At What Point Does an Anti-Hero Become a Villain?

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What a great couple of weeks in cinema! I managed to catch John Wick in Paris last week (UK release not until January, what’s the go there?), then Nightcrawler over the weekend, and IMAX Interstellar last night. If you couldn’t tell, one in particular has inspired my scrutiny this week.

Nightcrawler is a rare film. It’s difficult to pitch as a must-see to a friend – ‘It’s kinda like Drive, but darker and creepier, or like Requiem With A Dream without the drugs. Basically if you like Taxi Driver, you’ll probably like this.’ I had this conversation a few times. I should probably simplify it to ‘I loved it, and if you have the stomach for it, you could too.’

Putting aside the excellent filmic execution, there’s one standout reason to appreciate Nightcrawler, and that’s the crawler himself – Louis Bloom. He’s the psychotic mortar between the bricks, the anti-hero who’s much more anti than hero. And that’s what I want to discuss. What makes an anti-hero good or bad? At what point do they become a villain?

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The classic anti-hero is a crowd favourite because of their shades of grey. Whereas a hero wants to save the day while remaining morally upright, an anti-hero may act selfishly and rashly for personal gain. You just have to look at (Captain) Jack Sparrow to see how a character who plays by their own rules can be exciting. But there are varying degrees of anti-hero out there. Hannibal Lecter has been put in this category – after all, he’s helping to catch the bad guy in Silence – but his motives are not only selfish, they’re dangerous. In my mind, he’s as villainous as they come. Compare him to Sparrow, who eventually learned to make decisions that benefit others, and you’ll see the separation.

So what about Lou Bloom? I can’t go into it without discussing plot info, so if you haven’t seen it yet, considering coming back after you have. Lou’s motivation is clear – he wants to make something of himself. He’s the most ambitious character I’ve seen since The Wolf of Wall Street, and probably even surpasses Jordan Belfort in that respect. This in itself is a redeeming quality – we can admire a man with very little, who works hard to better himself. So if we just look at his motive, he’s quite pure. What about his methods? When we first meet Lou, he protects a carload of stolen goods by beating a security guard and taking his watch. Bad start. However, he follows this up by offering a stellar speech to a potential employer. He’s trying to straighten the bend in his arrow.

Eventually, Lou ends up in a morally grey area of ambulance chasing, or some version of it. He picks up a camera and films the most gruesome accidents and crimes he can find. At this point, I was rooting for him, just like I was rooting for DiCaprio when he was fired from Wall Street and started cheating money out of rich folks. I didn’t like him a whole lot, but I was somehow on his side. But as we know, there are dark and light shades of grey. Lou chooses the dark side, becoming more and more involved in his media coverage, consistently pushing the boundaries of his ambition. And he never does what he’s doing for a higher purpose, instead pressing forward basically chanting ‘me, me, me’ all the way to the bank. Soon enough I knew I wasn’t watching a corrupt hero. I was watching a villain.

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Even so, because I’d followed the man down this slope, I couldn’t be 100% against him. That’s the power of perspective. If the film had played out from someone else’s point of view (other than being much less exciting), I would have no doubt been hoping for Lou to fail. Just like the running How I Met Your Mother joke, where Barney instinctively roots for the bad guy in any given film. We can laugh, but if The Karate Kid had followed Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kai dojo, would we not have felt for him when this soccer ball juggling kid came along and stole his girlfriend? What about Hans Gruber when his brilliant scheme was foiled by one pesky cop after all his hard work. As Barney said, he’s the one who ‘died hard’ in the end, so maybe it was his story after all. Perspective can change everything, and can give almost any undeserved character the title of ‘anti-hero’.

A true definition of the term is difficult, as the anti-hero is defined by his foes. I’d say John Wick falls into the category, because he’s far from a stand-up citizen. But his enemies are definitely worse. Similarly, Driver in Drive, Jack Sparrow in Pirates, and The Bride in Kill Bill are bad people by social standards, though not compared to their horrible foes.

Lou Bloom has enemies, and some of them are bad people. But Lou is worse than all of them. Not only that, but he was always worse. So I can’t even really say that Lou was an anti-hero who grew antagonistic. He’s a villain through and through. And this is why Nightcrawler is a rare film. It took a hateful man, made him do hateful things, and forced us to follow him. And it’s why not everyone will cope too well with it. But you know, I loved it. And if you have the stomach for it, you could too.

If you like the things I write about, we’d probably be good friends. You could find me in any random London cafe most days, or on Twitter if you prefer that kind of thing.


2 Comments

  1. Lucas Tetrault November 11, 2014
  2. Rebecca K Baecker January 1, 2015

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