It almost seems counter-intuitive to think of films focusing on apathetic or detached characters as being ripe for great entertainment. The narratives can be slow going, the plots can be bare bones, and the very idea of an indifferent or emotional lead character(s) has the potential to be unappealing in and of itself.
The list that follows contains 10 films that couldn’t be further removed that dull image that may be in your head right now. Yes, they contain wholly detached protagonists (I use that term in the most loose way imaginable) that often grate on the nerves of the audience.
Yes, you may want to simultaneously cover your eyes and reach through your screen and wring their necks while they carry out some atrocity. But make no mistake, these are all so much more than brief glances at a maladjusted individual. They’re expertly constructed character studies and poignant social criticism brought to the screen by true master craftsmen.
1. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
If one were to have a gander at Emilio Estevez’s (admittedly sparse) filmography, it would appear that he was playing decidedly against type in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man, and they would be right. However, for those of us reared by Gordon Bombay and the rest of the Ducks it’s important to look back at Estevez’s first leading role as Otto, the disenfranchised, unambitious, and at times downright emotionless young man at the heart of the film.
During one particularly dull afternoon Otto comes in to contact with Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud, a grizzled repossession agent that needs a little help to secure a repo’d vehicle. Otto, essentially duped in to helping Bud, soon finds himself in the repossession business himself. What makes Estevez’s portrayal of Otto so jarringly effective are the increasingly bizarre sets of circumstances in which he finds himself.
While Repo Man is above all else a look in to a time and place (a sun soaked mid-80’s Los Angeles gorgeously photographed by the great Robby Muller), there is a narrative involving the search for a car with a trunk that’s home to some sort of mysterious, glowing force capable of vaporizing anyone unfortunate enough to get near.
The absurdity of this plot line serves an important function: it presents a heightened juxtaposition to the dispassionate way in which Otto lives his life. As everyone around him is scrambling he remains relatively stoic; not as a calculated choice through which he deals with the situation, but because he truly can’t be bothered.
2. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel, 1972)
Speaking of absurdity, no one filmmaker utilized it quite as efficiently as Luis Bunuel. And you know what, it’s likely that Alex Cox came across this or any number of Bunuel gems as Repo Man ruminated in his mind. Because when it came to characters staring straight-faced in to the mouth of preposterousness, Bunuel remains at the top of the heap.
Often imitated but not quite yet duplicated The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’s sparse narrative involves a group of six upper middle class people and their fruitless attempts to have a meal together. The film is put together in an almost episodic manner, with the group aimlessly wandering down a picturesque dirt road in the French countryside in between their increasingly surreal efforts to grab a bite to eat.
A particularly memorable scene finds the group interrupted by a French Army platoon, mid-mission. Still, they are decidedly nonplussed. Like much of Luis Bunuel’s oeuvre, Discreet Charm… works as both a pure piece of absurd entertainment and a harshly playful send up of middle class malaise and the silly customs with which that malaise goes hand in hand.
As their encounters grow more and more nonsensical (a restaurant owner lies dead mere feet from the dining area; a police officer nonchalantly arrests everyone just as they’re sitting down for dinner) the six friends simply roll with it, all the way up and through a dangerous finale. Discreet Charm… is an absolute master class in social criticism wrapped up in brilliant absurdist surrealism and subtle characterizations.
3. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
There’s something so, so effective about the juxtaposition between an unhappy or this case, apathetic character and a beautiful location. Perhaps as a viewer our mind has to work overtime to peer in to the psyche of said character in an attempt to understand just why they feel the way they do.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes favorite La grande bellezza that setting is Rome, and that character is Jep Gambardella (Tony Servillo), a writer who, shortly after his 65th birthday (a glamorous celebration that brings out all of the city’s elite), finds himself stuck in a rut of disenchantment. His friends, though many, are of the more vapid variety, passing time by lounging about and gossiping about this, that, and the other.
In between the constant frivolity, they partake in basement Botox injections that have an almost spiritual air about them. Jep plays along with it all, though he’s clearly only half-interested. The shallowness of the decadent lifestyle he’s chosen to lead has finally started to dawn on him.
Back to the setting: While the audience attempts to reconcile one of the most gorgeous, historical, artistically rich places on earth with Jep’s discontent, that very same setting (thanks in part to Luca Bigazzi’s stunning cinematography) is working as a catalyst towards Jep’s unlocking of the door which hides some of life’s greatest intrinsic pleasures.
While we’re struggling to understand how he could feel such a way while gazing upon the Marforio statue or looking out at the Coliseum from his balcony, perhaps Jep Gambardella is feeling much the same way.
4. Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Imamura, 1979)
From a great beauty to profound ugliness, Shoehei Imamura’s unflinching study of a murderous man on the run is a similarly confounding look at disillusionment and just how easy it may be for some to stray from the correct path. Told through a series of flashbacks, Vengeance is Mine follows Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and his commission of a series of despicable, seemingly senseless crimes.
All the way on the sociopathological end of the apathy spectrum, Enokizu expertly weaves his way in to the lives of his unsuspecting victims. What makes the film such a master class of apathetic characterization and detached storytelling is the utter lack of motivation Imamura makes the audience privy too.
It’s a brave choice that lends Vengeance is Mine an almost documentarian quality not unlike the equally sublimely subversive Man Bites Dog. Some familial flashbacks give us a sliver of how Enokizu may have turned out in such a way, but not why. Is Enokizu seeking vengeance on his family for his troubled upbringing? Is he taking a hypocritical post-war Japanese society to task for past misdeeds? It’s impossible to tell.
But some of the pleasure (insofar as pleasure can be derived from such a harsh, brutal piece of work) on the viewer’s part comes from analyzing these breadcrumbs dropped by Imamura and a magnificent Ogata, in the hopes of finding an answer. There may not be one to be found.
5. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
If there’s one sentiment that can be taken away from the New Hollywood movement of the late-1960’s and early 1970’s it’s the idea that one should not hesitant to strike out on one’s own and forge one’s own path. There will be bumps in the road and those close to you might not quite understand it but the peace of mind that comes with doing your own thing should make it all worth it. This is line of thinking that runs through Bob Rafelson’s era-defining Five Easy Pieces.
At the heart of the film is Jack Nicholson’s Robert Dupea, a young man from a well-off family that long ago skirted the path that was chosen for him, choosing to make a living through odd jobs around the country before settling in to a job in the oil fields.
We see a bit of Dupea’s eccentric, wandering personality in the first act (one memorable scene sees him hopping on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of a traffic jam to play a piano), but the film truly gets going once he makes a trip home to visit his family, and it’s at this point that get a glimpse as to why he chose the life he did.
See, Robert comes from a family of classically trained musicians (all of the sudden, that impromptu traffic jam performance makes a lot of sense), and like so many of the characters that would end up defining the New Hollywood era of filmmaking, he was pushed in to a life that he never wanted. Thus, what felt like apathy to the audience, and what must have seemed like it to his family, may have simply been the restlessness that goes along with being in a time and place that Robert wasn’t quite meant for.