So you've found yourself rooting for a violent murderer with a nefarious past and a thing for making homemade soap? Don't worry, that's completely normal. At least when it comes to these timeless anti-heroes and the movies they helped make great.
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Everyone in LA Confidential
In Curtis Hanson's brilliant adaptation of James Ellroy's equally brilliant novel, Los Angeles in the 1950's would be a very lonely place were it not for all the anti-heroes. Good cops who compromise their integrity for professional gain, corrupt cops who only do the right thing after it's too late, and a dangerously violent man whose softer side doubles as his hair trigger, not to mention the rape victim who changes her testimony to exact revenge, or the hooker with a heart of gold... when it suits her. There are no angels in L.A. Confidential, only devils with good intentions, and together they all deserve the top spot on this list.
Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
Travis Bickle, 26, lives in New York in the mid-1970’s and, for one reason or another (a tour of duty in Vietnam is mentioned), is incapable of making any genuine human connection. His attempts to assimilate into society are thwarted by his own point of view, skewed by the constant interaction with New York’s seediest citizen through his work as, you guessed it, a taxi driver. When his best chance at love falls apart when he thinks Swedish sex films are a typical date night activity (they are, just not with a nice girl like Cybil Shepard), he violently turns on the New Yorkers (indeed, New York itself) he once sought, ineffectually, to embrace. As Bickle gradually transforms into the worst kind of antihero, his grasp on reality slipping away with each line of dialogue, he also becomes the very best: Travis Bickle is the worst case scenario of every lonely soul, and frankly that’s all of us.
Tyler Durden in Fight Club
The definition of charisma, Tyler Durden is effortlessly sexy, promoting a lifestyle of angsty rebellion that appealed to an entire generation. By preaching a life of humorous insight and casual violence, he turned an extra-curricular activity into a doomsday cult before anyone even noticed. By the end of the film, Ed Norton may be convinced that Durden has gone too far, but the audience isn’t. Brad Pitt’s performance, combined with David Fincher’s obvious love for the character, make Tyler Durden the most lovable terrorist of all.
The Stranger in High Plains Drifter
At the beginning of High Plains Drifter, The Stranger walks into town, played by the always heroic Clint Eastwood, and proceeds to murder several men for being annoying and rape a woman for sassing back. And somehow in the mining settlement of Lago, that makes him the "Good" guy. Eastwood’s Western persona was the perfect fit for a hero dispensing righteousness through utter immorality. Never before has contempt for your fellow man felt so completely justified.
Antonio Salieri in Amadeus
In return for a modicum of musical talent, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) lived a life of piety and chastity… until God saw fit to bestow the greatest talent of all upon a childish, boorish sex fiend named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s hard to tell what fuels Salieri's hatred more, jealousy over Mozart’s talent or resentment for living a life of purity when God clearly doesn’t care either way. As he takes his revenge on Mozart and God himself, the audience, on one level or another, will always sympathize because the fear of mediocrity is universal.
Herbert West in ReAnimator
Speaking of mediocre, one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most ho-hum stories ironically made for the best film adaptation of his work (so far), thanks to horror’s greatest anti-hero, Herbert West. Played with sexless charisma by Jeffrey Combs, West has the concentrated intensity of a surgical laser, aimed only at scientific discovery. West’s journeys take him to the depths of immorality and corrupt everyone around him, but his fierce dedication to the most noble of goals - curing death itself - will always make him the hero… at least in the history books.
Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley and Ripleys Game
Novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most popular creation has actually made it to the silver screen several times, but these two films represent the character at his anti-heroic best. Anthony Minghella’s Ripley stars Matt Damon in the character’s youth, struggling to create a complicated ethos in which murder and betrayal are the only aspects of his identity he can truly call his own. But while Damon’s Ripley is just pathetic enough to feel guilty about being a sociopath, John Malkovich’s portrayal of an older Ripley, comfortable in his own skin, is the more compelling of the two. In Liliana Cavani’s underseen Ripley’s Game, Ripley’s inhumanity has brought him a life of love and financial comfort, but when these hard-won accomplishments are insulted off-handedly at a party, he decides to destroy the offender’s very existence. Somehow, through the icy gaze of Malkovich’s antihero, it hardly seems like an overreaction.
Jimmy Quinn in Q The Winged Serpent
Okay, so doomsday cultists have somehow brought the Central American dragon god Quetzalcoatl to New York City, where it beheads countless victims when it's not taking refuge in its secret lair at the top of the Chrysler Building. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are on the case, but somehow our protagonist is the pathetic Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a former getaway driver trying - and failing - to go straight for his girlfriend, and the only person in the city who knows where "Q" makes his nest. As New Yorkers die left and right, Michael Moriarty takes the opportunity to hold the information to ransom. We’d hate him if we didn’t know exactly where he’s coming from.