Sympathy for the Anti-Hero
The anti-hero was prevalent in the cinema of the 1970s. Do you have a sense that it’s less so now, with the interest shifting to a moral clarity?
I don’t know if we have to look back to it, but it’s an interesting question to posit against where we are culturally. What makes ’70s American movies eminently rewatchable is the complexity of the characters onscreen. When you think of Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975), Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975), Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), or Gene Hackman in The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), you’re torn about all of these characters. There are moments when you’re endeared and feel close to them; you want to reach through the screen and embrace them. In other moments you’re frightened for them and frightened of them because they’re disturbing and dysfunctional.
They capture something that has the richness of what it means to be a fully fledged human being, which is we’re full of these contradictions. I’d have to think more deeply whether we’re in a moment in our culture where we want more of a black and white understanding of characters, and how righteous, or villainous they are.
If I were to guess, it might be something social media has had an impact on. It has influenced the way we see the world, and it has obviously been spoken about how it was seen as an opportunity to have a richer understanding of each other But it has had the opposite effect, and has divided us. It has created camps and silos, and within those camps, maybe we want to easily categorise heroes and villains.
The project of movies and other art forms is to break out of easy categorisation. Any movie worth its salt is going to take characters and archetypes that seem rigidly defined and flip them on their head. It makes you look at someone that you identified with in a different way. These will always be the films that make a lasting and universal impression on audiences. It’s not to say there aren’t heroes and villains in the world, but I don’t know if I’m interested in seeing them onscreen.
Stories often become less about the characters and more about the audience. Why films remain with us is because when you can strike that connection between the story and the audience, it transcends eliciting an emotional response of laughter, fright, happiness or sorrow. Instead it, touches us more deeply and is a reflection of ourselves and our world.
Why we’re attracted to complicated individuals onscreen is because we know deep down that we’re complicated. We have flaws, vulnerabilities, and we’re full of hypocrisies. We might pretend to be one way to the outer world, but we know deep down we’re far from perfect. When you see characters onscreen that manifest all of these imperfections, you appreciate that nuanced performance, and it resonates more profoundly than a character who is black and white.
There’s a place for that, and there are effective films that have defined hero and villain archetypes, but they tend to be films for a younger audience. As soon as you’re in an adult realm of cinema, you’re pining for people who make mistakes, and so much of cinema is about people making mistakes.
There’s a familiar bias in storytelling where the audience’s familiarity with a character can manipulate their point-of-view. This feeds into the process of identification, influencing how we respond to not only this character, but to the others as well.
I don’t know if it’s familiarity, because I’ve definitely seen films where you’re given a morally objectionable character that you don’t identify with. You might be fascinated by them, but you’re not rooting for them to win. To take an extreme example, you spend a lot of time watching the character of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (McNaughton, 1986), but I don’t know if you’re rooting for him.
It’s true that the person you’re given the most screen time with becomes your point-of-view, but I don’t necessarily think it equates to being your emotional point-of-view. It depends on the nuances of the character and, frankly, the actor. With Riz [Ahmed, who plays Malik Khan in Encounter] there’s a natural warmth about him. He has an energy that elicits an empathetic response onscreen. There are other actors that could be as fascinating, but they’re colder, and you’re more fascinated by them than endeared to them.
I needed someone that had that warmth because the character was going to make mistakes, and I wanted you to be on the ride with them. Working with Riz gives you that latitude. It’s a gift as a director because you know you can push the audience a long way and they’ll stay on the journey.
It was one of the reasons I cast Jessie [Buckley] in Beast. There were actors I was thinking of before her, whose presence was more austere and cold. I worried that you wouldn’t stick with them, whereas I knew with Jessie, like Riz, she creates an empathetic connection between the character and the audience.
Part of identification is screen time, but it’s not the only thing. You have to connect with the qualities of a character and the energy of the actor playing them. It’s where the casting becomes vital. For other roles you want to numb the audience’s identification, and for an antihero, it’s important that you have someone who you’re charmed by because you’re going to stay on that journey for much longer.
Malik is a victim of institutions and society that failed to support him in his moment of crisis. It’s an echo of an experience shared by many. In our capitalist-driven society, we are parts of a machine. As long as we’re functioning as required it has a use for us, but if we break, the operators discard us.
Riz and I built up a big back story for the character, about his upbringing, why he joined the Marines and what motivated him. He’s someone who grew up in foster care and was vulnerable. He didn’t always have a loving family and suffered traumatic incidents in his childhood. When he grew up he wanted to become the person that he needed when he was a child.
The protector and warrior are powerful identities for him, but it has meant that throughout his life he has had to put himself in traumatic incidents. It’s a pain he can’t avoid. We chose not to put that in the script directly because we didn’t need to spell it out for an audience. We thought there were enough clues in the character’s behaviour that we could mention it fleetingly, and lightly allude to his back story.
He’s someone that has fallen through the cracks and you see that in any developed nation. I found it even more apparent in the States. In Los Angeles, you see how many homeless people there are, and how many experience mental health difficulties. Many of them must have fallen through the cracks and aren’t getting the help and care they need. I don’t mean to make that comment as a criticism of America. We don’t get a lot of that here [in the UK], but it’s striking and apparent there.
It’s something we’re all culturally waking up to very slowly. The discussion of mental health seems to be one that’s happening in ultra slow motion. We might look back 50 years from now and think, ‘God it took the culture hundreds of years to wrap their head around what that means, and how to treat people experiencing mental health difficulties with compassion.’ You look at how they’ve been portrayed onscreen, and up until recently, it has been a one-dimensional approach.
Usually mental health difficulties have been exploited [in film] to give a villainous character some colour, or texture, and that’s the extent that the empathy is extended. It’s only now that we’re getting a more complex portrait of those characters onscreen.