I have nothing against horrible people as cinematic or literary characters. Many of the great protagonists throughout film history have been bastards: Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone, Ferdinando Cefalù, and so on. They are profoundly interesting, challenging characters with whom I am usually far more engaged than straight-up “good guys.”
Seriously, fuck this guy.
What I want to talk about is when Hollywood pulls the wool over our eyes, presenting us with a character who is shown as the embodiment of all that is good in ourselves and our spirits, for whom we cheer when they win and weep when they lose, and who represents an ideal for which we should strive—when in reality, the person is an egotistical, selfish sociopath disregarding the rules of society for their own ends. Like I said, this kind of character is fine, if that’s what the creators were going for, but here are four times when they were not.
Ethan Hawke in Gattaca
What the Film Shows:
It’s a terrible future, wherein one’s genes are mapped before birth to create superior humans designed for greatness while rejects are cast aside to work with Ernest Borgnine. No longer is one’s station in life determined by one’s own achievements, but by sequencing that consigns one to a preordained position. If you’re told you’re not good enough to be an Olympic athlete, discover a cure for cancer, or go on some purposeless space mission, there’s no point in even trying, because science has spoken.
It’s enough to strike terror in the hearts of anyone who values individual freedom and believes in the inherent ability of anyone to do anything they want, so long as they’ve got grit (and a passing resemblance to Jude Law). Well, Ethan Hawke isn’t taking that guff, and despite the drawbacks in having been born via the old method of random gene shuffling, he’s going to go up on the next space shuttle and fulfill his childhood dream, because everyone, everywhere, has the basic human right to decide their own destiny at every second of every day. He is us in our struggle to assert our freedom!
The reason Hawke is denied a place in the space program is that he has a life-threatening heart defect. I may be out of line here, but I wouldn’t want to send someone with that condition into space. In today’s world, he would be bounced out of the running as soon as this condition was detected. And it’s not as if they’re unfairly discriminating against him because he might have this defect: he’s shown collapsing and clutching his chest after running on a treadmill set to “Arthritic Snail” for less than three minutes. If he can’t even take a pleasant jog, what makes him think he’ll be able to handle a goddamn shuttle mission?
I don’t want to exaggerate anything, so I’ll word this very carefully: this guy is the worst person in the world. If he gave a damn about space exploration, or about anyone other than himself, he could easily have gotten an education and worked as a technician or engineer or something else on the ground, but for him, that’s not what this is about. He doesn’t give a single shit about the success of the mission—hell, he probably doesn’t even know what the purpose is—about the realities of space travel, or about the safety of himself or others—he just wants to go to space, full stop. And so, instead of accepting that it is his own body, not the mean, party-pooping, gene-altering government, that is keeping him earthbound, he decides to endanger the mission, the program, and the lives of the actual astronauts.
I almost wrote “his fellow astronauts,” but he’s an astronaut in the same way this guy is a doctor.
The film ends with his sublime face staring out the shuttle window as the rocket takes off, probably because if it had lasted five seconds longer we’d be treated to his sudden, feckless, violent death as his heart explodes in his chest, and the frantic attempts by Gattaca to return his faceless, blood-spattered colleagues safely to Earth through the wreckage of his shitty behavior. And the moral of the story would be “Don’t put others in mortal danger to pursue your pipe dreams,” rather than “Go ahead and scam your way to your dreams, because rules and basic human biology are for quitters.”
Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
What the Movie Shows Us:
Who wouldn’t want to be this authority-defying, devil-may-care, roguish sweetheart? Who wouldn’t want to just cut out of that boring, beige purgatory, borrow his friend’s father’s Ferrari, and just gambol around Chicago without any sense of consequence? What a fun day, and what a great guy this Ferris Bueller is, popular enough rally support from all corners of the city and filled with so much confidence he can bring a goddamn parade to its knees with a lip-synch of “Twist and Shout.” And that ingenious dummy-in-the-bed ruse…such tomfoolery!
This one is pretty obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to point out that Ferris Bueller is a narcissistic, self-centered prick. People have already identified Ed Rooney as the true, tragic hero of this sordid tale, a man whose ruin comes about from the sin of giving a shit about his job.
But I’ll focus on Bueller. First of all, he holds his parents, both of whom wither away at thankless jobs to give him the lifestyle he feels he’s entitled to, in open contempt: it takes a special kind of egomaniacal psychosis to think that that dummy in the bed would fool anyone with an IQ above 0, but that’s the regard he has for his parents. The fact that it works is not a testament to Ferris’ ingenuity but to the screenplay’s need to show Ferris as correct in everything he does.
