5 of the most tragic characters in cinema
By Kyle Sutherland egwyl editor
Generally, in any film we root for the heroic good guy (or girl all-inclusive here at egwyl) but a lot of the time the characters that really stay with you are the ones who try and try but have just been or are constantly dumped on by the world and I have to say I personally feel for them. These characters are in many ways the Milhouse van Houtens of the cinematic universe and I feel they deserve some recognition, so here today we celebrate 5 of the best tragic characters in cinema.
- Moritsugu Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), The last Samurai, 2003.
This is seriously an example of a “historical” or “based on a true story” flicks which really deserves the quotes on account of how far it really stretches its historical basis, but still a really good film nonetheless.
So what’s the story? Katsumoto is a samurai warlord during the reign of Emperor Meiji, a time when Japan was opening up to the outside world, modernising, industrialising and essentially overturning the traditional feudal structure of Japanese society.
Then there’s Katsumoto, a man portrayed as fighting for the soul of his nation, its’ ancient traditions and institutions. The film is very smart in that it spends most of the first act building the samurai up as a primitive force, then shows them murdering the hell out of a larger and better equipped force and ultimately introduces us to Katsumoto, a gentle, cultured and philosophical man who genuinely believes that what he is doing is necessary and right. Most poignantly he also seems to be aware that his struggle is futile, that he will die for this cause and not ultimately stop the ever onward march of progress, and it’s the very fact that he is aware of that and yet struggles onwards anyway that not only makes him such a tragic figure, but also a top contender for the most badass tragic figure on this entire list.
- Jerry Lundergaard (William H Macy), Fargo, 1996
My lord if this Coen Brothers masterpiece isn’t also an incredibly sad and tragic film and few characters are more tragic than poor poor Jerry.
He’s portrayed as simply the most polite man in the world, or more accurately as a man living in one of the most polite parts of America and my God if he isn’t just damn near dying through the exertion of simply trying to keep it together.
Jerry needs money, his wife’s father is rich but makes it very clear he’ll support his daughter but not Jerry, Jerry has taken out a fraudulent loan which he’s desperate to keep covered up, so he arranges for Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare to kidnap his wife so they can split the ransom money to be paid by her father…as you do in such dire circumstances (any husbands reading, that was a joke do not have your wife kidnapped).
My main reason for putting Jerry on this list is that he’s not a bad guy, there’s actually much evidence in the film that he’s a good guy who’s made bad choices and is desperately trying to fix them all on his own, why on his own? Because he knows many people who know him think of him as a failure and doesn’t want to prove them right.
Ultimately Jerry is tragic because his actions in attempting to fix his mistakes result in 6 people (including his own wife) being killed and Jerry winding up arrested in his underwear, certainly not a dignified way to go down.
- Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki), Battle Royale, 2000
Ok I have to admit I’m pulling a bit of a cheat here in that the way to understand why this character is so tragic is to not only have seen the film, but also to have read the 1999 novel and ideally also read the manga series published by Tokyo Pop, although I realise not everyone’s going to be as big of an otaku as me.
For anyone unfamiliar with the film I suggest a watch and I also talk about it in more length in my top 5 foreign language films article, but in short it’s the hunger games but better and Mitsuko is one of the top antagonists in the whole thing.
So why is she tragic? (Mitsuko murders 6 people in this film) well you have to know her backstory, Mitsuko is a key example of the trope that killers aren’t born, they’re made, she has a history of being sexually abused and exploited, she believes that the only way to avoid others hurting her is to hurt them first and she’s grown adept at using her beauty and charm to her advantage.
One of the saddest points in this film is oddly enough her death, fighting on against the male antagonist, my personal favourite antagonist ever Kazuo Kiriyama, Mitsuko is shot repeatedly whilst refusing to go down, her last thoughts being “I just didn’t want to be a loser anymore”. That is a line which sums her up perfectly, someone who throughout the entire film projects such power and a lack of feeling but ultimately is so internally and emotionally weak, that gets her the number 3 spot.
- David Brent (Ricky Gervais), David Brent: Life on the road, 2016
I honestly believe that David Brent, first brought to our screens in the 2001 series The Office (the remake of which gave us conclusive proof that Americans simply do not get British humour) is the greatest tragic comic figure of all time.
In this film we follow David as he takes his band, made up of younger, actually talented people who all hate him, on “tour” (in reality it’s just his local area).
This film is both so good and so tragic because this is one of the best representations of just how sad, lonely and desperate to be liked and appreciated this character is. It’s easy to write off the David Brent character as simply obnoxious and irritating, but when you really look closely you can see the subtle facial expressions and shifts in voice tone that show just what a desperately insecure person he is.
Perhaps the saddest moment I’ve ever experienced with this character comes in this film, wherein Brent is reduced to haggling a price with his band in order to coerce them to have an after show drink with him.
It’s a really big ask to make the audience feel empathy and sympathy for an otherwise largely unlikeable character, but Gervais pulled it off here magnificently.
- Smeagol (Andy Serkis), Lord of the rings: The two towers, 2002
Yep, this is it, my choice for the most tragic character in film, Smeagol, not Gollum, but his original self which we get glimpses of throughout this film.
What really is Smeagol? How can we characterise him? Well if we were to think of this sort of character in a modern sense he’s an addict, Smeagol is heroin addict dialled up to 11 with a serious case of paranoid schizophrenia thrown in for added measure.
The thing which really makes this character just oh so sad is the fact that for a good portion of the film we see him come back to some semblance of his former self, we see him try and be a good and kind person but by this point he’s so far gone that he doesn’t know how to act like a normal person.
Seriously if anyone wants to argue with me on this point, all I would say is go back and re-watch the scene I like to call Smeagol versus Gollum, where Gollum tells Smeagol everything that’s bad or wrong about him and tells him he has no friends and nobody likes him, I suffered through addiction and mental health problems for many years and I can tell you from experience that’s how you’re mind speaks to you during those times and that’s why I find this character the most tragic, because despite being in a fictional, fantasy setting, in a way to me he just feels all too real.
So there you have it, my choices for the top five tragic characters in film, let us know your choices below in the comments, thanks for reading.
Until next time…