One of the Keys to Keeping “Unlikable” Characters Tolerable

The recent box-office disappointment Rough Night drew obvious comparisons to the movie Very Bad Things given the shared premise of “accidental killing of stripper/sex worker leads to cover-up and further criminal behavior.” In speaking of Very Bad Things, several of the film’s detractors have pointed to just how vile and insufferable the characters were. Sure, it’s a dark comedy/thriller, so at least some of its characters are expected to be criminals. And it’s far, far, far from being the first or only movie whose primary characters are unsympathetic, selfish and even murderous assholes. And while there are certain people who are just never going to be on board with watching or reading a story featuring “unlikable” unsympathetic characters, there are many others (like me) who find such stories interesting, provided that the story is, well, interesting, and provided that the unlikable characters aren’t utterly insufferable.

So what is it about the characters in a movie like Very Bad Things that pushes their vileness over the top? Are their actions simply that deplorable? Does the story just fail them to such an extreme degree that they can’t be redeemed? In my opinion, the answer to the last two questions is “no.” The problem with most of the characters in Very Bad Things is that they don’t show the capacity to care for anyone at all other than themselves. The simple solution, then, is to give them at least the smallest sign that they are capable of caring. They can still be horrible, mostly hateful people, but showing that they have even an ounce of compassion for at least one other person can go a long way toward making them more palatable.

Examples of this can be found in more stories than I can hope to count. Pulp Fiction primarily follows the happenings of two homicidal hitmen who are very casual about killing innocent people, but they also seem to have a genuine friendship even early on in the movie. It makes them easier to get along with from an audience perspective, because even though they may argue, they generally get along with each other. Sticking with Tarantino, Mr. Pink and Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs develop a bond that carries them through a botched robbery, mortal injury, distrust and conflict and betrayals, right up until the final emotional revelation.

Branching out into other crime stories starring villainous protagonists, the main trio of violent asshole gangsters in Goodfellas start off with a strong bond, and the deterioration of the bond due to greed, impulsive behavior and drug abuse is a core element of the story. O-Dog in Menace II Society is a monstrous, murderous lunatic, but he legitimately cares about his friend Cain. Scarface, of course, is focused on the rise and fall of an ambitious madman, but he does love his sister (albeit to an unhealthy and potentially unsavory degree) and his friend Manny. He even has compassion for strangers, given his personal code of not killing women or children. His care for other people and his emotional immaturity related to that caring are crucial components to his eventual downfall. Harold Shand, the bulldog bastard of a crime boss in The Long Good Friday, is a cruel, vicious hothead, but manages to muster some affection and even a sincere apology for his lady, Victoria. Going back farther, even the psychotic Cody Jarrett from White Heat loved the hell out of his mother.

But those are all dramatic films. What of a dark comedy, like Very Bad Things? The best contemporary example I can think of is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a television show centered on a group of awful people being consistently awful to one another and to anyone else unfortunate enough to cross their paths. Granted, humor is subjective, and part of Sunny‘s success hinges on whether or not you find the show funny, but even with that in mind, the show’s writers and creators are aware of the importance of showing that even despicable people need show signs of caring for others once every blue moon. Sunny has multiple examples throughout its long run of the gang rallying to actually do something nice or to be there for one their own (“Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats”, “Dee Gives Birth”) or simply enjoying each other’s company (“A Very Sunny Christmas”, “Mac and Charlie: White Trash”).  To be sure, they are still all manipulative, selfish, horrible assholes who are frighteningly proficient at ruining lives, and none of the examples of them being temporarily decent human beings redeems them in any way, but it does make them tolerable and show that they at least have the capacity–however limited–to be selfless and, dare I say, even loving.

All of this to make one simple point: if your protagonist is a horrible person, they needn’t be thoroughly horrible. And perhaps the easiest way to keep an unlikable character from being too intolerably irritating to bother with is to simply show that there’s at least one person in their world that they care about as much as they care about themselves.

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Perfect Rivals: Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo – TOMBSTONE

Some rivalries are built and strengthened by the opponents being perfect opposites, but others are memorable because the enemies reflect each other a little too closely for comfort. Doc Holliday spells it out for us during the famous first encounter he has with Johnny Ringo in Tombstone; here is a man who reminds him of himself, and for that reason alone, a drunken Holliday decides to despise him. When Ringo exhibits a knowledge of Latin that matches Holliday’s, Doc declares, “Now I really hate him.”

The men are very similar and it shows up on screen. Sometimes we’re simply told that two characters are or were similar in some fashion, but we’re given scant evidence of it. In Carlito’s Way, for example, one character scolds the older Carlito that brash, upstart Bennie Blanco (from the Bronx) is just a younger version of Carlito, to which the more seasoned gangster responds, “Never me.” It’s an example of how sometimes telling isn’t always necessarily worse than showing (a flashback would be cumbersome and disrupt the movie’s momentum), but it’s still something that we never get to visualize. Not so with Tombstone. The confrontation in the video above efficiently illustrates how Ringo and Holliday mirror one another. It also shows us where they differ.

