Cynicism is arguably one of these personality attributes that can make a film hero genuinely memorable. Cold realists, witty commentators and detached scepticists have been traditionally selected by directors and screenwriters that want to give a spicy sardonic tone to their movies.
They are the ones that usually get most of the catchy lines and their harshly uttered proclamations are destined to go down in history and be repeatedly quoted by those in need for some hard-boiled input. Crushers of happy-go-lucky idealisms and rivals of romanticising optimists, they verge into a quest of unveiling the cruel face of the world we live in.
The roots of their distrustful world-view can be detected in an assemblage of causes that are unfolded on screen, offering to the spectator a sneak peek of the factors that played a part in the construction of their hardened facades. Traumas, failures and repeated frustration can turn the warmest visionary to the most polemic scepticist.
In these cases cynicism becomes a life saving defence mechanism, capable of keeping away the inevitable disappointment that a sentimental mentality presupposes. In other cases the cynical film heroes seem to have just been born this way, embracing negativity as an organic element of their firm psyches.
The films below feature divergent cynical personalities that effortlessly magnetise the gazes with their temperament and arouse a stimulating questioning of socially constructed ideas and ideals. Note: The movies on the list are ranked in no particular order.
1. As Good As It Gets (Melvin Udall/ Jack Nicholson)
In this all time classic feel-good film, one of the most perfect examples of a cinematic cynical character is hilariously personified by Jack Nicholson. Melvin is a middle aged writer who suffers from a series of disorders; he is obsessive-compulsive, detached from his social surroundings and overtly suspicious and judgemental towards anyone who tries to cross the borders of his safety zone.
His gay artist neighbour and his dog, as well as an independent charismatic waitress will change his life to the better by disrupting the lonely and miserable orbit of his everyday routine.
It can be safely argued that Melvin is the epitome of a cynical film hero. He operates as a counter-force against the otherwise spread humanism of the movie and his -realistically speaking- serious psychological problems are embellished through his caricaturisation. An additional irony springs from the fact that he is a writer of romantic best-sellers, a genre that naturally contradicts his idiosyncrasy and makes the viewer wonder if he was just a sentimentalist in disguise all along.
2. The Face of Another (Mr.Okuyama/ Tatsuya Nakadai)
The 60’s were a golden decade for avant-garde Japanese cinema and Hiroshi Teshigahara was undoubtedly one of the greatest trailblazer directors of that era. His three deeply philosophical and existential films, The Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes and The Pitfall, based on the novels of the masterful writer Kobo Abe can be all regarded as a homage to a cynical way of viewing the state of things.
The Face of Another, featuring the emblematic Tatsuya Nakadai, is the one whose cold realism is more closely attached to social values and stereotypes.
Mr. Okuyama is man whose face was severely and irrevocably injured during an unspecified work-related accident. He keeps on living his damaged life wearing bandages around his head all day long. With the help of his psychiatrist/plastic surgeon he acquires a mask that is constructed using the face of a stranger as a model.
The new but fake face will give Okuyama unique possibilities that he wasn’t even able to dream about. He is free to do whatever he wants, in the shadow of his anonymity he is able to construct a persona whose actions and reactions will have no consequences to his real life.
In one of the most cynical sequences of the film, the man decides to seduce his own wife in order to test if she would choose a handsome stranger to her deformed man. The mask quickly gives Okuyama new dimensions and the line between himself and his alter-ego grows thinner and thinner.
3. American Psycho (Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale)
American Psycho is a film with a deeply cruel, sexist and misanthropist protagonist, even if it tries to water it down with generous doses of vivid quirkiness. Patrick Bateman is the embodiment of the American dream; young, wealthy, successful, with a future filled with opportunities.
He is also a ruthless capitalist, willing to sacrifice everything and everyone in order to be the alpha male between his posh and shallow friends and girlfriends. The over-abundance of stimuli and satisfaction in his life turns him eventually numb and he comes face to face with the emptiness of his existence.
At that point Bateman starts killing people for the sake of feeling again. The blood and the goriness of his actions recharge his batteries for a little while longer. He murders his colleges, prostitutes and random strangers. Even if he is a complete psychopath his encounters keep on recognising him as an absolute god and a moving success story.
But as he confesses to his one true friend, himself: ”I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust.” The ending of the film leaves every scenario open: who is really Patrick Bateman and what has his own lifestyle done to him?
4. Ida (Wanda/ Agata Kulesza)
Anna is a young nun who is preparing herself to take her vows in a secluded monastery. Before doing so, her spiritual mothers inform her that she should visit her aunt, Wanda, who is her only relative to be still in life.
The religious girl leaves the community and her whole life is turned upside down when she finally gets in touch with Wanda. Her aunt is a cynical, alcoholic judge who looks down on the choices of her niece as she truly believes that there are earthly pleasures worth to die for. Referring to sex, she cynically advices the girl: ”You should try, otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”
The whole film practically revolves around the chemistry between the two women, with Wanda being the one constantly interrogating religion and the morals it preaches. Her cynicism forms the entity of her world-view where belief in values like selflessness and righteousness equals naivety. The collision between the different standpoints of the heroines will keep going with unpredictable results for both of them.
5. Forrest Gump (Lieutenant Dan/ Gary Sinise)
Lieutenant Dan is probably one of the most captivating cynical characters ever made. Descendant of a family of soldiers who participated in the biggest and most crucial battles of American history, he has only one goal for his life: to live and die fighting for the glory of his country.
When the good-hearted and simple-minded Forrest Gump saves his life from during a battle in Vietnam, the lieutenant holds a grudge against him for not letting him fulfil his destiny. Losing his legs only makes his life worse and the already hardened soldier becomes even more cynical.
One of the hero’s biggest enemies is God, as he can blame him or his non-existence for all of his misfortunes. ”Where the hell is this God of yours?” shouts fiercely at Forrest gazing towards the storming sky, in one of the scenes of the film. His life a couple of years after the end of the war has been transformed to a vicious circle of alcohol abuse and depression when Forrest enters his world for the second time.
But then, slowly but steadily the lieutenant’s mentality shifts and his heart gets warmer. Without losing his tempestuous temperament Dan sees some light at the end of the tunnel and starts living his life again.
6. Confessions (Yuko/ Takako Matsu)
Confessions’ heroine Yuko is seemingly everything but cynical. She looks like the definition of sweetness and kindness, a young angel faced teacher that could have all of the attributes of an exemplary pedagogue.
Until the day that she finds her only daughter drowned in the school’s swimming pool. The perpetrators are two of her own students who killed the little girl in the middle of a prank. Being protected by the law because of their young age, the boys are left unpunished until Yuko decides to show her ruthless side.
The teacher stands in front of the whole class confessing that she injected HIV positive blood in the two brats’ chocolate milk drink. Fear and loathing burst in the institution and the boys’ lives turn into nightmares. The morality of Yuko’s doings is controversial and her cynicism indisputable. The students, though being children, are murderers and they have to be disciplined in the cruellest way possible.