The Most Controversial Movie Characters of the 1990s


History ended in the 1990s, at least according to a famous essay by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Under his inflammatory headline, Fukuyama argues that the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the United States as the world’s sole global power pole meant that liberal democracies have become the ultimate form of government. As if to prove the argument correct, the US and the UK entered a period of governmental peace and capitalist expansion. 

However, those of us who actually lived through the 90s know that the decade wasn’t nearly as rosy as some predicted (or recall). Against the picture of ascendancy painted by Bill Clinton and, eventually, Tony Blair, pop culture reflected the fragmented state of actual lives, and we ended up with some of the most controversial movies of all time. 

In addition to the big breakthroughs of the decade, such as Quentin Tarantino’s self-reflexive and hyper-violent Pulp Fiction and the found family sweetness around the gifted Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a booming indie market gave filmmakers a chance to explore their darker side and (less successfully) take on complex topics. 

For this list, we’re looking less at movies that caused controversy and more at characters who were controversial. That means that we’re leaving off something like Larry Clark’s exploitative Kids or Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller JFK, as there isn’t much controversy about the characters in the former (we agree they’re all brats) and the latter is more controversial for its theory. Instead, here are ten of the characters whose decisions still baffle us, decades later. 

Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct, 1992)

During the 1980s, filmmakers turned to the cinema of the 1950s to embrace or reject the family values and austerity of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. But in the 90s, they embraced film noir, a genre populated with morally ambiguous characters, especially the Femme Fatale. Characters such as Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and The Big Heat’s Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) presented temptations for the dubious men at the center of their movies. 1990s erotic thrillers resurrected the Femme Fatale, especially the infamous Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct, directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven

Basic Instinct stars Michael Douglas as Nick Curran, a sleazy detective who falls for the prime suspect in a murder case. Played with total control and aplomb by Sharon Stone, Tramell shocked viewers then, as it likely shocks the sex-averse audiences of today. She completely owns her sexuality, even as the movie tries to make female desire into something mysterious and scary. Nowhere is that more evident than in the infamous interrogation scene, in which a gone-commando Tramell uncrosses her legs to reveal herself to the interrogators and the audience. Stone has since revealed that the nudity was against her will, something that Verhoeven seems to corroborate during his Total Recall commentary, but none of that apprehension appears on screen, making Tramell all the more troubling.

William “D-Fens” Foster (Falling Down, 1993)

Look, we’ve all been frustrated at McDonalds. We’ve all felt powerless in the face of our capitalist dystopia. But most of us know better than to bully some minimum wage worker following policies they didn’t create, let alone to pull a gun to demand breakfast. And yet, that’s exactly what William Foster does in Falling Down, the black comedy from Joel Schumacher (he did more than Batman & Robin, okay?). Played by a rare unfabulously-coiffed Michael Douglas, Foster sees himself as an average guy who’s tired of being pushed around and is ready to push back. 

It’s easy to see why so many would take Foster’s side (and they did). Like his spiritual successor the Joker, Foster lives in a society that pretends to be civilized. But like the Joker, Foster directs most of his anger at those who do not enjoy the same privileges granted him, a straight white cis man in America. While Foster does stab a white supremacist, his primary antagonists are minorities, people of lower class, and women. Even if the movie frames his behavior as deplorable, it’s hard not to see Foster as a model for many similar men today who regularly commit mass shootings in America. 

Meredith Johnson (Disclosure, 1994)

Closing out the Michael Douglas hat trick is Disclosure, a tech thriller with something to say. Namely, it wants to say that men are the real victims of workplace sexual harassment. Based on a novel by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton and directed by Barry Levinson (you young whipper-snappers know him as the father of Euphoria creator Sam), Disclosure wraps its corporate espionage plot around a story that tries to make sexual harassment sexy – if it’s happening to a man. 

