Character devolution

March 1, 2009

I have a tendency, some might call it a sickness, to make lists in my head. It brings order to the chaos – or at least the illusion of order to a series of inchoate thoughts.

One (short) mental list I worked up as of late was of the best whiners in cinema history. Not whiners like Luke Skywalker, who was going through a standard space farmboy phase, but full-on crybabies, where whining isn’t a phase or a state of being but a state of becoming. Where characters with the veneer of cool, confidence, professionalism, or menace disintegrate, quickly, often without warning, into blubbering near-embryos.

James Karen in The Return of the Living Dead sets the standard pretty high. His complete decomposition as people start returning from the dead is awe-inspiring. His performance is all the more laudable because he drives the plot forward at several key points, mostly in the first half of the movie, and in between his girlish cries of “Oh God!” and “Oh Jesus!”

Karen was a nice prototype for Bill Paxton in Aliens, who is the ultimate archetype for cinematic whiners. He strikes the right balance between obnoxious fatalism and self-serving contrariety. And he is eternally quotable. “Maybe you haven’t been paying attention to current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

Both these guys redeem themselves in the end. Karen never allows himself to become a flesh-eating zombie. You have to admit, it is a pretty ballsy move to put yourself in an incinerator. And Bill Paxton snaps back into badass mode in his final confrontation with the bugs. James Cameron likes him too much to let him be anything else…

But the third on the list is a special case. Stuntman Mike, played to perfection by Kurt Russell in Death Proof, is beyond redemption, which makes his devolution that much more satisfying. He crumples at the first sign of resistance, when his intended victims break from his script, and he carries that whiny riff all the way to his demise. So while Karen and Paxton show us there is some sliver of redemptive nobility in their whiners, Russell shows the eternal crybaby lurking one bullet wound below the surface of a Hollywood serial killer.

The great thing about these characters – writing them, playing them – is you are scraping at the bottom of a character. The character’s persona drops, real fast, and it feels both genuine and over-the-top at the same time. It is hard to get both those elements at the same time, but when it works, it is golden.

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