Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
Here’s CC2K special contributor Pat King with a look at the “unlikeable character” in Pablo D’Stair’s A Public Ransom.
I’ve always wondered about this whole “unlikeable character” thing. Should an unlikeable, or more importantly, an unrelatable character, count as an automatic strike against a film? Well, perhaps if you’re watching a Disney movie or something. Otherwise, unlikeable protagonists can be a lot of freakin’ fun. I mean, I’d rather a character be interesting than likeable, if it has to come down to a choice between the two. I mean, was Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) a likeable character or even remotely relatable to 90% of its viewership? No, of course not, but he was fascinating as hell. But even he’s not a great example when you consider the final moments of the film, after he’s committed the heroic act of killing a few pimps and setting a thirteen year old prostitute free. I mean, that turns him into the unlikely hero and so, in a sense, a relatable and likeable character.
The only movie in recent memory that comes to mind when I think of a totally unlikeable protagonist is Pablo D’Stair’s first film, A Public Ransom. It’s a refreshingly funny film about people that don’t just have a few moral and ethical flaws, but are, for the most part, completely immoral and terrible.
Okay, so it’s time to pause for a second while I admit that I’ve known Pablo for a few years and his publishing company even put out my first novel, Exit Nothing in 2012. So, yes, I’m biased, and perhaps even an unlikeable character in that sense. But this isn’t really a review, so maybe that lets me off the hook? Anyway, it’s something to consider.
In addition to being a filmmaker, Pablo is a prolific novelist, mostly of existential noir, and a film critic. Apparently the deal is he was having trouble getting his screenplays produced, so he decided to produce and direct one himself. True to his frenetic pace, it took a mere handful of months before the screenplay (co-written with Goodloe Byron, based on a short story by Pablo) was finished and the film was shot.
The story involves Stephen (Carlyle Edwards), a struggling and self-involved writer of very limited talent who is absolutely full of himself and annoyingly confident in all of his ideas. The movie opens on Stephen arguing with his wife. She’s just found out that he’s been cheating on her with Rene (Helen Bonaparte) and she’s not too pleased about it. Still, Stephen spends several minutes arguing with her about the affair, even though it’s clear he’s been caught. After he finishes with his wife, he calls Rene to bitch at her about the deal, accusing her of being the one who tipped his wife off. Then, in a series of static black and white camera shots, we see Stephen walking about the city, smoking cigarettes, until he spots a crude handmade flyer with a crayon drawing of a little girl (a drawing that looks as though it was indeed probably made by a little kid) with a message underneath it saying that the child in the drawing has been kidnapped and a phone number to call about paying a ransom to free her. Instead of either ignoring the flyer or bringing it to the police, Stephen, out of pure boredom and curiosity, decides to call the number himself.
What follows is the meat of the movie, where Stephen is continually manipulated by Bryant (Goodloe Byron), the guy who might or might not have kidnapped the girl in the flyer and demands Stephen find two thousand dollars to free her if he doesn’t want the girl to die. From there, Bryant slowly becomes a major part of Stephen’s life, eventually sleeping with Rene and claiming that he and Stephen, through their cat and mouse game, are collaborating on a new novel. Though Bryant is clearly a serious villain here, he comes off as actually kind of lovable next to Stephen. Because, well, Bryant is clearly sincere about his motivations. Besides that, he’s kind of a goofy guy with a sort of “aw-shucks” personality. Oh yes, but he’s clearly a monster. Not a “likeable” guy in any sort of moral sense, but, yeah, I really came to enjoy him. Jesus, what does it say about me, a rather jovial fella most of the time, if I can find a potential child murderer more sympathetic than a poor schlub who just doesn’t seem to know what kind of ass he truly is.
Well, enough of that, I guess. But I suspect I’m not the only one who feels the same way. I’ll need to make a note to ask my therapist about this next time I see him.
So, what was I talking about? Oh yes, unlikeable characters. Rene, Stephen’s girlfriend, is really the only character that comes close to likeable. By the end of the movie, you see that she’s the only one with moral scruples of any kind, but before that there’s even some indication that she’s not a total washout of a human being. I mean, she definitely keeps Stephen around because she’s amused by him. He’s a sort of catnip toy that she can bat around and mess with for the pure hell of it and because she loves a good argument. But it’s also clear that she genuinely likes the poor schlub and has a clear soft spot for him in her heart.
Ah, well, but the existential comeuppance that Stephen brings on himself throughout the movie makes him such an interesting central character that the whole “likeable” bit is really unimportant. So, goddamn it, can we please just go ahead and declare that, as of 2014, the likeable character is a dead concept, buried along relics of yesteryear like the ShamWow and the fauxhawk? Yes? Good!