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The 25 Most Unlikable Protagonists in Movie History

08 June 2015 | Features, Other Lists | by Jason Turer

unlikable movie protagonists

Many films (and TV shows, especially these days) revolve around an antihero – a character who is, shall we say, lacking in your typical heroic qualities. Some, such as Borat, Dirty Harry, and Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, to name just a few, are oddly likable despite their flaws. The ones on this list are not those people.

Ranging from the merely annoying to the just plain evil, the characters here – all of whom are protagonists in their respective films – are unsympathetic in numerous ways. That’s not to say the films themselves are bad – several are actually quite brilliant – but many of these are not easy to watch because it’s simply impossible to root for their protagonists in the way we’re accustomed to doing.

Now, there are frequently mitigating factors to take into account, some of which are beyond the control of these characters and thus not their fault. Addictions, mental illnesses, and traumatic or tragic backstories are often seen in characters of this type. These elements help explain, though not necessarily excuse, the obnoxious, cruel, or antisocial behavior they exhibit.

That said, sometimes none of these factors is present, and we’re simply left with someone who is inexplicably awful, and not even in a manner we can enjoy vicariously. The distinction is significant, as some villainous characters, from Heath Ledger’s Joker to Gollum to Darth Vader to Hannibal Lecter, are, despite their actions, fun to watch. The twisted souls on this list, on the other hand… well, it’s often with a mixture of fascination and revulsion that we stick it through to see what happens to them.

NOTE: The characters below are ranked according to how UNLIKABLE they are, which isn’t necessarily proportional to the nature or degree of their actions.

 

25. Ronnie Barnhardt – Observe and Report (2009)

Ronnie Barnhardt – Observe and Report (2009)

Though Observe and Report may appear similar on the surface to the family-friendly Paul Blart: Mall Cop released the same year, the two films could not be more different in tone. Jody Hill’s R-rated dark comedy centers on a deluded, narcissistic mall security guard played by Seth Rogen who could almost certainly be diagnosed with a mental illness (to the film’s credit, a later plot point acknowledges this honest truth).

It’s a departure for Rogen, whom audiences are used to identifying with as a loveable goof, and who subverts expectations here as a man who takes his job way too seriously and is quick to anger.

The film’s most shocking moment, in which Ronnie date-rapes Brandi, the ditzy make-up counter girl played by Anna Faris, caused some controversy upon the film’s release, though the scene’s punchline delivers one of the film’s biggest laughs, albeit horrified ones. Is the joke in bad taste? Definitely. Offensive? Depends on the viewer. One thing’s for sure at least: this ain’t Paul Blart.

 

24. Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Chronicling a bleak week in the life of a struggling fictional folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, this Coen brothers film is a study in pathos and the reality of trying to make a living as an artist. The T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack is fantastic, and the production design perfectly captures the look of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, but this is not a fun film to watch.

While Isaac gives an earnest and even brilliant performance as the title character, Llewyn Davis is not an easy guy to like. He’s prickly, highly protective of his work, and frequently lashes out at those around him. His behavior isn’t tough to understand – after all, his pregnant ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) hates him and wants an abortion, his former singing partner has committed suicide, and he’s forced to carry around his neighbor’s cat after it escapes from its apartment.

The film’s dreary color palette seems to be a match for Llewyn’s temperament, making this a film that, while definitely worth checking out, is unlikely to leave you in much of a good mood.

 

23. Willie T. Stokes – Bad Santa (2003)

Willie T. Stokes – Bad Santa

The film that seems to have kicked off the latest Hollywood trend in lazy titling (Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa, Bad Words, etc.) is also the finest of the bunch. Billy Bob Thornton is appalling (in the best possible way) as a professional thief who annually masquerades as a department store Santa in order to break into mall vaults with his elf-impersonating dwarf co-conspirator, Marcus (Tony Cox).

Constantly drunk, horny, foul-mouthed, and exhibiting not even the slightest amount of self-respect, Willie isn’t even good at his cover job since he hates children. His only redeeming quality is his talent at cracking a safe, and while his attempts to instill confidence in a weird overweight kid with poor social skills are slightly commendable, he still makes the worst role model since Adam Sandler in… well, anything, actually.

With the highest amount of profanities spoken in any Christmas movie, this hilariously inappropriate dark comedy from director Terry Zwigoff is the ideal viewing choice for anyone tired of the typically wholesome holiday fare.

 

22. Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

the wolf of wall street (2013)

The first character based on a real person on this list, Jordan Belfort may seem harmless on the outside, but make no mistake, the man is a textbook sociopath. Played with relish by an Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio, Belfort gleefully narrates his life story, describing with no shortage of detail how much money he makes and the debauchery he spends it on.

Criticized by some as excessive in both its bladder-challenging length and in its unrestrained depiction of all kinds of contemptible behavior, this Martin Scorsese film is – as adapted from Belfort’s own memoir – an ode to hedonism in all its extremes. The scoundrel of the title consumes illegal drugs and has sex with prostitutes at a rate hitherto unseen in modern cinema, never apologizing for any of it.

