A protagonist, or hero, is traditionally supposed to be the character that acts as a point of identification for the audience. This character therefore carries the responsibility of making viewers care about the story, but in order to accomplish that, we have to care about them. Or at least, that is the common understanding of main characters. But no matter how far back you look, it becomes clear that there have been a ton of stories that captivate us, simply because the main characters are unlikable. Of course, the risk one runs with this logic is that, if the protagonist is such an anti-hero that the viewer feels no connection, the story might begin to drag. But with a strong foundation and a sound narrative, this doesn’t have to be the case. So here are ten protagonists that are so unlikable, that audiences cannot help but to find them compelling.
10. A Clockwork Orange
Though charismatic, Alex is a complete sociopath with very little in the way of redeeming qualities. After being sent to prison for murder during a home invasion in which he bludgeoned a “cat lady” to death, the anti-hero volunteers for an experimental treatment that will incite an aversion to violence, thus “curing” him. This might be construed as a willingness to change, but that smug look on his face suggests (at the very least) a lack of commitment to the cause. His most sincere moment is perhaps when he begs for the treatment to be stopped, upon realizing it will mean he will no longer be able to enjoy classical music. By the end, with the treatment having been reversed, Alex is thrilled (almost to the point of hysteria) to find he is his old gruesome-self again.
9. The Social Network
While it’s always interesting to watch Jesse Eisenberg in action, with each subtle flinch so telling of who his character really is, it seems he’s never that likable character to begin with. In The Social Network, he portrays a young Mark Zuckerberg, insensitive, self-absorbed and downright impossible. The story follows the depositions of lawsuits against Zuckerberg and Facebook. He is accused of “stealing” the idea, and there is no point where he really makes you believe he didn’t – just that he sees nothing wrong with his evident mistreatment of friends and colleagues. With no consideration for social cues, or good nature, it’s no wonder why this character is a billionaire. Of course, despite being based on a real person, it’s important to recognize this as a fictionalized account of the people and events.
8. Strangers on a Train
This classic Hitchcock thriller may well have two protagonists, Bruno and Guy, neither of which is particularly sympathetic. When Tennis star, Guy Haines is approached by a fan on the train, the situation quickly turns uncomfortable. Bruno seems to know a lot about Guy, and about the strained relationship with his estranged wife, especially. When Bruno proposes a “criss cross” murder scheme that will rid them both of their respective “problems”, Guy turns him down. But soon it becomes clear that Bruno was never giving Guy a choice. Once Guy’s ex-wife is killed, he finds he is being stalked, pressured and threatened to hold up his end of the so-called deal. Bruno is obviously a nutcase, but Guy’s inability to stop him comes off as pathetic. Part of the reason why he is so ineffectual, as Bruno cunningly points out, is that he is not sure he did not want to take the deal – to get his wife out of the way. He himself had said he’d like to strangle her. So the question becomes, where does evil begin? With an action, or with a thought? Hitchcock has also suggested that the two men are mirror images of one another, or that Bruno is a manifestation of Guy’s deep dark desires. This beautifully crafted film really makes you wonder about the nature of right/wrong.
7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Although Gene Wilder’s earlier portrayal of Willy Wonka was rather dark, there is something about this Tim Burton remake that turned him into a much more annoying character. Whereas Wilder was suave and captivating, Depp’s approach is grounded much deeper in the idea that Willy Wonka has never grown up. Subsequently, he is moody, unreliable and less charismatic. There is something about the high pitched choice for laughter that just makes you want to turn off the volume, or give up on the movie all-together. But because of the nostalgia associated with this beloved tale, viewers are compelled to stick it through and see if his strange portrayal goes anywhere interesting. It doesn’t really, though.
6. Citizen Cane
Widely considered one of the most memorable and well-made films of all time, Citizen Kane is no doubt a favorite among film scholars. And yet, Kane himself has very few redeeming qualities. The story follows Kane from his unhappy childhood to his strive for success, which turns into something of an unquenchable thirst. It’s an old tale, what good is money if it cannot buy you happiness? What is most distasteful about this character, however, is that as his life unfolds on screen, you see so many opportunities for him to change things around. And yet, he never does.
Despite its massive success among young girls, the Twilight franchise is one of those people just love to hate. It seems fair to say that both Bella and Edward are two of the most disliked protagonists of their time. Part of the problem is that their star-crossed romance is far too extreme for Bella’s age – as she makes this life-changing decision to be with Edward, it’s clear she is making decisions far beyond the capacity of what a teenager should be able to decide. Nonetheless, the detrimental romance blossoms, film after film, with Edward taking full advantage of her young and naive worldview. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so beautiful anymore.
4. Young Adult
This anti-hero is so unexpected that she would almost be refreshing, if she wasn’t such a terrible person. In Young Adult, Charlize Theron portrays Mavis, a recent divorcee who is wasting away in a deep depression, while ghostwriting young adult novels for a living. Having peaked in high school, the books are obviously a way for her to relive her glory days, and things only get more out of control when Mavis returns home and actually tries to relive her glory days. The goal? Make the high school dream-boy fall for her again. Why is this so terrible? The idea to reconnect with him is born out of seeing a picture of his new baby online – so she packs her bags and sets off on a literal home-wrecker mission. What’s more frustrating than her incessant sarcasm and blatant disregard for how her actions affect others, is that by the end, her “growth” is actually pretty minimal. Once she confronts her issues, and has a minor breakdown, she is able to finish her book and move on, but this hardly makes up for the damage she has caused.
3. Spring Breakers
Whether or not people genuinely liked this film is a little unclear. It seems most people saw it ironically, or out of pure fascination with what it could possibly be trying to do. Either way, it made a ton of money and instantly became referred to as a cult classic. But whatever you think of this one, self-indulgent or contemporary genius, the fact remains that none of the characters are particularly likable. Some of the girls are lucky to get out, once they realize they have done a stupid and unsafe thing by running off with some stranger who has bailed them out of jail. The ones who stay to stick through their misguided perception of fun and freedom turn out to be real nut-jobs. This version of spring break is not what you may see on MTV, nor is it necessarily how you want to spend yours.
2. Taxi Driver
This Scorsese classic stars a young Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, an angry-at-the-world NYC cabbie. Suffering from depression and trauma, the veteran takes up driving a taxi to cope with his insomnia, but soon finds the streets of NY are full of dirty secrets he’d rather not know. Deciding the only way to handle it is to take on a vigilante-justice mentality, Travis buys a gun and begins an intensive work-out regimen. He’s no Batman though; he is out for blood, and his own demons fuel him with rage. He is the very definition of the anti-hero. Although his end game is to save and protect, watching him in his crazed state does make the viewer have to wonder who are the good guys? His heroic nature has to be called to question, and his negativity is such a downer. A great film, nonetheless.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street
And Scorsese does it again, better even – he makes the viewer HATE their narrator. Based on a true story, this portrayal of Jordan Belfort might even make you fall in love with Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Jake Lamotta (Raging Bull) or any other Scorsese character who might have made your skin crawl at some point. In Wolf of Wall Street the narrator is unreliable, untrustworthy and completely unsympathetic. His gains are excessive and his losses are barely – after all, Belfort spent very little time in a white-collar jail for his crimes, and has since went on to become successful again. So there are no good guys, and the bad guys come out on top. Excellent. An amazing performance from DiCaprio really seals the deal on this one. He is truly and utterly detestable.