Saturday, November 24, 2012

10 Morally Ambiguous Characters- Part I

Morally ambiguous characters are a more and more common kind of movie creature -- found most often in indie movies and complex TV shows. How many times have you found that film creation whose moral code you just couldn't put your finger on... devious or noble as he may be? This list is a celebration of those paradoxical creations, both the kind and the reprehensible, with a few real puzzlers thrown in.

1. Nate (Noah Taylor) from Red, White, & Blue, Directed by Simon Rumley

Ah, Nate. Who can forget his little chat with a tied-up, terrified family? His brutal removal of a certain someone's scalp? As sadistic as he was, one had to admit, Nate had style, and his dedication to his wreck of a sweetheart made his badness, well, not seem so bad. Rumley was inspired to cast Noah Taylor when he saw him as a young man in "Flirting" and "The Year my Voice Broke" playing Australian teenager Danny and saw potential for a darker undercurrent. Well, folks -- I've seen Danny, and Nate ain't no Danny. Noah Taylor proved to be the right choice, giving a terrifying performance as a psychopath with a small glimmer of humanity hidden somewhere in his deep, dark mind.

This Movie Is- Worth Watching

2. Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) from We Need to Talk About Kevin, Directed by Lynne Ramsay

There were times when reluctant mother Eva seemed quite unlikable- cold, unloving, even a bitch. But who could love little Satan spawn Kevin, with his propensity for killing hamsters and malevolent manipulation of both his hapless parents? Certainly not Eva. She didn't even want to be a mother, much less to a vindictive little sociopath. Did she deserve what happens too her, as Kevin slowly took over her life? Certainly not. But her nasty comment about fat people midway through the movie reminds us that we are dealing with a bit of an elitist.

This Movie Is- Worth Watching 


3. Francis (Aidan Gillen) from Buddy Boy, Directed by Mark Hanlon

This movie is quite a find, and you can be forgiven for never having heard of it. Aidan Gillen (who is now best known a Petyr 'Littlefinger' Bealish in Game of Thrones) plays a weird little dude who probably got beat up a lot in school, who lives with (and cares for) his vile invalid stepmother (the late Susan Tyrell) in an big city apartment that could definitely use an interior decorator. Francis is quite a character, a lonely Roman Catholic with a profound stutter, poor oral hygiene, and a penchant for voyeurism. We are first introduced to him when he's is in the midst of his favorite activity- abusing his body, to a pornagraphic picture. He's a little creepy, but mostly sad, with a disturbing habit of projecting his issues onto the women in his life. The most unbelievable part of this movie is not Susan Tyrell's unusual use of her artifical leg, but the idea that Francis could lose his virginity (finally) to Emmanuelle Seigner. Not likely!

This Movie is- A Favorite

4. May Dove Canady (Angela Bettis) from May, Directed by Lucky McKee

You can't help but feel sorry for odd little May as she goes about trying to make friends and find love in an uncaring world. My sympathy pervaded even after May's actions took a turn for the sociopathic. Can't find a friend? Make one! At least that's what May's dear old mother used to say, and May takes this quite literally as she recycles body parts from the people who have rejected her, all in hopes of making a corpse-friend for her to love... forever. 

This Movie is- Worth Watching

5. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) from American Beauty, Directed by Sam Mendes

Is your daughter's lithe teenage friend looking mighty attractive? Don't do it... all the more mess to clean up later. Unless, of course, you are already doomed. "Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? Well, that's true of every day but one - the day you die." Lester narrates from beyond the grave, putting forth a tale of Suburbia gone awry. It would be hard to pity well-off, smug Lester if not for his wife, Carolyn, a harpy from the depths of hell. How dare he work out in his garage? How dare he masturbate in his OWN BED? In the midst of suburban discontent, Lester realizes what's really important, but not before Lester, Carolyn, and their teenaged daughter Jane (Thora Birch) experience an ugly falling out.

This Movie is-  A Favorite


6. James Brocklebank (Leo Bill) from The Living & The Dead, Directed by Simon Rumley

James is one of the saddest, maddest, most unhinged characters you will ever meet, and also one of the most confused. To watch this movie is to take a journey with him, to get caught up in the lives of these people. What did and didn't he do? What is he and what is he not responsible for? If you are like me, you cannot help but pity him, even as he mistreats his elderly, infirm mother (Kate Fahy) who is quite terrified to discover that her son has gone bonkers, and that matricide is not out of the question. People who argue that the film 'makes no sense' are missing the point -- this film, a true original. It takes the rhythm and logic of a nightmare, and doesn't let you go.

This Film is- A Favorite


7. Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) from God Bless America, Directed by Bobcat Goldtwait

A killer with morals? Sounds to some like an oxymoron. But Frank has some sort of moral code, even if no one but him can understand it. Angry and burned out by American society, Frank loses his job, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and finally snaps, going after popular but shallow, stupid, and cruel celebrities. Oh, but why did poor Chloe of "Chloe's Sweet Sixteen" have to die? Because she was a grade-A cunt, that's why, and according to Frank, society is better of without her. Taxi Driver for the MTV generation. Along the way, Frank acquires a 16-year-old accomplice, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who fancies him. "What, you can kill a 16-year-old but you can't fuck one?" Challenges Roxy. Yep. And don't piss Frank off, or YOU- yes, YOU... could become his next victim.