The film is definitely over-the-top, but at the same time, that’s precisely the point. By refusing to tone down the nature of Belfort’s lifestyle, Scorsese succeeds in outraging the viewer. The relatively light sentence Belfort ultimately receives for his company’s unlawful actions only makes the smug former stockbroker even more disgusting and worthy of condemnation.

 

21. Rupert Pupkin – The King of Comedy (1983)

The King Of Comedy (1983)

Another Scorsese antihero, Robert De Niro’s aspiring stand-up comic would be sympathetic if he weren’t so insane. Delusional to the point of kidnapping his idol, Jerry Langford (a perfectly-cast Jerry Lewis), Rupert Pupkin’s unorthodox pursuit of stardom makes this film – though comedic – uncomfortable to sit through from beginning to end.

Of course, Pupkin’s stalker friend played by Sandra Bernhard doesn’t come off much better, though her lunacy does perhaps make our protagonist look slightly less crazy by comparison. Rest assured, however – the two are clearly certifiable.

An underrated entry in Martin Scorsese’s filmography (and not even the last of his on this list), The King of Comedy remains a startling look at what the most unhinged among us are willing to do in the name of achieving fame, and as such, is simultaneously disquieting yet utterly compelling viewing.

 

20. Freddie Quell – The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

While many found this film to be tedious, enigmatic, and tough to understood, there can be no doubt that it looks amazing and boasts impressive performances all around (hence its three Oscar nominations for acting).

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a belligerent and alcoholic horndog who latches onto the dubious teachings of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed writer/doctor/physicist/philosopher who is clearly inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Constantly drunk, hotheaded, and nevertheless improbably drawn to the charismatic Dodd, Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is not a character we’re meant to relate to easily.

This is probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s most divisive film, having left some unfulfilled and confused and others awestruck by its supposed genius. More controversial in the end for its wildly divergent critical reception than its predicted veiled takedown of Scientology, The Master is a mysterious, challenging film that needs to be seen to be discussed, though few are likely to argue that its protagonist offers much in the way of audience surrogacy.

 

19. Billy Brown – Buffalo ’66 (1998)

Buffalo 66

Say what you will about the always-provocative Vincent Gallo – his feature film directorial debut, which he also co-wrote and stars in, is as fascinating as it is unconventional. Gallo plays Billy Brown, an angry, erratic man who, upon being released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit, immediately kidnaps a random dance student named Layla (Christina Ricci) so she can pose as his wife when he visits his parents in Buffalo.

Throughout the ordeal, which Layla strangely submits to with barely any resistance, Billy is thoroughly unpleasant, continually threatening and verbally abusing her. As the film goes on, of course, we gain insight into how he became this way, not that that excuses any of his conduct.

It’s a rare movie kidnapping whose motive is neither sexual nor financial, and we can at least take solace in the fact that for all his bluster, Billy never tries to take advantage of his victim (by the film’s end, it’s closer to the other way around, in fact). It’s definitely not your average crime movie, and the protagonist is barely sympathetic, but the story it tells is unique, involving, and ultimately rewarding.

 

18. Derek Vinyard – American History X (1998)

American History X (1998)

This is a tricky one. Few main characters change as drastically as Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi skinhead in this harrowing drama from director Tony Kaye. The film tells dueling narratives, the black-and-white one detailing Derek’s life as part of a white supremacist movement and his subsequent time in prison, and the color section taking place in the present, in which Derek attempts to convince his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), not to go down the same path of hate.

Norton’s go-for-broke, Oscar-nominated performance is both scary and heartbreaking, showing how easily the right set of circumstances can make someone slip into the destructive world of organized race-based violence, and the devastating consequences those choices can have on everyone around him.

And while Derek does genuinely try to redeem himself after his transformative time in prison, it’s in many ways too late, as he is reminded every time he looks in the mirror and sees the enormous swastika still tattooed on his chest.

It’s not easy for us to forget how Derek used to be either, his actions seared into our collective memories forever (if anything, the film can be credited with introducing audiences to the concept of the “curb stomp”). But in the end, maybe that’s the point, and it shouldn’t be quickly forgotten.

 

 

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  • Milica Joksimović

    llewyn davis WTF?!

  • Arnaldo Fernandez

    Jordan Belfort? No way!

  • Ozz Wald

    Robert Ford “The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford”

  • gabriellecastilho

    I would only add Kevin from “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.

    • Mariam MH

      God! He was a pain in the a**

    • Shrungar Dadarkar

      Beautiful film, but he was not the protagonist.

  • Sau Empty

    you could have added tonny montanna in the similar ground, although, we all love him but his character in the movie is of rather some illiterate cuban, treating his woman and his sister in some fucked up, man dominated sort of a way.

    • Jesus H. Goldberg

      Speaking of illiterates….

  • Vince Duggan

    2 Aussies : John Bunting, Snowtown & Janine Cody, Animal Kingdom. Oh, and a Brit: Joseph, Tyrannosaur

  • Jaime Martins Veloso

    Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would definitely fit in this list.

