What is it about the cinema that lends itself so well to obsessive characters? You know the ones. Those determined individuals that push themselves and others, beyond all reason, in the single minded pursuit of a specific goal. It’s certainly great theater seeing someone fight against the establishment, chase immortality, or strive to better themselves (sometimes at the expense of their own humanity and others’ mortality).
Here follows a small collection of films that are not only great in and of themselves, but also as studies of some of the most compellingly fanatical, driven, and inescapably obsessed characters ever committed to celluloid.
Included are, among others, a criminally underseen work from one of American cinema’s true masters, Martin Scorcese, and a pair of unofficial companion pieces from one of the most dynamic one-two punches the movies have ever seen, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Also included are two of the more engrossing documentaries of the 20th century; both of which look at impressive feats of will that by all accounts should not have been possible.
Before we begin there is one important distinction that needs to be made, that between obsession and addiction. Think of obsession as a burning desire to achieve a goal. That goal can be specific such as that of Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s 1982 classic of the same name or it can be more abstract like Caden Cotard’s quest in Synecdoche, New York.
Addiction films, on the other end, should be thought of as those that deal with characters a chemical, medical need for something or other (alcohol, gambling, etc.). For example, the Philip Seymour Hoffman gambling film Owning Mahowny was scrapped from an earlier version of this list. Enjoy and happy viewing.
1. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
There’s perhaps no better place to start an examination of obsessive characters than with a pair of films from the man that many would argue is the quintessential obsessive filmmaker, Werner Herzog.
In his third film, Herzog cast noted method actor and all-around lunatic Klaus Kinski in the title role of Don Aguirre, the ruthless leader of a 16th century Spanish expedition of conquistadors in search of the mythical city of riches El Dorado. From the opening sequence on – a spellbinding series of shots in which the explorers make their way down a seemingly unnavigable mountain pass, horses and all – Kinski’s Aguirre is faced with daunting obstacle after daunting obstacle.
How many brutal deaths, torrential downpours, and bouts of starvation will it take, his followers wonder, before their leader will mercifully reverse course? The thought never enters Aguirre’s head space. The infinite riches of the City of Gold and the perceived immortality that goes along with those riches is too much for him to resist. Aguirre is a god of his own creation, and in a stunning final sequence the grandiosity by which he lives his life finally manifests itself.
2. Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)
A decade after Aguirre: The Wrath of God Herzog tackled yet another character with an all-consuming desire to do something truly special. Again, Klaus Kinski was cast in the title role, this time as Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, or “Fitzcarraldo,” as he was known to the Peruvian natives in the film.
Disregarding the legendary production of Fitzcarraldo itself (Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams details the absurd goings-on of Herzog’s typically tumultuous location shoot), the film is a brilliant glimpse in to the one track mind of a man whose sole dream in life is to open an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle.
The film details Fitzcarraldo’s quest to fulfill that lofty goal in excruciating detail. Most memorably in the legendary scene in which Fitzcarraldo, his crew, and dozens of native peoples slowly, painstakingly, drag a steam ship up and over a steep hill in to the rushing rapids on the other side.
It’s set pieces like this that best showcase not only the lunacy of Fitzcarraldo the character, but also the lengths to which Herzog the filmmaker was willing to go to fully capture the mindset of a truly obsessed individual; an individual in whom Herzog saw more than a little of himself.
3. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
Seemingly impossible feats and obsessive characters go hand-in-hand. It takes a special kind of person to undertake tasks that fly in the face of reason and rational thinking and what better medium than film to capture those spectacular endeavors? There are few escapades more spectacular than that detailed in James Marsh’s award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire.
Chronicling French tightrope walker and daredevil Phillipe Petit’s 1974 quest to walk between New York City’s World Trade Center twin towers, Marsh employs a captivating mixture of talking head recollections (Petit himself is profoundly compelling; he hasn’t lost a bit of the wild-eyed verve he had when carrying out his daring feats all those years ago), home movie clips showcasing Petit’s lifelong love of tightrope acrobatics, and recreations (think Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line).
One such recreation is a lengthy sequence in which Petit and his ramshackle team make their way to the top floor of one of the towers, only to spot a security guard making his rounds. Petit and friends hastily hide under a section of tarp for what Petit insists is hours, as the guard aimlessly wanders about. This anecdote and many others almost seem too improbable to be true, yet, when Petit takes that first step out into the nothingness of the New York City skyline we can’t help but believe.
4. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorcese, 1982)
Despite the success and critical acclaim they achieved with 1976’s Taxi Driver Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro had an itch that still needed to be scratched.
It must have been an incessant, interminable, downright annoying itch because it manifested itself as Rupert Pupkins, the human embodiment of won’t-take-no-for-an-answer and the “hero” from 1982’s The King of Comedy. I put “hero” in quotes because De Niro’s Pupkins, while possessing just about every underdog characteristic one can name, also has some dark qualities that hearken back to past De Niro characters like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta.
Pupkins, like several others on this list, wants to be famous. More specifically, he wants to be a famous stand-up comedian. So, who better to seek out for advice than his idol, late night talk show host Jerry Langford (a thankfully restrained Jerry Lewis).
After a series of polite words of wisdom from Langford that don’t quite take Pupkins’ career to the next level, Rupert attempts to climb the ladder of success the only way he knows how – by force. In a masterful performance from De Niro, Rupert oscillates seamlessly between obsessed stalker and honest to goodness charmer as he slowly, painfully, comes to the realization that some things just may not be meant to be.
5. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Breaking Charlie Kaufman’s magnum opus Synecdoche, New York and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s towering performance therein down to a concise two or three hundred words is a fool’s errand; and that’s fine. After all, it is at it’s core a 124 minute summation of not only one man’s life, but also his hopes and dreams, his fears and failings.
The obsessiveness of Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard seems almost puny when stacked up against the entirety of his being. But obsessed he was. Not with his family (until it was far too late), but with his health. Not with his love life (what little of it there was), but with his work.
Despite the literal and figurative deterioration of seemingly everything in his life, Caden finagled a MacArthur Grant to help fund a play he’s been working on. The play never really comes to fruition. That’s not a spoiler but an inevitability. See, I’m still not convinced Caden ever had any intention of getting his production to the stage.
The control he finally was able to experience by recreating his life from the ground up was enough for him. Even if it meant dragging countless souls in to the pit of unending rehearsals, casting changes, and indecisiveness. Caden Cotard was getting another shot at life and he didn’t plan on screwing it up.