Sorry, Michael Bay. When I go to the movies I want to see characters, not just explosion fodder. Because let’s face it: If all the movies offered were sex and violence, we’d probably stop going to the movies. Right? Maybe?
Anyway, to honor the great characters of film lore, I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Of course, like any list based on characters, my choices come down to personal preference. And here…we…go!
HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction)
Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
5. Lester Burnham
Played by: Kevin Spacey
Movie: American Beauty (1999)
“Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus.”
We learn from the film’s first voiceover that Lester is now dead. But American Beauty is not about what happens but rather why and how it happens. And boy, do we get it—as Lester transforms from a meek, self-effacing, and somewhat dull suburbanite into an unabashedly confident new man. It’s not often when we can sympathize with a man with a Lolita complex, but Spacey makes it work. He attacks his mid-life crisis with the gusto of a schoolboy: sparring with a nagging wife, blackmailing his boss, and basically letting everyone know he is not going to take this shit anymore. Of course it’s tragic that his life is cut short, but it’s less about the time than the life lived within it.
4. Travis Bickle
Played by: Robert DeNiro
Movie: Taxi Driver (1976)
“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 push-ups each morning, 50 pull-ups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”
He is a “walking contradiction,” as a character correctly identifies him. He detests the violence and moral filth of the city in which he lives, yet admires his firearm collection and watches dirty movies in his spare time. He speaks so intimately and poetically about the city filth that one can’t help but feel it has started to consume him. Yes, it’s hard to know exactly where the line between self and environment exists for Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle. On one hand he represents some sort of New York conscience, a pure crusader against city sin, as in the scene where he tries to persuade a young prostitute (Jodie Foster in an early role) to quit her job. But his ultimate shootout with her pimp brings out his psychopathic tendencies. Is he simply a product of the city? Or of the Vietnam experience? Or of his own evil? One thing’s for sure. The mystery around Travis’s motives make him one interesting character.
3. Walter Sobchak
Played by: John Goodman
Movie: The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit don’t fucking roll!”
Some people prefer the Dude, but I prefer his best bud: the endearing and certifiably insane Walter. As exacting and reckless as the Dude is laid-back and benign, Walter is the catalyst for the purposely convoluted, Raymond Chandler-esque plot that unfolds and goes way beyond a piss-stained rug. Throughout the film, Walter makes it his personal mission to ensure that those bastards pay, seemingly without regard to whom the bastards are. Character highlights include brandishing a gun at a bowling alley, destroying a car with a crowbar, and biting the ear off a sorely outmatched German nihilist. Yet in spite of his sociopathic tendencies, we actually witness the fragile soul behind the crew-cut, gun-toting façade. It’s a credit to the film’s wonderful writing and Goodman’s portrayal that the final reconciliation between Walter and the Dude feels like a thing of beauty.
Played by: Colin Farrell
Movie: In Bruges (2008)
“A lot of midgets tend to kill themselves. A disproportionate amount, actually. Hervé Villechaize off of Fantasy Island. I think somebody from the Time Bandits did. I suppose they must get really sad about like… being really little and that… people looking at them, laughing at them, calling them names. You know, ‘short arse.’ There’s another famous midget. I miss him but I can’t remember. It’s not the R2-D2 man; no, he’s still going. I hope your midget doesn’t kill himself.”
Ray’s just your average Irish bloke from Dublin. He also shoots people for money. Yes, the hit man occupation proves quite tragic for poor Ray, who spends most of the movie in the all-in-one heaven/hell/purgatory that is the city of Bruges (it’s in Belgium). Whether it be flirting with a Belgian film star or shuffling morosely through medieval sightseeing, it’s clear that Ray is a really a kid at heart, oddly juxtaposed with the traumatic experience that puts him and his partner Ken in Bruges in the first place. Farrell’s facial tics and physicality imbue the character with life that’s sorely missing from most movie protagonists. Farrell himself has called it best role he’s ever played, and I find it hard to argue.
1. Patrick Bateman
Played by: Christian Bale
Movie: American Psycho (2000)
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable…I simply am not there.”
Yet another lovable psychopath makes it onto my list (are we noticing a trend?). Bale’s performance in the role can come off as histrionic, yet that is precisely what the character of Patrick Bateman requires: he is an actor. Bale’s Bateman is a high-powered, financially well-off Wall Street broker, who in his spare time enjoys respite as a serial killer..or so it seems. But as we learn more about Patrick, and the film delves into the surreal and bizarre, his penchants for violence and monologuing go from the horrifying to the downright hilarious. Bateman’s attempts to assert himself in a world of superficiality prove both futile and pathetic, exposing a very lonely and insecure existence. His chilling murders are not greeted with horror but with mockery, as his peers (and even we, the audience) refuse to believe the details of his stories. In the final shot, his eyes seem to look at us with a strange combination of madness…and sadness. It’s that connection of insanity and humanity that makes Patrick Bateman my favorite film character.