From Brad Pitt to Robert DeNiro: The 10 greatest anti-heroes in film

A lack of idealism, courage or belief in a better isn’t necessarily a differentiating factor for most of us living in the modern world. However, when you give these attributes to the central figure of a cinematic release, you have yourself one of cinema’s finest paradoxes; the anti-hero.

Being a hero may well have been what most of our early education points us towards. The idea of one person championing the causes of the little guy and defeating the monsters that plague humanity is a tale as old as humanity itself. Whether it’s the patron saints of old, those who slew dragons and droves snakes out of Ireland, or the bonafide comic book blockbuster heroes that seemingly infiltrate every box office weekend, heroes are a central figure of what we, as the audience, deem as just. However, the anti-hero is certainly the more alluring prospect.

It’s more attractive to us as an audience because we see real humanity in their conflictions. The duality of life is never monochromatic but a complex construction of greys, continually changing position and jostling for airtime like the static that permeated terrestrial television. The idea that an anti-hero isn’t inherently good and, preferably, is actually a bad person at heart, makes us all believe that we too can achieve a heroic status without becoming flag-waving, bootlicking embarrassments.

The anti-hero provides us with something tangible and no less exciting. In fact, the excitement is kicked up a few notches because of this casual adherent to moral justice. Knowing, or rather not knowing, how a scene or movie will play out only serves to dial up the enjoyment of the picture. As such, a good anti-hero in the central role of a new film usually means that one will enjoy their evening sitting down to watch it.

However, if you’re looking for the ten greatest anti-heroes in cinematic history, then we’ve got you covered. Below are ten of the worst good guys of all time.

The 10 best anti-heroes in film:

10. Léon — The Professional

Sometimes luck can fall in your lap. That is certainly the case for 12-year-old Mathilda whose family is obliterated by a ruthless gang of corrupt police officers, helmed by a particularly manic Gary Oldman. Thankfully, she’s taken in by Léon, who just so happens to be a fearsome killer and a professional hitman.

Things aren’t all roses though. Léon struggles to accept Mathilda initially and only reluctantly agrees to be her guardian. It’s a gentle combination of maniac and mother figure that makes Jean Reno’s Léon such an enjoyable character to watch. Of course, Luc Besson’s direction helps to elevate the role, but in truth, it is the complexity within Léon that captures the audience’s hearts.

9. Oh Dae-Su — Oldboy

First impressions really can make or break a character, it’s why when we first meet Oh Dae-Su in Chan-woo Pak’s stunning film Oldboy we can’t help but connect with him. He is, after all, helplessly drunk at the time. To make matters worse, he is supremely sozzled on the day of his daughter’s birthday. Things take a worse turn for Dae-Su as he wakes up kidnapped and locked in an inescapable room. For fifteen years, Dae-Su trains himself to be a fearsome killer, ready to enact the revenge he craves.

Far from a traditional hero, Dae-Su is not really a loveable character. Hell, he’s hardly likeable, but there’s something about his constant mistake-making and his simple and authentic direction that makes him worthy of our affection.

8. Thelma & Louise — Thelma & Louise

A two for one special at number eight, as we welcome both Thelma & Louise as two of the greatest cinematic anti-heroes of all time. More often than not, the role of an anti-hero is reserved for men. Only recently could a mainstream audience accept and enjoy the duality of a badly behaved good guy being played by a female. Much of that newly found acceptance comes from Thelma & Louise.

Not only do the titular characters of the breakout movie shine brightly among this dark list as two of the more heroic anti-heroes but they also feel like the most attainable. They feel like the two characters on this list who accidentally became the pivotal figures in their story. Of course, they both display the classic tropes of an anti-hero; they smoke, drink, fight, kill and run from the law, but the real reason we love them is that, more so than most, we can see ourselves in them.

Killing only to protect her friend, Thelma, Louise approaches Harlan and says: ”In the future, when a woman’s cryin’ like that? She isn’t havin’ any fun!” only then pulling the trigger when he calls her a bitch. It’s the kind of scenario in which we can all envisage pointing the barrel of a loaded gun at an attacker.

7. William ‘D-Fens’ Foster — Falling Down

Falling Down is the kind of film that deserves watching time and time again. One of the more dangerous choices on our list, the film is centred on William ‘D-Fens’ Foster who, for all intents and purposes, snaps.

Michael Douglas lends himself to this role with the supreme skill of a seasoned professional and allows Foster’s image as a push-around who finally pushes back to permeate the screen and perfume the film. Without a job, wife or any real prospects, Foster finally breaks in the middle of a Californian highway, endlessly backed up by bumper to bumper traffic. It sends him on a murderous rampage through downtown L.A. that not only precedes our own Grand Theft Auto aligned fantasies but somehow makes us love good ol’ D-Fens just that little bit more.

Beliving he is justified in his marauding behaviour, D-Fens asks: “I’m the bad guy?” Well, yes and no.

6. Tyler Durden — Fight Club

There aren’t many superlatives left over for the 1999 smash hit Fight Club. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s book, the film starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton became the ultimate summer box office blockbuster. It not only capture the hearts and minds of the affected art world with its staunch imagery and confirmed stance on consumerism, but it also provided one of the most brilliant twist endings of the decade.