Second, he constantly narrates his life to an audience he is certain is hanging on his every word, deed, and thought. There is no sense of irony in his self-righteous monologues about how great it is to drive a Ferrari; he honestly believes he is teaching us, the poor little rule-followers, how to live the dream.
“If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” Oh, you mean stealing it, you condescending shit-for-brains?
But what really gives us our deepest, most disturbing glimpse into Ferris’ black soul is the fact that he treats his supposed best friend like shit. Clearly he only calls Cameron up because he has designs on Cameron’s father’s vintage, incredibly valuable automobile. Don’t tell me he only demands it after Cameron’s “screw up”; Ferris goddamn Bueller doesn’t putter around Chicago on his day off in some jalopy. His end game was always the theft of the Ferrari. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story of his solipsistic douchery: remember, Cameron’s father is angry and abusive, so Cameron is almost guaranteed a beating as a result of Ferris’ need to always be the center of attention, even amongst strangers on the street.
Ferris knows this, because he’s been fucking with poor Cameron, by the latter’s estimation, since fifth grade, always pulling the “find yourself a new best friend if you don’t do my bidding” card. Ah, yes, emotional manipulation, the cornerstone of any good friendship. He has a clear understanding of how Cameron’s father will react, and he doesn’t give a shit, because Cameron is not Ferris Bueller and so is not worthy of consideration. Sure, Ferris pulls Cameron out of the pool when he thought he was drowning, but given what we know about Ferris, it’s only because an actual death would violate his blinkered, sociopathic certainty that the purpose of the world is to show him a good time.
Despite Ferris’ pseudo-sadness at the thought, the best thing that will ever happen to Cameron is when he and Ferris split up and go to different colleges, and Cameron realizes he doesn’t have to acquiesce to a friend who so flippantly disregards his emotional and physical safety. Fortunately for Ferris, he has a girlfriend who is equally selfish and immature (“I think I’ll tongue-kiss Ferris now, despite the fact that he’s pretending to be my father and the principal is watching, because how could that possibly go wrong?”), so he’ll have company when Rooney completes his investigation and he is Steve Holting his way through his fourth senior year.
Unless she dumps him for hitting on random sunbathers two minutes after telling her he loves her…
Rita in Groundhog Day
What the Movie Shows
“Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady!” exclaims about-to-be-redeemed Phil Connors, when it finally dawns on him that Rita’s inexhaustibly cheerful and optimistic Weltanschauung is his path to both salvation and her vagina. And she is such an inspiration, isn’t she? Always smiling, always with a kind word, smart, witty, well-read, ambitious, everything a person should be! And she saves Phil from his path of nihilistic self-destruction, and now they’re goin’ to the chapel and they’re gonna get married.
Just what the hell does Rita have to be happy about, anyway? This is a question that is not asked enough in this world, and it’s a pertinent one. And the cold, hard fact is that she’s just one of those “happy for no reason” people who normal, decent citizens just want to punch in the face.
Let’s start with the obvious: her advice to Phil after he reveals to her his existential nightmare is irresponsible at best and deeply harmful at worst. Sure, we, the audience members who are experienced in the ways of Hollywood resolutions, are confident that if Phil applies himself to becoming a better person, the magic loop he’s in will suddenly break at exactly the right moment, but within the Groundhog Day universe, Rita has no reason to believe that to be the case. Essentially, she’s telling Phil that he ought to learn languages, read books, and try to find meaning in what will most likely be an endless parade of February 2nds in which it doesn’t matter whether or not he performs good, altruistic deeds or mean, selfish ones.
He could just let this kid drop and then harvest his organs, and the outcome would be the same.
This is worse than telling someone with a terminal disease that everything is going to be all right because you “know” it will be. At least in that situation, the person will die soon and not have to think about how much you deluded them for reasons only you, the Happy Person, can understand. In Phil’s case, what if things had turned out differently, if Groundhog Day had been directed by Werner Herzog instead of Harold Ramis? He would have been trapped forever, and eventually it would have dawned on him that Rita’s (for that matter, everyone’s) philosophy becomes absurd in the face of immortality. He would have stopped learning the piano, reading her favorite novels, and sculpting creepy ice angels, because they would cease to have any meaning or satisfaction, and his disappointment would quickly turn into psychotic, passionate hatred for the person who so cruelly gave him such reckless hope.
And this will be the last thing Rita sees…every day, for eternity.
“Okay, maybe in some weird nightmare that happens, but not in the film!” you say. All right, then, we’ll concentrate purely on what is in the film as it stands. Even then, I maintain that Rita is arrogant, entitled, and annoyingly self-righteous.
