When I first saw the title of Mystery Man’s recent article I [Heart] Unsympathetic Protags, I was very excited, as I naturally “heart” unsympathetic protagonists. But after reading it, I’m not so sure “unsympathetic” is the right word anymore. (And yes, his name is Mystery Man — check out his “head” shot in the mag.) On one side of the coin, I think Mystery Man is right on when he talks about how you can enjoy an unsympathetic protag for his “contradictions and depth” and how you sympathize with the people affected by that protag.
Although not a protagonist, I think the substance of that idea is what makes The Joker from The Dark Knight so fun to watch. Ray Morton mentions in his article, Good Examples: Jonathan Nolan on The Dark Knight, that writers Nolan and Goyer left out any kind of definitive backstory to The Joker on purpose. So instead of winding up with forced sympathy for The Joker, we’re left with a Joker maniacally offering contradicting reasons for his scars, making him all the more fascinating to watch. But more often, despite how unsympathetic a protagonist you construct, I think it’s important at some point to eventually feel at least a little sympathy for him or her.
The very first film I think of when I think unsympathetic protagonists is In the Company of Men, the dark comedy by Neil LaBute. It’s a brilliant film about two corporate execs who are so bitter about love, they decide to find a woman, simultaneously date her, then both break up with her at the same time to screw all women over in one fell swoop. See it if you dare. These guys are the definition of assholes, no holds barred, but when one guy starts competing with the other for the girl, we actually start to feel sympathy for the guy losing out. It doesn’t make the guy a “sympathetic” person in general, but having sympathy for him during his pathetic downfall is the only reason the story stays engaging.
Mystery Man cites Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino as unsympathetic, but I disagree. He is flawed, not unsympathetic. His racial slurs, the way he takes things into his own hands, are flaws which make him interesting to watch. But we also know he just lost his wife. If that doesn’t immediately make him a sympathetic protag, then I don’t know what does. I think this last example underlines the point that a deeply flawed protagonist is often one audiences will wrap themselves up in, but not a purely unsympathetic one. I agree with Mystery Man — down with the wimpy execs and the phony pro-readers! But the movie I want to see, the ride I want to go on, is the one where I’m presented with a protag so flawed there’s no way I’ll ever love him or her, but then by the end, I feel true sympathy for what they are going through. What do you think?