaymen like Dick Turpin or Plunkett and MacLaine, but this didn’t mean they would have ever actually wanted to come face to face with one of them.
Only in 2007’s genesis story Hannibal Rising does Lecter become the protagonist of his own series of stories, and this film is by far the least successful and least remembered of all the films in which he features. Rather he plays second fiddle to Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001), and to Will Graham in both versions of the ‘Red Dragon’ novel (1986’s Manhunter by Michael Mann, and Brett Ratner’s 2002 work Red Dragon). This allows the audience’s interest in Lecter to fester whilst keeping them one step removed from identifying with a serial killer. This said, the whole series ends with Lecter’s redemption of sorts when he chooses to cut off his own hand in favour of Clarice’s at the climax of Hannibal, in an act that can only be described as one of love. This selfless act means that judgement of Lecter is changed on future viewings of any of the instalments and represents his moment of redemption relative to the character that has been created. Therefore it seems that even the ultimate anti-hero finds himself experiencing both his comeuppance, and redemption. So, again, how does Frank Underwood get away with it in 2014? Is it because of his charm and single-minded perspicacity? If we perhaps don’t condone his actions we still respect what he has achieved? If so then this is something that has certainly changed over the years since Scarface.
An answer to the above can be found through another onscreen anti-hero developed through a careful marrying of the film and TV mediums. Tony Soprano was created by David Chase in 1999 as the lead character in the domestic gangster epic, The Sopranos. Chase desperately wanted to make feature films, but found himself falling into a format that at the time was considered inferior to film. This is such an alien concept today as we witness A-list film directors and actors climbing over themselves to star in TV series (Steven Soderbergh has famously retired from making films in favour of just making TV series), but Chase was forward thinking enough to realise the power the long form medium had for his character. Were Tony Soprano, the mass-murdering, multi-adulterous, lying, cheating, extorting, crime king-pin to appear as the lead character in just a two-hour feature film, the audience would struggle to identify with him. However, due to the weight of gangster films that pre-dated The Sopranos, along with the sixty-plus hours of screen time given to Tony, Chase and his fellow scriptwriters can really get to grips with a character that becomes more and more interesting the more and more complex he becomes. Frank Underwood not only talks directly to the camera, meaning that he and us are the only ones in on his dastardly plans, but he too is afforded the luxury of being involved in the long form format. This means he can take his time to develop his character, the whole while showing himself to an audience that can really get to know and understand him, in a way that a feature film just cannot. The final scene of The Sopranos sees Tony and his family sat in a café surrounded by possible assassins, and the scene cuts to black before we find out whether he is killed or not. This leaves the conclusion of the sixty-plus hours of character development, and whether Tony finds himself the victim of his own crimes, up to the audience and their own sense of moral judgement.
As an additional note, the counter-point character, such as Will Graham or Clarice Starling, is a common trick employed by filmmakers usually in good-guy-gone-bad films such as Harry Brown (2009) or Falling Down (1987), where the central figure is allowed to take the law into their own hands and not experience any kind of comeuppance, whilst the film remains morally balanced via this inclusion of a binary opposed character, usually a law officer. Emily Watson playing against Michael Caine in the former, and Robert Duvall’s last-day-on-the-job cop in the latter, playing against Michael Douglas, as he seethes against the annoyances of modern day consumerism. Both of these films suffer from the inclusion of such characters, losing the emotional impact they could have done, had the filmmakers had the confidence to follow through on the morally complex situations initially created, and the trick is not unlike Chase’s ‘passing-the-buck’ choice of ending to The Sopranos. In 2014, Dan Gilroy and Beau Williamson have had the confidence to show us the incessant fate of their anti-heroes at the film’s conclusion. No one could ever call The Sopranos safe filmmaking (in fact it’s popularity was mainly down to the fact it wasn’t), so what has changed in the intermediary years, and what does this have to say about the state of current filmmaking in Hollywood?
For part 2 of this series, please go to Louis Bloom and the Rise of the Hollywood Anti-Hero (part 2)