Long before TV became the go-to medium for tortured, flawed lead characters, the movies were the place to find your primo antiheroes: Thirties gangsters, Forties noir-dwelling private dicks, Fifties non-conformists, Sixties loonies, Seventies loners and loose cannons, Eighties tough guys, and Nineties ironist rebels. And with a few notable exceptions (say hello, Sweet Smell of Success‘ Sidney Falco), even when these characters had a wobbly moral compass or did despicable things, they were incredibly charismatic. Maybe you admired their confidence, their coolness, or simply their ability to stand up to authority or thumb their nose at society. Maybe you just wanted to be them, the James Dean greaser and Jack Nicholson smart-ass, Dirty Harry and Alex the Droog.
But there are a small number of memorable screen antiheroes that you wouldn’t exactly call admirable. Antisocial, stalkerish, creepy, sniveling, disturbed or downright psychotic — those descriptions fit a lot better. These were guys, and they were almost always guys, who you didn’t want to sit down with for a beer; you were more likely to cross the street or change zip codes in order to avoid them altogether. Someone like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, an Angeleno who stumbles across his calling as freelance TV news cameraman. His specialty is car accidents and crime scenes, though he’s not afraid to cross a few lines (legal, ethical, you name it) to get the edge on his competition. He’s also the kind of sociopathic protagonist who gives you the serious heebie-jeebies — and this is the person you’re supposed to be rooting for.
Gyllenhaal’s malevolent misfit is just the latest in a long line of lead characters who make you want to crawl out of your skin, however. So we’ve put together a quick survey of our favorite unlikable antiheroes — not the villains you love to hate or hate to love, but the “hero” characters most likely to cause mass cringing. We’re keeping the list confined to characters from American movies; you could fill a similar list several times over with just Japanese- or French-film characters if you were so inclined, and don’t even get us started on Austria’s recent wave of unsparing feel-bad dramas. Rather, we focused on 10 memorable gents from Hollywood/Indiewood circles who still make us want to take a steel-wool shower afterwards: the crème de la crème of our cinema’s negative creeps.