Terrible people make for great characters to explore in movies. They tend to provide situations and stories that bring out the extremes of the human experience.
They’re great at swirling up turmoil and drama into maelstroms that suck in everything around them. They expose everyone’s best and worst qualities. They turn friends and family into into accomplices, enablers, negligent bystanders, victims, or enemies.
Abhorrent movie characters force their surrounding characters to take action, make decisions, and define themselves in ways that wouldn’t have been necessary without their interference.
Usually, terrible characters are antagonists or side characters who act as foils for the main characters and protagonists, to contrast and emphasize certain qualities via opposition.
But what happens when the terrible person is the main character?
Movies that feature horrible protagonists are fascinating as character studies. Here are some of the best character-driven movies with awful protagonists—the kinds of people you’d never want to hang out with but love to watch unfold on screen.
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Albanian Gangster is one of the most sobering and honest portrayals of a small-time gangster in cinema. The movie’s treatment of the criminal way of life is the opposite of the stylish and glamorized lifestyle we often see in mainstream films.
There are no montages of violence and predation, set to fun or energetic music, filmed like music videos. There’s no higher code of honor among family and thieves that the characters pretend to live by to justify their awfulness.
The violence, sex, and drug use in Albanian Gangster are ugly and uncomfortable—to a level that could make for an effective PSA that shows at-risk youths why they should avoid a life of crime. The main message would be: “Don’t end up like this guy!”
The main character Woo, played by ex-con Matthew A. Brown, is a pathetic petty gangster living off of his past reputation gained from his long-gone glory days. He’s an alcoholic drug addict in his 40s, living in his mother’s basement, spending his days in a drunken coked-out stupor, occasionally exploding into acts of extreme violence.
Everything about this movie is ugly and sad. As much as I love a good fun gangster movie, most of them dress up the awful realities of gangster life. If they were more honest, they would probably all be as dismal, gross, and meaningless as Albanian Gangster.
Gangster No. 1 tells of the rise and fall of a London gangster over the span of a few decades. The main character—referred to in the script simply as Gangster—is a complete psychopath who covets not only what his boss has, but who his boss is.
He wants to completely become “the man”: live in his luxury penthouse apartment, drive his luxury car, and even wear the same luxury suit down to the cufflinks. He stops at nothing to get what he wants, and revels in his own savagery all the while.
In the end, his boss gets out of prison and is indifferent to Gangster’s appropriation of the gaudy material trappings of his former life. Gangster tries to rub it in his face, but the old boss just doesn’t care anymore, leaving Gangster to re-evaluate his life’s ambitions.
6. Raging Bull
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Irwin Winkler, one of Raging Bull’s producers, once said: “I never saw Raging Bull as a boxing movie. I thought of it as a great, great character study.”
The film pulls no punches with its unflattering portrayal of Lamotta as an unfaithful philanderer who is verbally and physically abusive to almost everyone he comes in contact with.
The movie ends with his downfall, drowning in desperation and frustration at having lost everyone and everything in his life. Character-driven movies are rarely as effective as this one is.
With what we know these days about sport-induced brain trauma, this character takes on yet another level of tragedy that adds a poignant aspect to the story that was unknown to earlier audiences.
In Bronson, Tom Hardy plays Charles Bronson, a character based on a real inmate who had a reputation as Britain’s most notorious and violent prisoner. The character presented in the film is a nihilistically violent misanthrope with no redeeming qualities.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylized histrionic approach was perfect for portraying the skewed and embellished perspective of Bronson—an unreliable narrator if there ever was one.
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For such a low body count, Norman Bates holds a remarkably high position in the rankings of most notorious fictional movie killers. His staying power comes from the fact that he’s just such a creepy weirdo.
If our fear of movie killers was based on body count alone, then John Rambo would be the one haunting our nightmares. But I’d rather stay at Rambo’s Inn than the Bates Motel any day.
Psycho is an intense look into the mind of a mentally ill killer, and remains one of the best movies in cinema history.
According to writer-director Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal lost between 25 to 30 pounds to play Nightcrawler’s protagonist, Lou. They wanted the character to symbolize a hungry nocturnal animal from the hills who roams the city at night to feed.
Due to the weight loss, Gyllenhaal was extremely hungry throughout the shoot. Gilroy felt this helped to put Gyllenhaal in the right mindset for a character who embodies opportunism at any cost.
And the results are spectacular. Nightcrawler is one of the creepiest movies to feature an off-kilter protagonist, and succeeds at being a character study movie of the highest order as it delves into the mindset and ambitions of this freelance stringer.
Daniel Day Lewis is known for his captivating and extremely committed performances. Yet even with his long career of incredible roles, his character Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood stands out as his best and most iconic role to date.
Unless he has something even more amazing for us down the pike—and I hope he does—he’ll always be remembered for Daniel Plainview. And deservedly so, considering his outstanding performance as the greedy capitalist who grows unhinged.
A Clockwork Orange is a movie adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name written by Anthony Burgess. The characters were inspired by gangs of strangely-dressed Russian teenagers called “stilyagi” whom Burgess encountered during a 1961 visit to Leningrad.
They must have left quite an impression on him because the awfulness of Alex DeLarge—the film’s main character—certainly stays with anyone who has seen this movie.
If you want a character-driven movie with a terrible man in its leading role, A Clockwork Orange is a must-watch. It’s violent, it’s disturbing, and it’s a character portrayal like none other.