This Film Is- A Favorite

 8. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) from Bernie, Directed by Richard Linklater

Good, helpful, neighborly Bernie, Would Bernie Tiede, Carthage, Texas' most loved citizen, really murder an old lady in cold blood? Not a snowball's chance in Hell, say Carthage's townspeople. But what is the story with good ol' Bernie? And what's hidden in the freezer that our friendly neighbor doesn't want us to see? Bernie, a rather strange choice for School of Rock director Richard Linklater, follows the ensuing disillusionment when Bernie Tiede is accused of killing mean old Mrs. Nugent, the town resident cranky old lady. Linklater's weird but true dark comedy incorporates real Carthage citizens in interviews, and makes us wonder if good old Bernie was so selfless after all.

This Movie Is- Worth Watching


9. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) from Atonement, Directed by Joe Wright

Okay, I'm going to bring a voice to a much-hated film character. Everywhere I go, I find people saying things like 'little bitch' and 'Briony, burn in Hell.'  Come on, we're not talking about Joffrey (GoT) here! Now, I'm sure many of you have done dumb ass things when you were young. Accused an innocent man of rape? Maybe not. Maybe Briony did enough stupid for two lifetimes. But did she deserve to be punished for the rest of her life? She didn't write the book at the end to "make things better," when things had gone from bad to total shitstorm (to quote Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland.) She wrote the book to soothe her own guilt and hurt, which had been raw and exposed for years. Come on. The girl did a stupid thing. However, she did have a bratty, vindictive side (as most little girls surely do) so she goes on this list.

(P.S. The real villain of this film was Benedict Cumberbatch.)

This Film is- Worth Watching 

10. Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) from Monsieur Hire, Directed by Patrice Leconte


Monsieur Hire is an enigma- a misanthropic, friendless Frenchman with voyeuristic pastimes and what appears to be a past sex offense (?) on his record. Throughout the movie it seems like he is the 'bad guy,' but then the object of his voyeurism (Sandrine Bonnaire) inexplicably takes an interest in him. Who is manipulating who here? You are left with pity for Monsieur Hire and the feeling that, despite Monsieur's transgressions, his neighbor is the true antagonist for leading him on.

This film is- A Favorite 

Part II is coming!


  1. Great list, Sarah. You've definitely got some characters who could be seen as villains, but you can't quite put your finger on them.

    "God Bless America is Taxi Driver for the MTV Generation?" I can't say I see it quite that way, but that is a funny line!

    Speaking of Taxi Driver, as we were discussing in Kroger today, I think Travis Bickle is a great candidate for this list. He is NOT a dude I'd want dating either of my daughters, but hey ... you have to admit the guy's got heart. :-D

    I like the fact that you took my suggestion of including Eva. Granted, she's definitely not fucked up on the level of May or Nate ... not by a long shot. But in both the novel and film WNTTAK, I found her an unreliable narrator -- worthy of empathy but hard to get a handle on. Even given the horrors she'd been through, something about her felt "off."

  2. Awesome list! Glad to see Briony here, I never actually felt angry toward her or considered her a villain for a moment - she was a child, after all, jealous about Robbie's affection towards her sister.

  3. Awesome list!! Morally ambiguous characters are often more intriguing to watch than the heroes/heroines. LOVE to see you include Briony here, Saoirse is just superb. So is Spacey in American Beauty, I think he's got a thing for playing this kind of characters.

  4. Great picks! Burnham, Bernie, and Briony? Works for me. :)

  5. Another superbly unique list! I’m so drawn to moral ambiguity in films. When we were filming Earrings, I told Catherine that her character has no morals. She cares about nothing. Completely empty. I love watching that unfold on screen. I think my favorite from your list is Briony Tallis. Saoirse Ronan really played that role to vindictive perfection. Her final scene (when she’s played by Vanessa Redgrave) is so perfectly heartbreaking. Ah. Kills me.

    Great list!

    1. Sarah did a great job with this list, didn't she? I am definitely drawn to moral ambiguity -- and the dark side of human nature -- in literature and films. Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave were terrific in that movie, weren't they? I wasn't sure that Briony acted vindictively; she seemed innocent and genuinely confused. But yes, there was a streak of resentment and bitterness coloring her perceptions and choices. I'm not even sure she knew herself what she believed she saw. That's part of what makes it a great story.

      Interesting perspective on your direction of Earrings. I didn't perceive Catherine's character that way at all. Disconnected from her own emotions, in a sense, and detached from people around her. Definitely making self-destructive choices. But at no point did I see her as having no morals. Kind of the opposite -- I saw her as hobbled with guilt and regret. An example of how much a viewer brings to a film like this -- we project a lot of ourselves, I think. No two people ever see exactly the same movie. Anyhow, you and Catherine did amazing work together -- she was thoroughly convincing as a very damaged young woman disconnected from the world around her.

    2. I should've been more specific. The no morals direction came when she went out for a night on the town, the bangarang night, if you will. That was when I told her that her character was going out and doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. For the rest of the film, I told her to play it as completely detached (I actually used that exact word a lot). So, good insight on your part!

    3. Hah! Am I good or what? ;-)

      I thought the bangarang night scene was so sad. I got the definite impression she wasn't even particularly attracted to the guy she hooked up with. It was like she was just going through the motions, maybe in an unsuccessful effort to fight off loneliness. That kind of thing happens a lot.

    4. To be honest, I'm really glad you found that scene to be sad. Not trying to sound morbid or anything, but that's definitely what I was going for.

      It happens a lot indeed.

      Thanks for talking about the movie with me, it's cool to bring back to life every now and again!

  6. You have May Canady on here,that is awesome. I freaking love that movie. A very underrated horror film


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