Many weeks at the movies you search, fruitlessly, for protagonists with a few edges or a messy internal conflict or two. Too often the creators of those characters work from a place of commercial fear, not creative desire. They’re nervous. They don’t want anybody to dislike anybody for very long, especially their chief rooting interest. The function of the audience becomes simple: to root, root, root for the narrative equivalent of the home team.
So I write this column in praise of “difficult” protagonists.
Bucking the usual trend, the movies have temporarily rediscovered the value of tough nuts to crack, in films as disparate as “Manchester by the Sea,” “Elle,” “Fences” and “Toni Erdmann.”
All are superbly acted, stubbornly committed works you'll be hearing more about as we plow into awards season. Their key characters are more concerned with being compelling than remaining, in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” parlance, “well-liked.”
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan comes from the theater, where aggressively palatable main characters are somewhat less prioritized than they are in Hollywood. In the exquisite “Manchester by the Sea” the protagonist, handyman Lee Chandler played with perfect, aching pitch by Casey Affleck, is a cousin of such Lonergan stage characters as the disaffected security guard in “Lobby Hero.”
Lee can be reduced to two words: “grieving janitor,” as Variety’s Brent Lang wrote recently. (The National Board of Review named “Manchester by the Sea” the best film of 2016, with Affleck winning best actor and Lonergan best original screenplay.) He is a man with a tragic burden, and Lee’s stuck in neutral, drinking too much, unable to shake his past. Then his nephew comes back into his life, and Lee is forced to reconcile the numb, guilty shell he has become with the man he needs to be.
In a lesser film, such a character would find 100 percent redemption and a fully happy ending and the movie would make more money. But Lonergan, whose debut feature was the excellent, bittersweet “You Can Count on Me,” is a proven master of the well-earned and emotionally authentic happy/sad resolution. Lee may not have the flailing, abrasive quality of the young woman in his previous, death-haunted film, “Margaret,” but Lee is daringly internalized, and he keeps making the same mistakes. That’s something most movies do not allow their key characters.
Troy Maxson, played by Denzel Washington in film version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences,” represents a more garrulous sort of damaged male figure. (Washington’s terrific in the role; he and Viola Davis both won Tony Awards for the 2010 “Fences” Broadway revival.)
Wilson’s protagonist has endured and accomplished much. The bulk of the drama takes place in 1957, years after Maxson, a onetime Negro League slugger in the pre-Jackie Robinson era, tasted nothing but frustration in his pursuit of a baseball career.
An abusive sharecropper father; prison time; half-a-lifetime of adversity: All that lies on one side of the protagonist’s ledger. On the other side, in the story’s present day, Maxson’s employed as a Pittsburgh garbage collector. He has a wary relationship with his grown son by a previous marriage. He has a promising high school football player son by his second wife, Rose. The marriage has been sound. But Maxson cannot allow his younger son to accept a college football scholarship. Then Wilson’s difficult protagonist risks his entire family life and begins pushing everyone around him further and further away.
A good production or film version of “Fences” makes Maxson’s story heart-rending, because he is such a vital flawed man, and because there’s such joyous cadence in Wilson’s writing. In 1987, when “Fences” made its premiere on Broadway with James Earl Jones as Maxson, I talked to Jones after a preview performance. The play’s multicity tryout tour, which included a Chicago stop, had been rough. Maxson, Jones told me, was extraordinarily challenging to take on.
“I don’t really understand how, or why, he … dissolves the way he does,” he said. The early “Fences” performances drew a lot of derisive laughter from audiences, as Maxson makes his most serious mistakes. The character, Jones told me, “represents something hopeful especially for the black female. He’s a strong man who makes something happen, rather than just f– up. And then he proceeds to do just that.” Yet if he’s portrayed as a purely unsympathetic adversary, there is no play, or movie.
Paul Verhoeven’s outlandish rape revenge saga “Elle,” a film male and female critics (though not along gender lines) have admired and loathed in equal measure, stars a fantastically icy Isabelle Huppert as a Paris video game entrepreneur. She is sexually assaulted by a stranger at the top of the movie. “I suppose I was raped,” she tells her friends at a restaurant that night, just as a waiter presents the table with a magnum of Champagne. (“Maybe wait a few minutes before popping that,” one character says, in a brazen comic aside.)
How Michele Leblanc, the Huppert character, processes and responds to her ordeal becomes the stuff of true unpredictability. The sexual politics of “Elle” will launch a thousand dissertations. Over and over, in the office scenes, “Elle” interpolates gaming footage of Michele’s big seller, a first-person-player rape fantasy. Michele, we learn, is the daughter of an infamous serial killer, and her role in her father’s murders remains murky. Nothing in “Elle” is unmarked by prurient, manipulative role play, and in fascinating ways it keeps turning into different kinds of movies though Huppert’s performance remains a gripping constant.
“No American actress would take on such an amoral movie,” Verhoeven told one interviewer. Michele is the confounding essence of a difficult protagonist.
The German comedy “Toni Erdmann,” from writer and director Maren Ade, became the toast of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, though the top prize went instead to a warm, human, “relatable” Ken Loach drama, “I, Daniel Blake.” Ade’s female protagonist is a tightly wound business consultant working with an oil company in Bucharest. Her minimal relationship with her recently retired father is about to enter a new chapter. He’s an unrelenting practical joker, doing what he can (in hilariously awkward ways) to reach out; she’s fed up with the ingrained, patronizing sexism of her male colleagues, yet lacks the self-awareness to question what she’s doing (an affair with a married colleague, for starters), or why.
The performances in “Toni Erdmann” are astounding, led by Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek. The movie runs nearly three hours, in wholly unexpected directions, and it’s a 2016 highlight.
Deliberately, the daughter in “Toni Erdmann” is not easy screen company. She’s uncomfortable in nearly every aspect of her life, and the film goes about her rehabilitation without turning her into the dramatic equivalent of a false positive. “This is a very interesting question, the question of how likable characters must be,” writer-director Ade told me by phone from Berlin the other day. “When you make films in Germany it’s always with public money, and the question you hear again and again in meetings is: ‘Yes, but do we LIKE the characters?' It’s such a boring question!’”
To Ade, the challenge is to “follow people who make mistakes, who may, in fact, be mean. It can be exciting to, I don’t know … to suffer along with the character, even in a comedy. With ‘Toni Erdmann' I wanted to do something where the ‘bad cop' is the woman.”
Speaking for all the difficult, vital screen protagonists of the moment, Ade said: “It’s much more interesting if your characters have a dark side. Or a dark side and a light side. Both sides, struggling. Whatever the struggle.”