  • Kailyn Terlato

    Bruce Robertson – Filth.

  • voilacarla

    This was a wonderful list!! Sequencing was on point (although i do agree that Kevin is much more despicable than Belfort, but that Mr. Turner trumps both).

    Was wondering if you’ve given any thought to the unreliable narrator? I’ve been looking for a good list on that. 🙂 Thanks again for writing this!

  • Aldo Luna

    I had to double check, and i still can’t believe Nurse Ratchet is not in this list.

    • Alex Nasaudean

      Nurse Ratched

    • duke_of_omnium

      Not a protagonist.

  • Rajshri ‘Suvi’ Bharath

    Gone Girl!

  • Ayuj Consul

    Not the protagonist, but I’d sure love to see JK Simmons from Whiplash, Terence Lawrence…

  • John Davidsson

    The list does feel a bit boring considering the fact that it features nothing but modern films, almost all from the 21th century. However, here are some more suggestions for you, and yes, they are also both modern.

    The characters of Harmony Korine & The protagonist in Michael Haneke’s The piano teacher.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    I don’t even like The Shining.
    But Jack should be on this list.
    Yes, he’s going mad, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that he is losing his humanity.

    And honestly Travis Bickle was never unlikable, not even for a second. I found him more relatable honestly.

    • John Carvalho

      Travis Bickle was a bigoted, hateful and delusional man with murder thoughts. That’s the whole point of the movie: he was made a hero because he saved a girl from a life of prostitution but if his plans of assassinating a politician were made concrete, he would have been a villain in the media. He was totally lost in his goals.

  • Abdeldjalil E.

    Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest..i mean…that whore!

    • Jesus H. Goldberg

      Listen, Abdelbinretard, find someone who can read. Let them read the title of this article. Then let them explain to you what a “protagonist” is. Then shut the hell up. Thank you!

  • Hamblerger

    I would think that Miles from “Sideways” deserves at least an honorable mention. Giamatti was excellent in portraying a neurotic, self-obsessed and socially…awkward? Seems too weak a word. He was excellent in portraying a socially inept and generally unlikable person while still imbuing him with an essential humanity. A very difficult film to watch at times, but in a good way.

    • Hunter Daniels

      But he’s very likable. And you’re rooting for him the whole way. It doesn’t fit at all

      • Hamblerger

        Really? I wasn’t. I just wanted him to get the hell over himself (which, to be fair, he eventually did to some degree).

  • dawnofmegiddo

    That’s odd…I’ve never once encountered a film buff–or anyone–who found “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski to be “unlikeable.”

    • Hunter Daniels

      The author NEVER said that “the dude” was unlikable. In fact they said the opposite. Read it again –
      “Some, such as Borat, Dirty Harry, and Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, to name just a few, are oddly likable despite their flaws. The ones on this list are not those people”

  • sCARfiNGer

    Anthony Wong’s character in Ebola Syndrome is the most appalling character I’ve ever seen.

  • I Am

    Isn’t Michael unlikable in Godfather II ?

  • duke_of_omnium

    I’m not sure about Monster. Theron actually made me sympathize with her. No, her victims didn’t deserve to be killed; but I was sorry for Lee Wuornos

  • Still D.R.E.

    Freddie Quell and Rupert Pupkin are such losers

  • Jimi LaMort

    Vincent Price as Prince Prospero in THE MASQUE OF RED DEATH

  • Amy from Gone Girl? No one, really?

  • Jorge Pancolart

    Splendid list plus plus (Dis)honorable Mentions. Some unseen underdogs and some movies to watch again.

  • I would also include Filth

  • Matt Loudon

    Malcolm from Random Acts of Violence

  • HLLH

    I actually like Plainview, he’s a bastard, haha.

  • Gines Velazquez

    Coral Fabre from Deep Crimson.

  • Kostas Fnord Dagres

    Michael Douglas in Falling Down

  • Unkle Amon

    Hats down, Jason, esp. for #1.

  • The Piano Teacher

  • Arthur Rimbaud

    Charles Foster Kane for God’s sake!!!

  • OskarMatzerath

    Jerry Maguire.

  • Ciszon Sziszon

    How in the world is llewyn davis unlikeable ?!?!

  • Klaus Dannick

    The Firefly family in The Devil’s Rejects. Or Sheriff Wydell from the same film. Regardless of whom one considers to be the protagonist of the film, they’re terrible characters.

  • ton

    Allie Fox, the protagonist of “The Mosquito Coast”.

  • Eduardo

    Why unlikely? Because instead of being aseptic characters they are more complex human beings just like everyone in the world?

  • Dorotea

    Chad from In The Company of Men?

  • Bob George

    Unlikeable isn’t the right way to discribe these characters, anti-heroes probably is ,but most of these listed here are very likeable indeed

  • Craig Campbell

    ty cobb. way worse than la motta.

  • Carly

    It’s not a very good movie but Dr. Caine from Hollow Man? He’s a jackass from the first frame but he eventually used his invisibility to rape women and murder his co-workers!