Anti-hero films are a treasure trove for those who appreciate complex characters that challenge traditional definitions of right and wrong – and there’s no shortage of them available on the major streaming services, if you know where to look. If you’re looking to settle down for a movie with morally dubious lead, read on for our top picks.
The anti-hero may lack traditional heroic qualities such as morality, altruism, or nobility, but often that just makes them more human and relatable. Their actions are questionable, driven by personal motivations or a sense of justice that does not conform to societal norms. The best anti-hero films challenge us to re-evaluate the conventional definitions of good and evil, reminding us that sometimes the most compelling characters are the ones who do not fit neatly into the boxes of hero or villain.
The best anti-hero films to watch today
Starting with genre classics, taking in cult movies and modern takes on the character staple, these are our picks for the very best anti-hero films. Starting with…
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
This cult classic tells the story of Alex DeLarge, played by Malcolm McDowell, a violent and sociopathic delinquent whose eyes we see the dystopian society where violence and crime are prevalent. Although his monstrous actions are indefensible, we can’t help but feel sympathy for Alex, who becomes a victim of psychological manipulation.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
A timeless film revered since its release in 1975. The movie follows the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy, an outlaw sent to an asylum for evaluation. Although he initially appears to be a troublemaker, his actions soon reveal his true nature as a modern-day anti-hero. McMurphy challenges the oppressive system of the mental health facility, and his courage and rebellious spirit make him a symbol of resistance and hope in the face of adversity.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle, a disturbed Vietnam War veteran turned vigilante taxi driver, is genuinely a masterpiece. Travis is a loner with insomnia and a deteriorating mental state, descending into madness as he delivers violent acts of justice against the “scum” of society. The film’s gritty realism and exploration of existentialism make it an ageless classic.
A classic Western that stars Clint Eastwood as Will Munny – an anti-hero who is neither completely good nor completely evil. The story is set in the Wild West and revolves around Munny’s transformation from an outlaw to a vigilante as he seeks revenge for a crime committed against a local prostitute. Although Munny initially lacks a moral code, his sense of justice takes over, ultimately making him a true anti-hero.
Falling Down (1993)
Michael Douglas leads as William “D-Fens” Foster, an ordinary man pushed to his breaking point. He has experienced job loss, divorce, and constant alienation from society. This sense of disenfranchisement leads him to question the world around him and the rules that govern it. Unlike traditional heroes, Foster doesn’t possess supernatural abilities or a moral compass. He is flawed, angry, and unpredictable. His actions may seem extreme and violent, but they stem from a deep-rooted frustration with the injustices he sees around him.
Fight Club (1999)
An unforgettable classic anti-hero movie that challenges societal norms and advocates for personal freedom. The charismatic Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, and the unnamed narrator, played by Edward Norton, deliver mesmerizing performances as they delve into consumerism, masculinity, and rebellion themes. With its mind-bending plot twists and provocative commentary on modern society, Fight Club remains a true classic in the genre.
American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron’s dark satire follows the life of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker with a twisted double life as a serial killer. Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the film explores themes of materialism, vanity, and the darker aspects of the human psyche—Christian Bale’s chilling performance as Bateman brings the character to life in a disturbing and captivating way.
Blade Runner (1982)
Viewers are taken to a dystopian future where synthetic humanoids known as Replicants are used for dangerous tasks. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of protagonist Rick Deckard, a retired Blade Runner tasked with hunting down rogue Replicants, blurs the lines between hero and villain as the film explores themes of humanity, identity, and the nature of existence.
The Warriors (1979)
A gritty and stylish action film set in a violent and chaotic New York City. It follows a street gang called The Warriors as they navigate back to their turf after being wrongly accused of murder. The film showcases the city’s dark underbelly while highlighting the gang’s camaraderie and loyalty.
Rambo: First Blood (1982)
Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo in five films. Unsurprisingly, the first one, First Blood (1982), got most of the attention. Stallone’s portrayal of Rambo masterfully highlights the character’s trauma and isolation as a driving force behind his actions. As a Vietnam War veteran, Rambo’s past experiences have left him emotionally scarred and disconnected from society. This pushes him into physical and emotional isolation as he struggles to find his place in the world.
Directed by Brian De Palma, Scarface follows the rise and fall of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who becomes a powerful drug lord in Miami and features Al Pacino’s iconic portrayal of Montana’s ruthlessness and ambition, cementing his place as one of the most memorable anti-heroes in cinematic history. Iconic scenes, such as “say hello to my little friend”, have become pop culture staples. The movie’s soundtrack, composed by Giorgio Moroder, is also a standout that perfectly captures the movie’s themes and energy.
American History X (1998)
Years before AMC introduced the small screen to Walter White in Breaking Bad, there was Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard. Throughout the now-iconic film, we witness the struggles of a troubled and violent young man consumed by hatred and prejudice. Derek’s character transformation from a hateful racist to a man who understands the destructive nature of his beliefs makes his character so complex and compelling. Norton’s portrayal of Derek’s multi-dimensional character allows us to empathize with him, even in his darkest moments, making him the ultimate anti-hero.
There will be Blood (2007)
Daniel Plainview, played masterfully by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a complex and enigmatic character in 2007’s acclaimed There Will Be Blood. Film critics, historians, and everyday viewers have long been dissecting and discussing the character. The movie tracks Plainview’s journey from a small-town prospector to a powerful oil magnate and the moral ambiguities that arise.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is a standout masterpiece in this category. It’s the film that introduced us to the legendary Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger. His chaotic and enigmatic portrayal of the Joker is one of cinematic history’s most memorable and compelling anti-heroes.
Nicolas Winding Rein’s Drive (2011) is a remarkable film that pushes the boundaries of the genre. It’s a stylish neo-noir thriller that stars Ryan Gosling as a mysterious getaway driver. Gosling’s character is a fascinating study in contrasts. He exhibits quiet intensity and nuanced performances, blending moments of kindness with bursts of shocking violence.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Max Rockatansky, played by Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), has become a symbol of the post-apocalyptic hero. His character’s iconic leather jacket, shotgun, and thrilling action sequences have influenced countless films, TV shows, and video games.
The most recent addition to the modern anti-hero canon is Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips. The film takes us on a psychological journey through the character of Arthur Fleck, played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix.
Gone Girl (2014)
Directed by David Fincher, this psychological thriller follows the story of Nick Dunne, whose wife mysteriously disappears on their anniversary. As the film unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the lines between victim and perpetrator blur. The film’s unexpected twist will leave you questioning who the real anti-hero is.
A notable film directed by Dan Gilroy with a twisted ending. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a mesmerizing performance as Louis Bloom. The character is a freelance crime journalist who becomes increasingly sinister, culminating in a shocking twist.
Michael Corleone: the best anti-hero?
Michael Corleone, played masterfully by Al Pacino, is recognized as one of the greatest and most complex anti-heroes in cinematic history. Yes, even more so than his portrayal of Scarface. His journey from an unwilling participant in the mafia lifestyle to its cruel and calculating leader is captivating and often contradictory.
Throughout the Godfather series, Michael’s evolution is nothing short of remarkable. In The Godfather I, we witness his initial reluctance and desire to distance himself from the family business. However, in The Godfather II, we see a completely different Michael, as he embraces the power and darkness of being the head of the Corleone family. Pacino’s portrayal of this paradox showcases the complexities of Michael’s character, leaving audiences conflicted about their feelings toward him.
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