One reason why Val Kilmer is rightly praised for his magnetic turn as Holliday is that he makes a murderous, borderline-psychopathic asshole likable. He almost certainly cheats at cards (“twelve hands in a row”? Ike’s right, nobody’s that lucky), taunts you for losing your money to his cheating ways, baits you into reacting and shivs you for it, nonchalantly robs the place his way out, then skips town with his lady (who prepared for their getaway ahead of time). He’s a scoundrel at best, a bloodthirsty, opportunistic murderer at worst. “Bloodthirsty murderer” is also an apt description of Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo. But Doc is also charming and witty, and he’s friends with the hero, so we like him. He’s also more confident, so he doesn’t have to posture aggressively the same way Ringo does (you can take “posture aggressively” literally in the scene above, where Ringo stands ready to draw, and Holliday remains calm with a drink in his hand).

Doc is a casual gardener of trouble, sowing it and inviting it to grow just to give himself something to do. Johnny Ringo is a compulsive carpenter of trouble. If he’s not building it, he feels lost.

Holliday also has a twisted sense of humor, whereas Ringo has none at all. Kilmer’s Holliday appears to see life and death as a bit of a joke. He knows he’s quick and great with a gun, and that his skills still won’t help him combat the brutal illness that’s consuming his life day by day. So he’s carefree about life-and-death matters in a way other men aren’t. He’s willing to “play for blood” in a shootout with a thoroughly drunken Ringo, but he doesn’t care about playing fair; he already has his gun drawn and hidden behind his back. Not only does he cheat at cards, he cheats at duels when he sees fit. Notice Doc’s slight grin as he tries to lure Ringo into a rash decision and hasty death.

Johnny Ringo lacks Holliday’s self-awareness. When Holliday says that a man like Ringo is “has got a great big hole right in the middle of him,” he’s speaking of himself as well. Granted, we spend more time with Holliday, but we get enough time with Ringo to understand that he doesn’t understand himself, doesn’t grasp what makes him so miserable and prone to violence. Holliday, conversely, knows and speaks of his own hypocrisy, he knows that Kate is using him and may be “the Antichrist,” and, in a heartbreaking, wonderful moment, he knows that he frankly hasn’t led a life that’s won him many friends.

Ringo is equally loyal to his few friends, even though he isn’t emotionally capable of articulating it the way Doc is. In the scene where he calls for the blood and souls of the Earps, he’s drunk for the only time in the movie. It’s no coincidence that this is on the heels of his friends in the Cowboys gang dying during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At no other time in the film is Johnny up for the Cowboys’ drunken debauchery. In fact, Ringo abstains from any vices besides killing. He’ll shoot a priest dead, to the shock of his fellow Cowboys, but he never chases women, doesn’t play cards and almost never drinks. Only when his friends have been killed–when he wasn’t there to use his expertise to help them–does Ringo seek solace in liquor.

The “hole” in Ringo’s life isn’t that much bigger than Holliday’s, Doc just realizes something is missing and therefore does something about it. While Ringo “can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain” to fill that space, Doc can at least partially quell his emptiness through booze, gambling, women, gunslinging, and an undying devotion to his one true friend. Ringo, intelligent but ignorant of himself and utterly joyless, avoids pleasure and seeks only death, but even that can’t come close to evening him out.

Ringo is also too reliant on having others see him as a man who’s too dangerous to be stood up to. Even Wyatt, brave as he is, conceded to Doc that he couldn’t beat Ringo in a gunfight, which is what prompted Doc to intervene. When Doc–a man who does not see Ringo as a Reaper, but just as a dead man walking, same as himself–shows up and says he wants to finish their game of “playing for blood,” Ringo says he was only joking.

“I wasn’t,” Doc says. And Ringo’s face turns from stone to this…

 

 

He’s afraid and confused. While Ringo chases death and wants “revenge [for] being born,” he doesn’t really want to die, and he really doesn’t want to be in this situation that he cannot control. Holliday, meanwhile, sports the same relaxed grin prior to their duel that he was wearing when telling Wyatt he was “rolling” with success, or observing that Kate wasn’t wearing a bustle, or when he proudly proclaimed to Ringo in their first meeting that he is in his prime.

When Holliday lands the fatal shot in their duel, he goads Ringo into getting a shot off of his own, and you get the sense that he’s sincere. Doc’s illness has condemned him to an early grave regardless of how he lives, and he’s well aware of this. When he senses his time is coming, he’s only distressed at the thought of Wyatt watching him pass. When Wyatt leaves the room, Holliday makes a final, calm comment observing that he’s dying with his boots off, and then he dies without much stress.

In the end, the result of this rivalry–predictable as it may be for a crowd-pleasing Western–is foreshadowed by that first confrontation. There is Doc Holliday, the casual gardener, and Johnny Ringo, the compulsive carpenter. The cool improviser, and the impulsive controller. Two men with similar talents and a similar blood lust, but a few crucial difference. Ringo instigates trouble because he must be in control–or at least feel that he is in control–and must keep up appearances as the baddest man in the room. He needs others to see him a certain way. Doc invites trouble and simply takes things as they come, and doesn’t much care what most others think of him. Ringo shows off his (probably rehearsed) gun-twirling tricks for the crowd to show everyone he’s a bad, bad man, and Doc makes a joke of it, because he’s savvy and wants to deescalate the situation for the sake of his friends, but also because he doesn’t care if anyone else thinks he’s a bad, bad man. He knows who and what he is.

And when the insecure man who must control trouble is confronted by an uncontrollable variable he wasn’t prepared for–Doc showing up for a duel before Wyatt could arrive–well, his fear is so apparent that his rival can see the ghost in him, and truthfully tells him that he looks as though someone’s walked over his soon-to-be-dug grave.

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