It’s hard to see something stand out in the film as the best part with all that in mind. Then again, that would be to discount Brad Pitt’s role as Tyler Durden as one of the greatest anti-heroes of all time. Not only does Durden provide Ed Norton’s unnamed narrator with a new life, a new outlook and a new mission, but he does it all with style, panache and a mean right hook.

Yes, David Fincher’s Fight Club is about many things, but they don’t get much clearer than Tyler Durden’s anarchic outlook on life.

5. McMurphy — One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Picking up an Oscar always confirms a job well done but for Jack Nicholson, upon picking up the award for Best Actor for 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it confirmed his character as a timeless role that will never be forgotten. The film, base don the book of the same name, has gone on to define 20th-century cinema in so many ways but perhaps none more so than the role of McMurphy as an archetypal anti-hero.

While many of the entries on our list have their hands muddied by murder and villainy, in one capacity or another, McMurphy is just a bit of a misfit. Determined to cause trouble in the mental institute he finds himself trapped in, McMurphy takes on the role of leader of the unleadable. Fighting against the corrupt power of Nurse Ratched, who now enjoys enacting misery on her patients, McMurphy arises as to the group’s hero, providing transportation and safe passage in and out of the hospital.

McMurphy’s inspiration and shining light at the end of a very dark tunnel mean he’s perhaps the most heroic anti-hero of the lot.

4. Sonny Wortzik — Dog Day Afternoon

A Pacino has had a fair few defining roles in his time, but arguably his most underrated is his role as Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon. Sonny is desperate for cash and, like many of us in that situation, begins to fantasise about robbing a bank. Sadly for Sonny, his buddy Sal has a similar idea, and the duo embarks on knocking over a local bank. The issues arise when the realisation that both of them know slim to none about robbing banks — soon enough, they’re surrounded by the media and in the middle of a hostage negotiation.

Within the film, Sonny begins to unravel. It’s a testament to Pacino’s acting that he not only provides a searing and nuanced performance but that we go on the emotional journey with Sonny. As much as those trapped in the bank, we as the audience are also a part of the hostage situation.

It endears his character to our hearts and, as we see him try to manage all of the factors at hand, we sympathise with his situation. After all, it’s one many of us have found ourselves in before. Based on a true story, the character of Sonny is a beguiling one and arguably one of Pacino’s finest performances.

3. Alex DeLarge — A Clockwork Orange

The main character in Anthony Burgess’ “ultra-violent” novel A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge is easily the most sexually violent, aggressively diminished, volatile and ultimately vulgar mention on this list. It is this abuse of power, and the thrill which it provides ‘The Large’, that has seen the character become one of the most recognisable in cinema.

A speaker of Burgess’ adolescent language ‘nadsat’, DeLarge is a marauding sociopath intent on robbing, hurting, murdering, and raping innocent people for his own amusement. Malcolm MacDonald’s performance as DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed film adaptation in the book is widely regarded as one of the most infamous villains of all time.

While the gore and gravity of his DeLarge’s actions are monstrous, it is the knowledge that his decisions are a conscious choice that really fills us with terror and, paradoxically, a sense of freedom. It is one of the strangest experiences in the world, to witness someone watch this film and DeLarge for the first time. They will always begin the film with optimism, be filled with disgust, then submerged in sympathy.

2. Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo — Kill Bill

Uma Thurman plays Beatrix Kiddo, the main protagonist of Kill Bill who tries to leave the criminal underworld of assassins only to be gunned down by Bill. Naturally, the next four hours of cinema, split over two films, sees Kiddo’s continuous attempt to kill Bill.

The two volumes of Kill Bill see Kiddo embark on a brutal and blood-splatter journey to attack the architect of her demise, the killer of her fiancee and her unborn child. Along the way, she encounters the Deadly Viper Assassins Squad and dispatches them one by one in a series of gloriously gory scenes.

Eventually, Kiddo makes her way to find Bill. Bill, an equally trained assassin, could have easily featured in this list but his lack of committed acts left him lowly in the stakes but that shouldn’t take away from the film’s climactic moment—Bill is an incredibly dangerous opponent, even for Kiddo. There’s one thing Kiddo has that Bill doesn’t though—Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Bill is astounded that Pai Mei taught it to Kiddo and reconciles with his former lover before taking his final five steps.

The entire saga provides audiences with perhaps the best example of a classic anti-hero in modern cinema.

1. Travis Bickle — Taxi Driver

There could be only one and the chances were always in favour of it being Travis Bickle.

New York was a dangerous place in the seventies and, seemingly, the only man capable of cleaning it up and “wiping the scum off the streets” was a lowly Taxi Driver. Robert DeNiro takes one the role of Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film with such command, such courage and such conviction that it’s hard to separate the actor from the role — something which, no doubt, endears Bickle to his audience.

Bickle is a difficult role to pin down effectively. Not only does he have the hard-working grit of the everyman, but he also has a determination to effect some change. The only issue is, he attempts to do this through unfiltered violence. His brand of vigilante justice is localised and blood-splattered, emboldened by an arsenal of guns; he flies off the handle at the underbelly he sees so often on his nightly rounds.

It’s easy to see how Bickle has become the definition of an anti-hero. Though his determination for justice is right, he intends to achieve it the wrong way. The film’s violent climax will live long in the memory of all those who have watched it. Most of those memories will cast Bickle as the hero despite the gun at his hip.

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