Eric Love isn’t on a redemption arc. The protagonist of the new prison drama Starred Up is a seemingly unrepentant, defiant murderer who carries violence around as his first, last, and almost every option. He doesn’t attack in every situation, but once someone else does, he escalates ruthlessly and repeatedly. When the governor of his prison offers him a second chance, he mocks her. When a counselor offers him sanctuary, Eric glibly accuses the poor guy of being a child molester grooming a hot new prospect—and spins a story (made-up, viewers will hope) about murdering another child molester at age 10. Viewers might try to sympathize with Eric because he’s only 19 years old, or because once he’s dropped into a high-security adult prison in the film’s opening scene, the odds are stacked against him. Besides, a few of the people working against him are just as violent as he is, but less honest about it, and with more power that they’re willing to abuse. And above all, Eric is the protagonist: He’s what viewers have to work with.
But the film never frames him as a hero, or even an antihero. It doesn’t hold out much hope for his redemption—his aggression, defiance, and contempt for the world are so deep-seated and reflexive that there’s little sign he’ll ever be ready to make it in the outside world. At best, Starred Up suggests, he might learn to calm down just a little. But before that, the narrative makes it clear that he’s going to cause immense and terrible havoc. That’s what gives Starred Up its vivid, thrilling energy: the sense that its protagonist is so far beyond redeemable that viewers can stop worrying about whether he can, or will, be redeemed. And with that familiar arc off the table, all bets are off as to where, and how far, the story will go. Taking Eric outside the usual hero/villain templates gives screenwriter Jonathan Asser (who based the story on personal experience) an immense and rare freedom to push his story in virtually any direction.
Film protagonists as unbudgingly amoral as Eric are rare. There are plenty of significant characters who start out amoral but throw in with the good guys (like Han Solo), or villains who switch sides in the end (like Darth Vader). There are similarly plenty of antiheroes, who revel in violence or rule-flouting or selfish choices, but still follow a private code, or at least have a goal worth pursuing: If viewers can’t sympathize with the character, they can at least sympathize with the agenda of saving the day or catching the killer. But all these kinds of characters tend to contribute to familiar story patterns—usually, hero-beats-villain, or ambiguous-hero-becomes-clear-hero. The appeal of a character like Eric, who doesn’t fit familiar molds, is that it’s never clear where his arc is taking him until it’s finally over. From the beginning, there’s no reason to believe he has any sort of easy fix ahead of him. And the narrative bears out that impression.
Eric certainly isn’t unique in cinema. Characters like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Mavis in Young Adult, Renton in Trainspotting, Elizabeth in Bad Teacher, and Willie in Bad Santa all have some of the venom and self-absorption of villains, but without the discipline and ambition. They have all despicable goals, though to varying degrees: Mavis just wants to destroy an ex-boyfriend’s marriage and win him back, while Patrick Bateman (if the filmmakers are to be believed) actually commits murders for fun. But while their stories posit them as bad guys, they aren’t Bad Guys in the usual narrative sense—their story arcs aren’t about their defeat, punishment, or even triumph. They’re about exploring bad behavior, and the conscious or unconscious choice to continue it even when it isn’t satisfying or enjoyable. The only truly irredeemable characters are the ones who are irredeemable by choice—the ones who make their bad behavior into a lifestyle, and dismiss chances to transcend that behavior. And as a result, they tend to exist in a kind of narrative limbo. They often make other people suffer; one of the big differences between an antihero and an irredeemable protagonist is that antiheroes usually flout rules so they can more effectively hurt villains, while the irredeemable types are more liberal about spreading the hurt around indiscriminately. But mostly, the irredeemable types engineer their own suffering, and with it, their own inability to escape.
In theory, that cycle could be stultifying, with protagonists just wallowing in their own pain for two hours. (Films like Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant come close to being exactly that.) But in practice, the irredeemable-protagonist story is often a giddy thrill. Stepping so far outside the normal boundaries of heroes’ journeys and villains’ downfalls tends to make for particularly weird films. There’s no telling what the title character of Mr. Brooks might do, given the strangeness of having a serial killer with an evil voice in his head (played by William Hurt, no less) as the lead. It’s hard to predict what the title character of May has up her bloody sleeves. Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy is mesmerizing because his upbeat, friendly affect and his thoroughly insane behavior are so completely at odds. The same goes for unrepentant bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, and for the co-leads in The Perfect Host. None of them entirely revel in the harm they cause to other people, but none of them really mind, either. They defy easy classification, and that on its own is exciting.
