The Bravery of Being Hated: In Praise of Complicated Characters
film / tv / lists / guides / news / love / celeb / video / think pieces / staff / podcasts / web culture / politics / dc / snl / netflix / marvel / cbr

The Bravery of Being Hated: In Praise of Complicated Characters

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 30, 2013 | Comments ()


The other night, I saw The Last Days of Disco for the first time. It’s a Whit Stillman film, which means it’s built on trenchant, bittersweet insights into the paranoia of young professionals who are trying to figure out what it means to be independent adults even as they struggle with their desire to continue defining themselves as members of exclusive groups (e.g., Harvard grads, ad execs, etc.). It’s a good movie, but what caught my eye was Kate Beckinsale’s performance as Charlotte, a grating, self-absorbed young woman who keeps her friend Alice (Chloe Sevigny) in check by saying things like, “Maybe in physical terms I’m a little cuter than you, but you should be much more popular than I am.” Alice is one of several main characters, and while hers is one of the bigger arcs, it’s still very much an ensemble piece, which means characters like Charlotte are integral to the narrative. And Charlotte’s a fantastically realized, expertly drawn, convincingly acted pain in the ass. She has to be. Her character is that of a confused, jealous, insecure post-grad (admittedly a somewhat redundant phrase), and what’s more, the story isn’t about her coming to terms with those failings or growing in some small way as a person. Things happen to her, but she doesn’t reinvent herself. That’s not what she’s here to do. I was struck not only by the acuity of the performance, but the bravery required to accurately write and perform it. Roles like that are thankless.

They’re also plentiful, though, in large part because of what we expect from film narrative. A protagonist is going to progress through a series of internal changes as a result of external action, and that arc can be heightened by placing it next to someone who stays relatively flat. And not just flat, either, but still kind of aggressive and annoying and what we’d think of the as the “before” picture. When these characters are treated as real people — complex, screwed up, naturally self-interested people, just like everyone else — then a film has the potential to rise to a higher level of art and observation. It’s so easy to want to make these people villains, or at least villainous, but it’s infinitely more rewarding to watch a movie where they act like real people that you might know.

Writing, directing, and performing roles like this anything but easy. Written too broadly, these characters become mean jokes or cheap caricatures that you just want to see squashed. Wobbly direction can make them feel insignificant or detrimental. The acting requires total commitment to the idea that everybody is the hero in the story they tell themselves; there can’t be any judgment or distance present on the part of the actor. Beckinsale so totally inhabited that role that I found myself reacting to her the way I would a human, not a cartoon or stock movie character. It’s the feeling you get that makes you refer to fictional characters as “realistic” and “grounded” without quite knowing why.

There are so many others, too. Guy Pearce does a hero’s job in L.A. Confidential playing Ed Exley, an insecure and conniving detective who wants to do the right thing but get plenty of glory along the way. He definitely evolves over the course of the film, softening a little toward the men he once viewed as obstacles to his success, but it’s still a tightrope that Pearce walks with amazing skill. The film has Russell Crowe playing a two-dimensional he-man, but Pearce is the really magnetic one. The scene where Exley tries to put the moves on Lynn (Kim Basinger) is fantastic precisely because of Exley’s desire to seem full of himself but somehow subtle about it. He swaggers around, trying on lines that sound corny and sad at once, and you get so much of who he is in these moments. Pearce — and director Curtis Hanson, and writer Brian Helgeland — know exactly what makes this guy tick, and it’s more complicated and difficult to pin down than any of the other leads. He’s what makes the film work.

Vince Vaughn used to excel at this. Before he went for the roles that let him be a likable clown, he made a pair of comedies with Jon Favreau that required him to be prickly, irritating, somewhat endearing, and a little tough to take. In Swingers (written by Favreau and directed by Doug Liman) and Made (written and directed by Favreau), Vaughn plays men who mostly make Favreau’s characters look even better. He’s a cad and struggling actor in Swingers, there to support his friends in tough times but also unable to see much of the world from someone else’s perspective. In Made, he’s even more aggressive, a kind of lazy, cynical coaster who thinks far more of his people skills and career prospects than anyone else does. He’s not the enemy, though, in either film, and he’s not just a foil for the lead. He has the presence of performance to risk being disliked simply for being a rounded person that you might not want to hang out with all the time. He’s pitiable, but not pathetic; grating, but loyal.

