Monday, May 19, 2014

An ordinary not decent movie, or what's the secret to making a criminal a compelling protagonist?

To paraphrase Prince Rogers Nelson, this week I've been been watching violent comic crime movies as if it were 1999.

Here's what's wrong with Ordinary Decent Criminal, originally scheduled for release that year but withheld until 2000:
1) Kevin Spacey's character, Michael Lynch, is far too cuddly to be believable as a criminal.
2) The movie contained no surprise not telegraphed from five miles off.
3) The climactic art heist wants to be seen as madcap and zany, but isn't.
4) The movie is all concept and no story. Crook lives with two women, is a good family man, and likes to taunt the cops. And that's it. One knows from the start that Lynch won't be killed, won't be caught, and will get the girls.
Anything offensive about the movie? Maybe this: It lacks the guts to show Lynch committing any truly despicable acts. Doing so would have forced it to work harder to make him a compelling character.   That the real Dublin gangster on whom Lynch was at least partly based is said to have been a torturer and a bully who shook down hot dog vendors may make the movie a sin against truth as well as against fiction.

So here's a question for you readers: How does a novel, story, or movie make a criminal protagonist compelling without slipping into the opposite extremes of torture porn or excessive cuteness?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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7 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

That's a good question. My guess is by not standing outside him (or her), but by writing as though you were living that life.

May 20, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Seana nailed it. This goes with keeping the character in situation where choices must be made, and the choices eventually decided upon make sense and can be justified at some level (protecting the greater good, for example) even though the action performed may be despicable.

The Beloved Spouse and I have been binge-watching THE SHIELD lately, and Vic Mackey is a fascinating character for these reasons, especially in the later seasons. (We're in the middle of Season 6.) He operates on his own code of morality and doesn't much care what is expected from others. It's not a code we'd want everyone to live by, but, his choices are not indefensible, if some rationalization is permitted.

May 20, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Key: Criminals are REAL people complete with childhoods, virtues, vices, passions, needs, wants, etc. . . etc . . . etc . . . . In other words, even real life monsters like Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and Lizzie Borden were sums of their parts rather than one-dimensional stereotypes. Writers make mistakes when they forget these precepts. Does this help? Probably not. Hey, I'm not a writer but just a reader with a poor memory.

May 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that works with relation to, say, Charlie Stella, whom you ought to read if you have not done so. John McFetridge heightens the effect in his Toronto books by getting the heads of cops and criminals to the same degree and in the same manner. My man Bill James heightens the effect even more by giving his criminals aspirations to respectability and making them unaware of how funny this is.

May 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I should add that the author of the comment that follows yours does this in his books, as well, to excellent effect. It's no accident that King, Stella, and McFetridge admire one another's work, and that I love reading all of them.

May 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"... the choices eventually decided upon make sense and can be justified at some level (protecting the greater good, for example) even though the action performed may be despicable"

Dana, that's not enough by itself to make a compelling, full-blooded character. In Ordinary Decent Criminal, Michael Lynch holds out against demolition of his apartment block while it's demolished around him. That's the sort of act that would strike many as noble in real life, but in the movie it comes across as cheap, tacked-on nobility because the movie is so afraid to show the character doing anything really bad. (That episode is apparently taken almost straight from the real life of the gangster on whom the character is based, which emphasizes all the more how hard the moviemakers worked to avoid showing the character in anything like a bad light.)

May 20, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Key: Criminals are REAL people complete with childhoods, virtues, vices, passions, needs, wants, etc. . . etc . . . etc

R.T., that so simple, isn't it? So why didn't the folks who made Ordinary Decent Criminal take it to heart? They thought they remembered that at least one criminal was a real person, but they forgot that that real person was also a criminal.

May 20, 2014  

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