Douglas plays Tom Sanders, who is made the subordinate of an ex-girlfriend after a company merger. That ex-girlfriend, Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore), plans to use her newfound power to force Sanders back into their relationship, regardless of his desire to just do his job. In more deft hands, Disclosure would perhaps use Meredith’s “gender-swapped” plot to indict both the patriarchy and capitalism for their power structures, but Levinson is more interested in titillating viewers, resulting in a movie whose point is as profound as its VR sequences are believable. 

Wayne Gale (Natural Born Killers, 1994)

If Falling Down presaged the new normal of mass shootings in the US, then Natural Born Killers saw the future of 24-hour news. Directed by Oliver Stone from a story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers follows a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde in the form of Mickey and Mallory Knox, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. The film clearly portrays Mickey and Mallory as traumatized deviants, reflecting the decade’s mistrust of therapy while also acknowledging that bad childhoods can lead to bad adulthoods. But it directs most of its venom at the news media that encourages the duo’s quest for fame. 

Chief among them is Wayne Gale, the trash tabloid journalist played with oily charm and an Australian accent by Robert Downey Jr.. Like many of the other characters in the movie, including a surprisingly hammy Tommy Lee Jones, Gale wants to use the Knoxes for his own benefit, taking advantage of remorseless murderers to gain his own fame. Of course, it ends badly for Gale personally, but not for the news media machine, which continues to give airtime to monsters after he’s gone. One doesn’t need to look farther than some recent broadcasts to see that Wayne Gale’s controversial tactics have often become respected journalism today. 

James Ballard (Crash, 1996)

Crash is about people who find car crashes arousing. Now, to be clear, it’s not on this list because people have kinks. We here at Den of Geek are not about yucking anyone’s yums. As long as everyone involved is a consenting adult, do as you please. But consent becomes a tricky subject when you’re involving public highways and two-ton vehicles, which is why Crash is on this list. Directed by David Cronenberg and adapting J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, Crash follows the sexual misadventures of James Ballard (James Spader), who revitalizes his romantic life after experiencing a car accident. 

Cronenberg’s interest in the relationship in the mind and body allowed him to direct the movie without judgment towards its characters, but initial audiences were shocked nonetheless. The combination of explicit sexual scenes and graphic violence drove even Francis Ford Coppola to step away from Grand Jury of the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, refusing to join the others in granting an award to Cronenberg. The film initially lost its US theatrical distribution and, to this day, may not be legally shown in London’s West End. All this because James Ballard has an admittedly very specific kink. 

Chad (In the Company of Men, 1997)

An oft-quoted maxim (usually attributed to Francois Truffaut) claims that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie because the nature of cinema makes war look inherently exciting. The same might be true of anti-toxic masculinity movies, as showing a charismatic jerk on screen necessarily elevates his charisma and attractiveness. Case in point: Chad, the cruel corporate bro in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men. Played by Aaron Eckhart in his breakout role, Chad and his co-worker Howard (Matt Malloy) decide to vent their frustrations at women by playing a prank on Christine, a shy coworker in their office. The two agree to separately romance Christine, make her fall in love with them, and then abruptly dump her at the same time. 

A generous reading suggests that LaBute (who also made the remake of The Wicker Man, in which Nicolas Cage punches a lot of women) does show how misogyny hurts both genders, as Howard actually falls for Christine during the prank and has his career stymied by Chad. But LaBute’s camera cannot help but be mesmerized by the character. It stares up at him with wonder and follows him as he struts through the office, the mythical Alpha conjured by every insecure man on the internet. 

Christof (The Truman Show, 1998)

Are there crimes in art? That’s the ultimate question of The Truman Show, the strangely prescient Jim Carrey vehicle directed by Peter Weir. The Truman Show stars Carrey as Truman Burbank, a boy legally adopted by a television studio and raised on the air. Every moment of Truman’s life is broadcast to an audience of millions, even as he matures to adulthood and develops an explorer’s spirit, requiring the production to create even more elaborate means of keeping him on the island set. At the end of the movie, Truman comes face to face with his creator, the artist Cristof (Ed Harris) who has operated the show as a grand installation. 

