The 'Filth' Element: The 5 Most Deliciously Despicable Movie Antiheroes

James McAvoy in ‘Filth’/Image © Lionsgate UK
James McAvoy in ‘Filth’/Image © Lionsgate UK

Justice is generally served in two flavors in fiction and film: Vanilla, a good guy battling the forces of evil. And then there’s the acrid, in which this no-good world of ours gets the lying, cheating morality-impaired anti-hero it deserves. Those miscreants in the latter category are an acquired taste. But they're also the ones who prove most impossible to pry from memory.

From the looks of the below trailer (only suitable for mature audiences) for the upcoming adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth, James McAvoy’s fowl-mouthed corrupt cop looks likely to find a place among the bottom dwellers we most love to hate. This is familiar terrain for Welsh, who created an ensemble of infectiously likeable lowlifes in Trainspotting. But this is definitely terra incognita for McAvoy, best known for playing nerds, sensitive guys, and mutants (and sometimes all three at once), which makes it all the more thrilling to watch him screw, swear, and spew his way through his role as Filth's Bruce Robertson, a crooked Scottish lawman who descends into an epic bender sabotaging his efforts to win a promotion and his wife’s affection.

If nothing else, this down-and-dirty trailer serves as a reminder of the unique pleasures of watching a man at the mercy of his vices. For anyone who also has a not-so-casual interest in cinematic bad boys, here’s our list of the top five sociopaths and scumbags ever to hit the big screen.

Alex, “A Clockwork Orange
This merry sadist at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the eponymous Anthony Burgess novel leads his gang of hooligans on a rampage through the streets of London as he rapes, tortures, and memorably murders a woman with a giant phallus just for kicks. In prison, Alex becomes a lab rat for doctors trying to cure him of his lust for violence by forcing him to watch gruesome acts while listening to Beethoven at full blast. But their efforts to reprogram him are no match for Alex's stubborn strain of evil.

Patrick Bateman, “American Psycho
The quintessential symbol of ‘80s decadence, Patrick is a financial tycoon who spends his time filling his bank account and hobnobbing with Manhattan’s socialites while also keeping up with his extracurricular activities as a serial killer. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ bestselling novel, this gloriously campy depiction of a coke-snorting, loft-living, high-flying young turk boiling over with murderous rage offers an entertaining indictment of the Reagan era's narcissism and greed run amok.

Brandon, “Shame
Cut from a similar, finely tailored cloth as Patrick Bateman, Brandon is a member of New York’s ruling class, with a high-powered advertising job and a fancy apartment. But sex is his escapist drug of choice, driving him to fill every spare moment with porn, sex, self-love, or all of the above. But Brandon lacks the usual anti-heroic bravado. Instead, he is a tragic figure who finds temptation and titillation everywhere and satisfaction and intimacy nowhere.

The Lieutenant, “Bad Lieutenant
This is a film that lives up to its title and then some. In both the original 1992 Abel Ferrara version and Werner Herzog’s 2009 remake, the vice-riddled title character slips into a power-mad stupor of illicit sex, drugs, and high stakes betting on a losing team. He’s a world-class master of intimidation so defiantly self-righteous in his corruption, it's hard not to root for him.

Tyler Durden, “Fight Club
The charismatic soap salesman talks a good game about cleansing the world of consumerism through subversive acts of brutality. How else could he hook a cult of of nebbishes (including Ed Norton's malcontent) on the visceral thrill of street fighting? Well, Durden, first introduced in the pages of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, turns out to be the sinister studly alter-ego spawned straight from Norton's unconscious as the empowered fantasy manifestation of his inner rage. Either way, Durden has been a hot topic among culture vultures ever since director David Fincher called out his roots in Nietzschean philosophy.

  • Sara

    Nice list though Johnny from Mike Leigh's Naked seems a huge omission.

  • Jessica

    When I think of anti-heroes I think of Catwoman, Rorschach, or Lisbeth Salander. Protagonists who blur the line between hero and villain. But not Patrick Bateman. He's a straight-up villain. A murderer and rapist with no redeeming qualities. It's fun to be in his head for a while, sure, but I'm not ready to put "hero" anywhere near his name. He can join the ranks of Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter as villains we love to hate/hate to love.

    • Mark Wallace

      True. I guess it comes about because of the two meanings of hero that get conflated: one related to moral qualities, the other to place in the narrative. Bateman fulfills the second meaning, as he's the protagonist (ie hero), but definitely not the first.

  • Mike

    That a-hole from Bully!

  • roobye

    The correct answer is "Chad" from "In the Company of Men."

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