In a human context, self-destructive behavior is a catch-all term for conceptualizing destructive acts brought to oneself. Generally, self-destructive acts may be deliberate, born of impulse or developed as a habit. The term, however, tends to be applied toward self-destruction that can be habit-forming or addictive, and thus potentially fatal.
These characters meet these criteria in one way or another. They are battling inner and outer demons that destroy themselves while fighting them. In most cases, their self-destructive behavior had fatal results. These are some of cinema’s most well-known self-destructive characters.
1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Randle McMurphy)
Set in Oregon in 1963, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” features Randle, an anti-authoritarian criminal serving a short prison sentence for a statutory rape charge, but is transferred to a mental health facility because he wants to avoid hard labor. He has no overt sign of mental illness and thinks the facility is a cushy way to spend his sentence. However, he runs into the head of the facility, Nurse Ratched, a no-nonsense, cold, heartless tyrant villainess who does not take kindly to Randle’s shenanigans.
Randle flouts her rules with impunity, and inspires other patients to do so as well. In order to cow him into submission, Nurse Ratched uses threats and mild punishments, then shock therapy, all of which are unsuccessful. Randle sneaks his prostitute girlfriend into the facility and encourages her to relieve patient Billy Bibitt of his virginity. Ratched finds out and threatens to tell Billy’s mother. Billy commits suicide in fear and Randle chokes Ratched nearly to death. Ratched has him lobotomized in response.
Although Randle is a self-destructive character and his own arrogance and messing around eventually led to his brain-dead state, he liberates the facility and gives the patients a voice within their confines. Nurse Ratched’s voice is reduced to a whisper.
2. The Dark Knight (The Joker)
Heath Ledger’s breathtaking performance as the The Joker from “The Dark Knight” will go down in history as an amazing performance for which he will always be remembered. There is no logic to this Joker; his life is filled with unease, and there is a sense of dread in each room he enters. Even Batman plays second fiddle to his insanity.
The Joker is a self-destructive character because he has a plan, but he does not have an end goal. He hatches various villainous schemes to ensure his destructive persona is anything but pernicious and yet there is no end to his means. It’s his manic, psychopathic nature that makes him so self-destructive.
There is not a chance that The Joker can really succeed with his plans because of something that is reiterated by Alfred: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker certainly wants to watch the world burn, himself included.
3. Sid and Nancy (Sid Vicious)
“Sid and Nancy”, a British biopic from 1986, follows rock legend Sid Vicious, the bassist of the punk group the Sex Pistols, and his relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen. In 1977, Sid meets a groupie who has come to bed a member of the Sex Pistols; this groupie is Nancy. Although he dismisses her at first, he begins to date her after she sells him heroin.
The movie implies that Nancy introduced Sid to the drug, and this is where the self-destruction begins. The two fall deeply in love with each other, and the copious amount of drugs they take begin to function. Their drug-fueled relationship frays his relationship with his bandmates, and the group breaks up in January 1978.
Sid embarks on a solo career with Nancy as his manager. He and Nancy grow deeply addicted to heroin and Nancy falls into a deep depression. One night, in a drug-induced rage, the two argue; Sid stabs Nancy, whether it was intentional is left to interpretation, Nancy stumbles into the bathroom and dies, after the two had been sleeping for awhile. Sid died of a heroin overdose, after his heroin addict mother got him out of jail. RIP, Sid and Nancy.
4. Leaving Las Vegas (Ben)
Ben from “Leaving Las Vegas” is the quintessential self-destructive character. He leaves his personal and professional life behind to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. He is incredibly suicidal, who feels he has nothing to live for because of his alcoholism, after losing his job, family and friends. While in Las Vegas, he meets a hardened prostitute named Sera.
Sera and Ben begin a bizarre romantic relationship. They agree to stay with one another as long as Sera doesn’t ask Ben to stop drinking and Ben cannot chastise Sera’s occupation.
At first, their relationship is stable, but soon they become increasingly frustrated with one another. Ben returns to their shared room with another prostitute, and Sera throws him out. Sera gets brutally attacked and raped by three college students and gets evicted from their place, because of her occupational injuries. Ben calls her from his deathbed, where he dies as they make love. Both of these characters are self-destructive, but Ben actually dies because of his self-harm.
5. American Beauty (Lester Burnham)
Lester Burnham hates his predictable suburban life, and he attempts anything to burn it down. He becomes enthralled with his teenage daughter’s friend, Angela. He begins to have visions of Angela, scantily-clad in the bathtub or taking off her cheerleader’s uniform during a performance.
In order to impress Angela, he starts working out, weightlifting and smoking pot. During this mid-life crisis, he also blackmails his boss, quits his job, throws everything in sight, and starts working at a fast-food restaurant where he catches his wife having an affair.
Lester finally gets his moment with Angela and begins to seduce her. She is a virgin. Lester puts a stop to the act, and talks to Angela about their shared frustrations. All of that work for naught. As he smiles at a family picture from long ago, possibly reminiscing on a time before his self-destruction, he gets shot in the back of the head. His self-destruction leads to his demise, but Lester is happy that there is so much beauty in the world.
6. Bad Lieutenant (The lieutenant)
Gambling his life away, lying, conning, snorting cocaine, smoking crack, smoking heroin, shooting heroin, shooting at people, shooting at car radios, drinking to oblivion in a naked stupor while whoring with bondage hookers, thieving, stealing evidence, selling drugs, robbing criminals, sexually assaulting teenagers. This man is a police officer. He is the hardest of cops. His idea of justice is killing the men who committed the crime.
The crime itself is heinous; two men raped a nun, so the frustration level can be tolerated. However, the bad lieutenant, that’s his name, he has no real name, it’s not important, he just gambles and does more drugs than most drug cartels. He is able to apprehend the culprits after having an emotional breakdown in front of the crucified Christ. Although he gets justice, he also gets his comeuppance.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street (Jordan Belfort)
Professional asshole and billionaire Jordan Belfort just doesn’t have enough cocaine, uppers, downers, quaaludes, and women. He is married to a seemingly nice woman, but then he gets swept up in the Wall Street game, which leads to his self-destruction. What comes with booming Wall Street? Money and lots of it.
This rags-to-riches man now has more money than he knows what to do with. So he spends it on drugs, prostitutes, expensive cars, helicopters and everything else. He gets married again, to the beautiful and charming Naomi. She is not enough though, as he does not treat her well, cheats on her, and does drugs left and right. If you’ve seen the quaaludes scene with him and Donnie at the house, it is enough to explain his self-destruction.
In that scene, Jordan attempts to get down the stairs, make a phone call, and keep Donnie from dying. It’s very hard to watch. This is a man who has hit rock bottom because of his drug abuse. Jordan loses everything; all of the money, the company, and he even goes to jail. A minimum security jail, yes, but he’s still imprisoned for 36 months. He now makes a living hosting seminars on sales techniques. This is the ultimate rags to riches and back to rags story.