Many films try to do this; just as many don’t succeed. I have to think it’s because, while complexity might sound appealing in the abstract, it turns out to be a lot harder to do in practice simply for the risks involved. We want to know who the good guys and bad guys are, and if we’re dealing with anti-heroes or people who slowly break bad, we want that spelled out for us, too. But there are fringes where certain characters can thrive, and where storytellers can give life to men and women who say or do the wrong thing just because it’s what someone like that would do. It’s not always comfortable being reminded of who we are and what we can be, but what else is art for?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

5 Shows After Dark 10/30/13 | In Celebration of Halloween, We Present Horror's Sexiest Butterfaces

Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Sonse

    A film festival in Berlin screened all of Stillman's movies recently, and he himself presented Damsels in Distress. The only thing he desperately wanted to tell us right before the movie started was a pleading "Please don't hate the characters!" And these words of warning actually helped me a lot while watching and appreciating his wonderfully peculiar films and characters. I also remember him mentioning during the Q&A afterwards that it baffled him that audiences tended to hate Greta Gerwig's character in the movie, who he adores, while liking and identifying with another character Stillman considered the most unlikeable of the girls.
    And btw, thanks Daniel for mentioning my favorite movie (LAC), although I would describe all of the central characters in it as 'complicated'.

  • Jae

    Wow, the guy's really doing a world tour: we here in Moscow had him and all of his movies in late Septembe (as a part of a smallish film festival, yeah).

  • Bryan

    A great essay, though I disagree with the author's description of Crowe's LA Confidential character as a "two-dimensional he-man." While Exley was my favorite of the leads, all 3 (Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes) had tons of depth.

  • Bedewcrock

    What a great essay/article. I rewatched Last Days of Disco a couple of weeks ago and forgot how much I loved Kate Beckinsale's delivery of Charlotte. She is a great (if not more complex) character than Sevigny's protagonist which made her all the more delightful to watch. You can't quite hate her because she's so transparent and clip with her needs/desires that I was oftentimes more frustrated with the Alice character.

    I was hoping Beckinsale's career trajectory would have hit on more movies like this (perhaps I'm unaware of them) rather than the action packed vampire genre. Anyone know of any other good films with her? Plus I love the Chris Eigeman character in that same vein.

  • emmalita

    Cold Comfort Farm is good. Weird, but good.

  • emmalita, there's something nasty in the woodshed.

  • emmalita

    katie71483, there is no butter in hell.

  • Nature's all very well in her place, but she musn't be allowed to make things untidy.

  • Tinkerville

    This was a great read. A problem with this that I see frequently are reactions to female characters. Tons of people cry out for more complex women characters, but then get angry if they have moments of meanness, vulnerability, or other "negative" traits. Because they don't actually want complex women, just ones that are permanently the tough chick, or the brainy chick, etc.

  • Bananaranma

    Whit Stillman, My Bloody Valentine and T.E.D all-time favorite list of folks who snail along but once a decade surprise me with new watching/listening/reading pleasure.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I agree with you, as long as the writer and director understand that there must be a likable (relatable [is that even a word?]) character in the movie somewhere; Cobb failed miserably at this and, depending on your viewpoint, so did The English Patient.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    you didn't like Juliette Binoche's character and her sapper?

  • Mrs. Julien

    No enough, Sara, not enough.

    I'd forgotten about them, actually. Take that for the condemnation it could be if I made any effort.

    The book was fantastic, I remember that.

  • Rob

    Whit Stillman. He is talented and his films are very good. That is all.

    (And Daniel, thanks for articulating so well why complex characters are so hard to get right. And so enjoyable when they are done right.)

  • Bodhi

    Thank you for reminding me that this movie exists. I saw it when it first came out & I was probably too young to get parts of it. I'm going to re-watch it today

  • Bedewcrock

    It's still on Netflix I think if you'd like to revisit it!

blog comments powered by Disqus