Movie Characters That Don’t Conform to the Norm
Outsiders, non-conformists, those that like to live in the shadows of society rather than following the well trodden path of the masses. Cinema is littered with instances of these rebellious, alternative, sometimes socially awkward character types. Some are inspirational figures whose actions can lead to us question our own existence, whereas some we can just associate with in the ways they go about interacting, or not interacting with the world. Here’s The MALESTROM’s list of our favourite movie characters that don’t conform to the norm, for those who haven’t seen some of the films here, be warned spoilers lie ahead.
Peter Gibbons – Office Space (1999)
Office Space from the genius that is Mike Judge is essentially about conformity, people going to work doing jobs they hate for bosses they want to throttle. The protagonist of the film Peter Gibbons is one of those workers, commuting daily to sit in a little cubicle, being harangued by his nightmare employer about the most minute of problems at every turn. It’s only after he undergoes hypnosis by his therapist, who dies mid-session, that he is left him in a newly found blissful state that lets him boss his boss, turn up to the office when he wants, wearing what he wants and not give one single f**k. His new found state of carefreeness leads him to finding love and even being fast tracked onto a management scheme when all his colleagues look to be getting the boot. A stirring life lesson to us all about not taking life too seriously and most importantly not letting our jobs define us.
“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realised, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” – Peter Gibbons
Withnail & Marwood – Withnail & I (1987)
Cult films by their very nature tend to be outsider movies. Often delivering genre defying journeys that aren’t easily pigeon holed, with little in the way to please popcorn swollen blockbuster fans. Films that may not land at first but eventually find an army of fans loyal to their cause. Withnail & I is a cult classic. Two out of work actors, the ever anxious Marwood (Paul McGann) and the crazed alcoholic Withnail (Richard E. Grant) temporarily escape their lives of unemployment and squalor in Camden by driving to The Lake District to visit the country house of Withnail’s flamboyant gay uncle, Monty (the late, great Richard Griffith).
The diet of booze and pills that the leading pair consume throughout the film only help further their distance from what might be considered normal behaviour, with most interactions in pubs and most famously a tea shop in Penrith end in only confusing or angering the public they encounter. And they aren’t the only ones on societies fringe, Monty too is an outsider, being a gay man in the not yet very tolerant environment of late 60s Britain. Being set in this time frame it feels like we’re seeing the dying embers of a more liberal hippy utopia, ushering in more emphasis on rules and conformity as our lead characters push back against the system, only for one in Marwood to ultimately conform and become responsible by getting a job near the end of the film, leaving a visibly scared Withnail alone in the rain.
I: “I wouldn’t drink that if I was you.”
Withnail (holding a bottle of lighter fluid): “Why not?”
I: “Because I don’t advise it. Even the wankers on the site wouldn’t drink that, that’s worse than meths.”
Withnail: “Nonsense. This is a far superior drink to meths. The wankers don’t drink it because they can’t afford it.”
Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)
It’s often said big cities with their millions of inhabitants can be the loneliest of places. New York is the setting for the case of urban isolation at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Robert DeNiro plays antihero Travis Bickle, a fringe player in the game of life, a loner cabbie who only has fleeting personal connections with others, but rarely feels any genuine kinship. Whether it be with other fellow taxi drivers or any of the life happening around him day-to-day, he struggles to communicate with these other people in a way that we’d accept as socially normal, added to this Travis acts inappropriately around the people he likes, such as with a girl he asks on a second date, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who he takes to the salubrious surroundings of a porn cinema for their meet up.
He often feels invisible, especially with the customers he picks up in his cab who rarely acknowledge his existence. No surprise then with his distain for the people who walk the streets, or scum as he sees them, Travis takes the law into his own hands with a cleansing mission of his own. Bickle is perhaps the ultimate social outsider in movies.
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Travis Bickle
Rebecca & Enid – Ghost World (2001)
Fellow high school social outcasts can find plenty of comfort in this adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel. Ghost World focusses on two teenage girls, outsiders in their American town, with a love for all that is creepy and obscure in life who are facing summer after high school. Edith is an cynical alternative artist who is bitter and loathes most things including herself. Rebecca is the more mainstream of the pair, yet still hates her job and revels in partaking in their favourite past time of mocking those around them. Ghost World is all about people finding their own identity, which the film proves can be a fluid process regardless of whether you’re a teenager or in your later years.
Enid: “God! How can you stand all these assholes?”