All one has to do is look at a single scene to realize how horrible Rita truly is. It comes at the beginning of the sequence in which Phil begins to woo her through the romantic tactic of learning her likes and dislikes and pretending to change. He orders her favorite drink, and she asks him what they should drink to. He gamely suggests, “To the Groundhog!”, which is hardly Oscar Wilde but is nevertheless a fine, adequately funny toast that should have been enough to break the ice and lead to a relaxed conversation. Instead of responding like a normal human being, however, Rita turns away with a look of haughty disdain and, with as much pretention as she can muster, declares, “I always drink to world peace.”
“I’m also a vegan. Fuck you for not knowing that.”
What just happened?! First, even if that’s her preferred toast, why does she have to be so mean about it? There’s no way Phil could have known she always drinks to that. Second, if she’s so committed to toasting world peace, why does she even ask him what they should drink to? Why not just say, “To world peace!” If she had, and Phil had acted the way she does to his toast, she’d be (justly) offended and have nothing more to do with him. Instead, she is the one to get angry and blow him off, and he is the one left feeling like a twat.
There’s no reason Phil shouldn’t just leave at this point and spend infinity banging Nancy.
He’s got a promise here, too.
Kevin McAllister in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
What the Film Shows Us:
Everyone’s favorite social services case study is abandoned by his family again, only this time they lost him at the airport so he managed to get himself lost in…some city, I can’t remember. And as luck would have it, the same two endearingly incompetent burglars from last Christmas are in the same town, and since it’s a pretty small hamlet, they inevitably run into each other and hijinks ensue. Once again Kevin must set up a series of elaborate traps to subdue the criminals until his family reunites and they get to spend Christmas in a plush suite at the Plaza, complete with half the stock of a grateful department store owner. Things go so well that next year they’re going to strand Kevin in Mogadishu and wait to inherit the Saudi family fortune.
Kevin isn’t the protagonist of Home Alone 3, and that’s probably because he was committed to a psychiatric asylum shortly after the events of Lost in New York. The Kevin we see here is not the innocent child of the first film…he’s been warped psychologically by ongoing familial neglect, and it has turned him into a manipulative, amoral, borderline psychopathic compulsive liar who delights in inflicting physical pain on others (mental pain is beyond his ken, as he does not view other humans as real and therefore is concerned only with their outward manifestations. Visible bruises are what satisfy him).
He came just thinking this up.
Kevin’s actions in the first film make sense, once one accepts the curious absence of law enforcement in his clearly upscale neighborhood. like any normal American eight-year-old, he’s seen Straw Dogs a few times, and he feels that it’s his duty to defend his home against invaders—he only settles for HotWheels when he can’t find his father’s bear trap. And given Marv and Harry’s disturbing fixation on him and his house, he is right to go a bit overboard with the preparations.
Cut to a year later, though, and we witness a sociopath with nothing on his mind but torture and death. The intervening time has been spent sitting in the attic watching Cannibal Holocaust over and over, and he’s just soaking it all in and thinking how he let Marv and Harry off easy because he was just a careless kid. Just give him another shot, he thinks…and he gets it.
Finding himself in New York, he feigns shock but quickly shows just how much he’s grown up since last time by committing credit card fraud without batting an eye, and conning the entire staff of the Plaza Hotel into doing his bidding.
“And when we’re through with this, I’ve got a clown costume for you.”
Soon he comes across Marv and Harry again, who now have a legitimate reason to obsess over Kevin (all the maiming), and here’s where a normal person would go to the police and return to his suite to watch the arrest on television. But as we’ve seen, Kevin is far from normal, and instead thinks, “I’ve got access to an empty building that is conveniently free of squatters and rats, the perfect chance to show these fools pain they’ve never dreamed could exist. Marv will be begging me for a nail in his foot by the end of the night!” Then he laughed maniacally and found a few homeless people to stab while he choreographed the carnage in his twisted mind.
In the first film, as I said, he was in his house, so it made sense that he had to get creative to keep Marv and Harry at bay. Here, he doesn’t have even that flimsy excuse to indulge his murderous improv. He straight up lures them to his chthonic playground, knowing they are fueled by vengeance and the combined IQ of a pretzel, and he has moved up from toy cars and broken glass to lead pipes, blowtorches, and bags of goddamn cement. There is not a single apparatus in that house that is not designed to kill.
Just as in the first film, it all goes flawlessly, as Marv and Harry blunder into one nightmare after another until they are probably convinced that they are still in prison and have dropped some bad acid. And just as in the first film, Kevin is eventually bailed out by the creepy person who turns out to be…still pretty goddamned creepy, but a creep who Kevin can manipulate into participating in his morbid schemes. And just as in the first film, the family bounds in after it’s all over and, all of them being oblivious morons, fail to notice the deadness in Kevin’s eyes as he looks forward to the day when he picks them all off, one by one.
“You, mother, shall be last so as to witness my TRANSFORMATION.”