And so is the sense that the normal rules have been suspended. Viewers may suspect that The War Of The Roses will eventually end happily for someone—that one of the feuding leads will eventually back down, or at least show a little humanity and take on a more sympathetic role. Instead, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner’s characters keep doubling down on their malice and their refusal to compromise. Once it becomes clear that the film is never going to back off and become a cute rom-com, or a dark love story, the training wheels are off. Again, anything can happen, including an ending dark enough to deeply shock audiences back in 1989.
There’s also a hint of recognizability in any character unrepentantly making amoral choices, or even outright evil ones. Viewers may not be able to identify with a sociopath onscreen, but they probably secretly understand what it’s like to do something selfish at someone else’s expense—or just really want to. Irredeemable characters are often just a little cathartic, because they let the audience in on what it would be like to just give in to the id’s basest urges, but without becoming a full-scale cartoon monster. There’s also a wry familiarity to anyone who continues making the wrong choices and fervently denying what it costs them—something else virtually everyone has done at some point. At the same time, it can be uncomfortable to identify with terrible behavior, which may explain why so many movies with unrepentant creep or criminal protagonists are black comedies that defang the leads’ behavior by making it the butt of the joke. The Coen brothers in particular understand that when a film leaves an awful protagonist unpunished, or at least free to continue making the same painful-to-others mistakes, it becomes bleak, absurd, or both. It’s easier to laugh at monstrous behavior than acknowledge a secret connection to it.
That said, some viewers just can’t connect at all. Thanks to the popularity of TV shows like Breaking Bad, Sons Of Anarchy, Girls, and Game Of Thrones, the question of “unlikable characters” has been talked to death in the media in recent years, particularly the questions of what really makes a character unlikable, why unlikable characters are necessary, why female characters are so much more likely to get the “unlikable” tag, and especially (via endless lists), which characters are most unlikable. As the debate rages on (including here at The Dissolve—we took up the “When is unlikable too unlikable?” question back in May), mostly what’s become clear is that “unlikable” is entirely a matter of subjective taste for individual viewers. Not everyone wants to spend time with films as ugly as Man Bites Dog, or watch someone self-destruct as thoroughly as Jasmine does in Blue Jasmine. Different people have different tolerance levels, both for unpleasant main characters, and for films that let them get away with being horrible. Audiences also have varying tolerance levels for hope: One viewer’s utterly unsavable character is another person’s redemption long-shot fantasy, which can lead to bitter disappointment when a film doesn’t grant its protagonist the same faith.
And the “unlikable” debate always seems to come down to the fact that some viewers can’t engage with a story unless they have a rooting interest in it—at least one significant character worth pulling for. It’s impossible to cheer for Alex to get his mental freedom back in A Clockwork Orange, because he’s such a revolting bastard before the Ludovico treatment. It’s also impossible to root for his tormentors. Viewers who can’t disengage from the need for an upright hero—for one strong empathetic association—are never going to enjoy these kinds of stories. Test audiences usually hate ambiguity, and in general, Hollywood does too, because weird, dark, edgy, and complicated all tend to be hard sells.
But for viewers tired of conventional Puritan good-is-rewarded/bad-is-punished dynamics, there’s nothing quite like those thrilling, daring stories that stand back and watch someone go entirely off the rails. There’s a purity to not capping a dark or funny story with the false, teary repentance of a bad Adam Sandler movie, or daring to fully commit to the idea that some people can’t be saved, largely because they refuse to be. It’s always worth noting that these films don’t have to be seen as irredeemably cynical themselves. They aren’t necessarily denying redemption to Eric Love and his fellow psychopaths, criminals, and moral monsters forever. Just denying it to them for the scope of one film is subversive, unusual, and engaging enough.