Morally ambiguous protagonists have been a staple in stories and films. It is easy to see why: it’s interesting to follow a person whose morals differ from the norm. Cinema, as an art-form well-suited for putting the viewer in a whole different world, has thus used protagonists with rather interesting morals with great success across many different genres.
Characters with a completely different moral code are a staple of genres like crime or film-noir. Think of the moral code of gangsters, or the specific set of rules the private detectives tend to follow. Often these are characters that are partly outside of the normal world, and it is fascinating to explore a world that is so different than our own.
Then there are characters that are motivated by a strong drive, like vengeance, that will do whatever it takes and seem to break all the rules for the fulfilment of their goal. And there are simply characters that are ‘bad’; they spit on the normal morals and rules of society for the sake of it. The goal with this list was to find morally ambiguous protagonists across a number of genres, and avoid some more obvious choices. Here are ‘great movies with morally ambiguous protagonists’.
10. I Saw the Devil (2010)
Absolutely brutal Korean action-thriller. Jang Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) is a serial killer who takes young women and children as his victims, one day he murders the fiancée of a secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). Kim swears his revenge and goes after the serial killer.
Likely inspired by his fellow countryman Chan-wook Park, who also shares an interest in revenge, violence and the dehumanization it creates, director Jee-woon Kim has created a stylish but brutal film in ‘I Saw the Devil’. Min-Sik Choi is completely chilling as the moral-less psychopath Jang Kyung-chul, who will get the blood out from under your nails. The way Kim Soo-hyeon hunts, tortures and releases him throughout the film turns equally dark. Is such an extremely violent and cruel response ever warranted? It is up to the viewer to make up his mind.
9. Your Friends and Neighbours (1998)
Cynical and pretty miserable picture by director Neil LaBute. It is pretty hard to find a moral character in the bunch. We mostly follow Jerry, played by Ben Stiller, who starts a relationship with Mary (Amy Brenneman) the wife of his good friend. This starts a chain-reaction in which all the couples friends and spouses get tangled up.
None of the characters are really likeable. Stiller and Aaron Eckhart are mostly pathetic, but Jason Patric as arch-misogynist Cary is legitimately a terrifying figure, and one that you can easily image being your neighbour you don’t realise is deeply twisted inside.
‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ is best seen as a (even more) cynical Woody Allen picture, with adults acting like little children in their relations with each other. It echoes pictures like ‘Manhattan’, but in its darker moments the film might reach ‘Match Point’ in amorality. Specifically one well-acted but chilling scene with Patric, Eckhart and Stiller in a sauna. This is a film for those watchers that do not think particularly highly of humans.
8. Fallen Angels (1995)
Another stylish but violent film ‘Fallen Angels’ tells the story of a hitman and his female partner falling in love. Both are questionable characters who deal in violence. ‘Fallen Angels’ is set against the backdrop of Hong-Kong nightlife while it follows its characters.
Director Kar-Wai Wong was influenced a lot by photographers when creating this film. That gives the film a disjointed, and energetic feel, and adding in a cool soundtrack that takes influence form such diverse genres as trip-hop and reggae and you have a very unique film. Kar-Wai Wong doesn’t fear both violence and comedy in his crazy film, that is at its core really a romance story.
7. Bullhead (2011)
‘Bullhead’ is the debut of director Michaël R. Roskam and it is an interesting picture. Farmer Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) pumps himself and his cows full of hormones, to that end he is also involved in the hormone mafia in Belgium. An childhood friend of his Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) goes undercover with the police to investigate that same mafia.
Central to ‘Bullhead’ is Jacky and the performance by Schoenaerts. He is a damaged figure whose traumas come through in every scene, played perfectly by the smouldering Schoenaerts in a highly physical performance. Despite his massive appearance and frequent bouts of aggression he is a hurt character.
It is not often that the crime subplot of a film is the least interesting part, but ‘Bullhead’ manages to do just that. It is much more interesting to follow Jacky and his demons, and only later does the audience learn the depth of his emotional and physical trauma. It does make the film a bit unbalanced at times but that should not detract potential viewers because ‘Rundskop’ is quite the film experience.
6. Naked Lunch (1991)
Peter Weller plays Bill Lee, a bug exterminator who gets high on his own bug powder and accidentally kills his wife while under influence. This film by director David Cronenberg is based on the novel by William S. Burroughs and mostly plays as a film noir on psychedelics (or indeed bug powder).
Bill Lee is a typical noir-ish anti-hero who stoically wanders through the bizarre plot of ‘Naked Lunch’ which involves typewriters looking like aliens; communicating with typewriters that look like giant bugs with anuses under their wings and a whole lot of sexual escapades including with a notorious couple played by the late Ian Holm and Judy Davis (who also plays Bill Lee’s wife).
‘Naked Lunch’ is in part based on William S. Burroughs real-life experiences with drugs and the accidental killing of his wife in a game of Wilhelm Tell. It makes the character of Bill Lee more tragic if questionable.