Rebecca: “Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”
The Dude – The Big Lebowski (1998)
When we think of those on screen heroes that don’t fit into the norm it’s hard for the iconic figure of Jeff Bridges’ ‘The Dude’ from The Big Lebowski not to pop up in the mind. The character shows general indifference to normal notions of success and masculinity, playing to the beat of his own drum. He’s more than happy living in his own bubble of smoking weed and going bowling with his friends, which is disrupted by the kidnap plot the film centres around.
Because of his lifestyle choices The Dude is called a bum by a wealthy man, has cups thrown at him by police and is drugged by a local photographer. None recognise him as a contributor to society and treat him in the only way they see fit, with distain. Does all this flack bother him? It doesn’t seem so, top of his list of worries is the whereabouts of his precious missing rug. The dude is a zen-like inspiration to us all that life isn’t all about career paths and five year plans, but rather about living in the moment, a moment which probably includes a game of bowling.
Maude Lebowski: “What do you do for recreation?”
The Dude: “Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.”
Bobby Dupea – Five Easy Pieces (1970)
A great cinematic example of a character who at all costs wants to deviate from the mainstream is Bobby Dupea, played by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. A year after featuring in the iconic counterculture piece Easy Rider, Jack stars as a blue-collar oil field worker whose turned his back on his privileged upbringing and musical talent as a pianist. He’s a selfish outcast with serious commitment issues in all departments of his life, primarily with kind-hearted girlfriend Rayette.
He’s barely tolerant of those around him and childlike in his expectation of all he meets to bend around his own iron will. No greater example of this comes in the diner scene where he tries in vain to order off menu with a waitress who’s having none of it. One of the least likeable in this list, yet you can’t help but respect this complex character who’s without doubt his own man.
“My life, I mean… Most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of… I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really… I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.” – Bobby Dupea
Bernadette, Mitzi & Felicia – Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)
As challenges go to the dominant Aussie male stereotype Priscilla Queen of the Desert is about as strong as they come. The story follows Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pierce), two drag queens traveling across Australia on a lavender bus with their transsexual pal Bernadette (Terrance Stamp), taking their cabaret show on a tour of the desert, bringing their unique brand of entertainment to an often bewildered crowd of local drinkers who make up the audience. The film revels in the confrontation that occurs when the group interact with others, as they set out to challenge the norm, showing that gender can be fluid, helping people understand about celebrating and embracing diversity all with a big, glamorous costume filled song and dance show.
“A desert holiday, let’s pack the drag away. You take the lunch and tea, I’ll take the ecstasy. Fuck off you silly queer, I’m getting out of here. A desert holiday, hip hip hip hip hooray!” – Felicia
Donnie – Donnie Darko (2001)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the films titular character Donnie Darko, an isolated teenager, who may or may not be suffering from mental health issues, living in 8os America suburbia. Troubled Donnie lives in direct juxtaposition to the picture postcard perfect environment that surrounds him, and it jars. He sees a psychotherapist and is prescribed medication to help him become more ‘normal,’ but Donnie is a square peg in a round hole and despite the efforts of those around him, continues to not fit in. His life gets more complicated when Donnie sleepwalks out of his house one night, where he meets Frank, a large demonic-looking rabbit named, who explains the end of the world is nigh in twenty-eight days. The following morning when he returns home, a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom burning most of his house down.
These momentous effects lead to escalating questionable behaviour from our lead as Frank encourages destruction. The movie questions the thin veil of sanity that exists within us all and examines what we define as normal. It also perfectly highlights that difficult period transitioning into adulthood where things seem strange enough, regardless of whether you’re seeing a big evil looking rabbit around every corner.
“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.” – Donnie
Thelma Dickinson & Louise Sawyer – Thelma & Louise (1991)
The Ridley Scott directed Thelma & Louise flips the script right from the start. Social conventions and gender expectations of mild mannered women are thrown out of the window with our aggressive female protagonists. Both are living dull lives, one as a waitress, the other in a controlling relationship, when they decide to break from the norm and hit the road. On their trip a man who attempts to rape Thelma is shot dead by Louise, leaving them fleeing to Mexico. Their journey sees the duo continue to challenge conventions, showing bravery, standing up to injustice and being general bad asses. At the time the film was groundbreaking for it’s portrayal of women in a stereotype dispelling manner that put the ladies firmly in the driver’s seat.
“You said you and me was gonna get outta town and, for once, just really let our hair down. Well, darlin’, look out, ’cause my hair is comin’ down!” – Thelma