10 Great Movies With Morally Ambiguous Protagonists

5. Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Director Emir Kusturica seems to have an interest in characters with, well, ‘broad’ moral convictions: following partisans turned arms dealers in ‘Underground’, and following a Roma kid turning criminal in ‘Time of the Gypsies’. ‘Black Cat, White Cat’ is a late-Yugoslav film and concerns Matko, a hustling Roma living on a scrap heap, and his son. Matko comes up with a plan to make a lot of money, which in the end will concern local gangsters, a marriage, his own son and a story with all sorts of bizarre twists and turns.

‘Black Cat, White Cat’ is comparable to crime films by directors like Tarantino or Guy Ritchie but with director Kusturica’s very own brand of madness. It’s a hilarious, fast-paced thrill ride with some added flourishes of romance and a great soundtrack: underlining all the chaos with a wide variety of songs: from beautiful to fun, from more traditional Balkan genres like gypsy brass to techno. Strap yourself in!


4. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance movie

‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ directed by Chan-Wook Park follows a number of different characters all of whom have either questionable morals or questionable means. It is a violent and tragic picture, and would be the first one of a thematic ‘Vengeance’ trilogy which includes the infamous ‘Oldboy’ and the beautiful serendipitous ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ (also a good candidate for this list).

A former factory worker kidnaps his boss’ daughter for ransom money, so he can pay for a new kidney for his sister. This action sets into motion a bizarre and unfortunate chain of events leading to a brutal vengeance film. The hardest part is that most characters’ motivations are understandable, if not condonable, so their demise either ethically or physically (or both) hits hard. Especially Kang-ho Song is great as ever as the boss of the factory.

Director Chan-wook Park makes the film a visual spectacle as usual, while paradoxically showing uncomfortable amounts of violence. When a characters Achilles’ tendons are cut, he focusses on the beautiful colours of the blood in the water. This gives the film a strangely hypnotic feel at times, only to wake you up rudely when it is supposed to hurt.


3. The Proposition (2005)

A raw but stylish film directed by John Hillcoat, set in the Australian outback. Lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) apprehends criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) who has to find and kills his brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or the Captain will hang their younger sibling.

It seems that the script by Nick Cave (yes that Nick Cave) was closely inspired by writer Cormac McCarthy, it especially shares a lot of themes with ‘Blood Meridian’ but instead of the Wild West it is set in the Outback. Indeed director John Hillcoat would go on to direct McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ for the big screen. Both Cave, Hillcoat and McCarthy share an interest in violence, the evil deeds humans can do and how it effects them and their surroundings, or even how brutal surroundings produce hard people. Arthur Burns, played wonderfully cold by Danny Huston, shares similarities with the iconic character of ‘the Judge’ in ‘Blood Meridian’.

The world inhabited by the characters is a tough one, one where people are still part of nature and nature is unforgiving. The efforts by Captain Stanley’s wife (Emily Watson) to cultivate a little sanctuary in the desert are immediately recognised as futile by the viewer, and his quiet life at home is in stark contrast with the violent nature of the man himself.


2. Sorcerer (1977)

‘Sorcerer’ by director William Friedkin follows for questionable protagonists who will get put through the ordeal of moving two trucks filled with nitro-glycerine through the South-American jungle. The four men are put in this bizarre predicament by their shady pasts, but will have to work together to survive.

The film is carefully crafted, and the entire first half is dedicated to introducing the main characters, their personalities and their pasts. Everything comes together in the second half when director Friedkin turns the film into a nail biting thriller. Because of the background and establishment of the characters the situations they get into become more intense. Their personalities play off each other. Adding in director Friedkin’s understanding of tension building and you get near unbearable tension during key scenes. ‘Sorcerer’ might be a decades old thriller but it still holds up perfectly to this day.


1. Burning (2018)

‘Burning’ is a phenomenal mystery-thriller by one of South Korea’s greats director Chang-dong Lee. Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) is an introverted young man who happens to meet an old classmate of his (Shin Hae-mi; played by Jong-sea Jun) who asks him to look after her cat while she moves abroad. When she returns, she has made a friend in the mysterious and rich Ben (Steven Yeung of Walking Dead fame).

‘Burning’ excels in putting you into the mindset of Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a lonely and passive young man who falls for the self-conscious Hae-mi. While watching it seems his view of things is the only logical view, and only later can you understand how coloured his glasses really are. The film is a constantly tense mystery that keeps the watcher guessing about what is really happening. It is best not to say more, experience it. Fantastic film.