Heist Movies and Naughty Protagonists

I watched Ocean’s Thirteen last night, and it got me thinking. Why is it that I like watching people break the law so much in these movies? The Ocean series, The Sting, The Italian Job (and the original), The Thomas Crown Affair (and the original), Catch Me If You Can . . . it’s a genre I really like, and it’s remarkable how quickly I start rooting for the protagonists, even though they all end up doing things that I find morally objectionable. And when you look at the movies for a moment, you figure out why. In each case, the protagonists are essentially good people who are just doing things to Fight the System. Ocean doesn’t steal from little old grannies–he steals from big wig casino owners. And not just casino owners–morally reprehensible casino owners. And in the case of the first film, he’s not just stealing for profit, he’s stealing to win back the heart of the woman he loves. In the Sting, Redford is portrayed at first as a two-bit con artist who doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm. But then his partner is killed, which justifies the grand theft that ensues.

What do I learn from this? Well, I learn that protagonists are appealing not just by their characteristics, but also by their conflicts. Let’s look at it from the reverse. Hannibal Lecter is refined and cultured, by all appearances a model of society. He just happens to kill people and eat their organs, and for that, he becomes one of the most cited examples of terrible villains in recent film history. (Well, that and ripping off a guy’s face and using it as a mask, but let’s not quibble here.) What I mean is that you can have a very nice protagonist, but if that protagonist is doing the most evil in the book, then people won’t like him or her. But if you have them doing evil–but not as much evil as someone else in the plot–you can still have your audience like them.

An example where this fell apart for me is in the remake of Stallone remake of Get Carter. It’s a movie where Stallone goes through doing reprehensible things, one after another, that are easily as reprehensible as the actions the “villains” did to him, with the only difference that the villains did them first. The same is true of Mel Gibson’s Payback, a movie I could never really get into, just because I couldn’t quite bring myself to root for the protagonist.

I remember talking with Brandon Sanderson when he was just starting the Mistborn series. He wanted to write a fantasy book that was fun in the same vein as heist movies were fun. So he had his protagonists be fighting against an evil empire and an immortal dictator. It works–his series is fantastic.

Can anyone think of other examples of this? Or better yet, of examples where this isn’t the case? Have you seen or read anything that has a protagonist who is truly evil or wicked or whatever, yet you still really rooted for him or her anyway? Maybe I’m just unique in this–I’d like to hear what other people have to say.

6 thoughts on “Heist Movies and Naughty Protagonists”

  1. I hated The Sting, I think because I couldn’t really see how the theft was helping to avenge the murder. It wasn’t like he was giving the money to support the widow. I think you’re totally right in concept, but in that particular instance, I just couldn’t bring myself to like anybody.
    However, in The Prestige, I didn’t like anyone either, and it’s one of my very favorites, probably because it was more of a mystery plot, and I think the plot is so brilliant that I don’t care that I don’t like the characters. (Now that I think about this, I think it’s not true. I liked the side characters. That might help, also.)

  2. Not like The Sting? I’ll pretend I didn’t read that. ๐Ÿ™‚
    The Prestige is a good example. It’s a brutal movie–one that constantly made me squirm. I just couldn’t get behind either one of the protagonists, but at the same time, both characters kept on having the chance to redeem themselves, and the movie didn’t pull any punches, trying to portray their actions as noble or some such tripe. It was upfront that what the protags were doing was bad. In that way, it turned into a character study, with the mystery driving the plot and keeping people interested. If the mystery had been crummy, I’d contend that the movie would have been a serious letdown. So maybe my observation about protagonists only applies if much of the plot/interest in the book/movie rests on us liking the protagonists in the first place. I love that with writing–there are “rules,” but if you do things right, you can break them. There is no spoon. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I agree with your assessment. I think that your observations hold true for the heist plotline, though, because a heist relies on you caring about whether or not the protagonist succeeds. A mystery really doesn’t–it only relies on you caring about finding out the answer to the mystery.

  4. Another thought
    Maybe it’s just the evil side of me, but in some of these movies I notice that I simply get a vicarious thrill in watching the protagonists beat the system (as long as they’re not inherently evil people, of course – as you mentioned. I don’t get a thrill from watching Silence of the Lambs. Ick.). I noticed this with the movie, “21.” Not an amazing movie by any standard, but I really enjoyed it – and I think it was because I lived through the characters who were beating the system at casinos. Maybe watching movies like these gives us all an outlet for the part of us that wants to participate in these kind of schemes, so that we don’t actually go out and do it in real life. Or maybe I’m just a bad person who secretly wants to win millions in Vegas.

  5. Re: Another thought
    But that’s the thing. Hannibal Lecter is in prison for a crime he committed. He breaks out of prison in a unique and tricky (if disgusting) manner, and we hate him for it. You couldn’t have an entire movie based on that act–people would hate it. Conversely, in The Shawshank Redemption, the protag breaks out and we admire him. The success of getting the audience to like the movie if it’s about something that the people shouldn’t be doing (a heist, jail break, etc.) is making sure they like the protagonists, and that there’s a greater evil present. Hannibal’s the biggest evil in the film–there’s no way to like him. But if he did that same thing, but as an act of defiance against evil overlords or something, our feelings might well be very different. (Although there are some lines that authors/directors probably can’t cross. I wonder what’s the most despicable thing a character has managed to do and still be likable . . .)

Leave a comment