Within the movie, Christof is framed as Truman’s antagonist, if not an outright villain. For the sake of art, Christof manipulates every aspect of Truman’s life and refuses to let him pursue his own desires. When the movie released in 1998, the climactic scene in which Truman defied his creator to leave the set and go out into the real world had people fuming against Cristof. But today, they may be more sympathetic toward him. In the 25 years since The Truman Show, reality programming has become a staple of television, and not just because it’s “strike proof.” In shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Big Brother, people willingly embrace the world Truman fled. 

Frank T.J. Mackey (Magnolia, 1999)

Self-help motivational speakers have existed in the US for as long as there have been people willing to pay for them. But the explicitly sexist pickup artist is a relatively new phenomenon, and was a total shock to viewers of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in 1999. Remember, this is six years before the invention of YouTube, which allowed “pickup artists” to rot the minds of impressionable young men across the country. Instead of mirroring blathering men on social media, the “Seduce and Destroy” seminars hosted by Frank T.J. Mackey, estranged son of dying tv game show host Jimmy Gator (Jason Robards), better resemble business seminars or even the religious men’s Promise Keepers movement. 

Tom Cruise plays Mackey as a man whose desperation for acceptance is barely covered by his sexual boasts. By this point, Cruise was already well into an auteur phase that saw him working with Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Brian DePalma (Mission: Impossible), and Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut). But he still retained the blockbuster energy of a charming leading man who won over every doubter with his undeniable skill and charm. Seeing Cruise channel that energy into an unrepentant misogynist genuinely unnerves viewers today as much as it did then. The climactic scene in which Mackey breaks down in tears by his father’s bedside only makes the character all the more upsetting, reminding us that we can’t simply dismiss him as an unreal monster. He’s still human, as much as any one of us. 

John Coffey (The Green Mile, 1999)

Most of the characters on this list are controversial because they hold beliefs that some find upsetting or disagreeable. But no one could say that of John Coffey, the hulking convict at the center of The Green Mile, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the serialized Stephen King novel. After all, Coffey is a gentle giant, a Black man who does nothing to resist his false conviction of brutalizing two white girls in the Jim Crow South. Instead, Coffey uses his magical powers to help Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) pee and to make petty warden Percy (Doug Hutchison) kill murderous William Wharton (Sam Rockwell). But when it comes time for his execution on the electric chair, Coffey walks peacefully to his death.

John Coffey makes this list not so much because of his character, but because of his creators’ intentions. While it’s clear that King intended to make Coffey into a Christ figure, whose pure love for humanity drives him to sacrifice (at least until the novel’s surprisingly bitter final chapter), he instead fell right into one of the worst cinematic tropes. Coffey is just one of many Black characters who put their own needs behind them so they can improve the lives of white people. Sadly, many viewers fail to see the problem with that, landing Coffey onto this list. 

Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999)

Of course, this list has to end with Tyler Durden. Nearly all of the characteristics described in the majority of the previous entries can be found in Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the madman at the center of David Fincher’s Fight Club. A manifestation of his alter-ego the Narrator’s (Edward Norton) dissatisfaction with the banalities of life, Durden preaches meaning through violence; imminence through the destruction of all that is normal and mainstream. In addition to hosting the titular club, in which men try to reclaim their masculinity by beating the crap out of each other, to his signature prank (splicing porn frames into cartoon movies), to blowing up an actual building, Tyler makes the rejection of society look cool and sexy. 

What sets Tyler Durden apart from other characters on this list is his relationship with the Narrator. More than just an alternate personality, Durden is the Narrator’s id, a raging, self-righteous self inside the meek company man, a boiling crucible of resentments. Fight Club argues that such capacity for destruction can be found inside of anyone, no matter how timid they may appear. It’s no surprise then that generations of viewers, largely men, still see Durden as a hero. They either miss the character’s fascist nihilism, or worse, entirely embrace it, believing that they too have an attractive Durden inside of them.

The post The Most Controversial Movie Characters of the 1990s appeared first on Den of Geek.

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