10 Films That Skillfully Persuade You to Invest in their Protagonist’s Goal

In 9/10 cases the protagonist is the driving force of a successful film narrative. We invest in their story because we identify with their goal and become invested in it; but some goals are more easily conveyed than others.

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Convincing an audience to root for a character fighting an evil alien race is easy. We want the aliens to be defeated, and the protagonist is the means by which this will happen, so we invest in them. But what if your protagonist’s goal is a little more unconventional?

Below are ten films that persuade you to invest in their protagonist’s goal, however unusual – or even morally reprehensible – that goal may be.


1. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

What is the protagonist’s goal?

Stanley Kubrick’s ninth feature film chronicles the story of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs as they embark on a horrific crime spree across a dystopian, near-future Britain. While treating this as the protagonist’s only goal could be considered reductive, it will suffice for the purposes of this discussion.

alex-delarge-in-a-clockwork-orange

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

Kubrick was never one to shy away from more extreme aspects of human behaviour, and Alex DeLarge is perhaps his best example of this. In the film, Alex rapes and murders innocent people, and even attacks his friends only to assert his dominance. So why do we invest in his story?

Like most great characters, Alex is a walking contradiction. For example, let’s take Hannibal Lecter: he’s a cannibalistic serial killer; also a genius, a wine connoisseur, and an artist. Individually, these traits are uninteresting; but together, they create a complex, three-dimensional character.

Next, look at Tony Soprano. He’s a ruthless criminal, and yet he loves his family tenderly and is seeing a psychiatrist for anxiety attacks. These traits are contradictory, but properly utilising such contradictions creates characters that are inherently fascinating. Perhaps A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s tagline says it best:

“Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven”

Immediately, this creates intrigue. What is evident here is that characters don’t have to be likeable for us to invest in their goal. Often, all they have to be is interesting, complex, and unique.


2. DISTRICT 9

What is the protagonist’s goal?

Before the critically-panned ELYSIUM and CHAPPIE, Neill Blomkamp co-wrote and directed the wildly successful DISTRICT 9, an allegorical science-fiction film rooted firmly in reality.

Adapted from the short film ALIVE IN JOBURG, DISTRICT 9 opens in an alternate 1982, when massive alien spacecraft appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. The extra-terrestrial species, unaffectionately named “prawns”, are then confined to a government camp called “District 9”.

Twenty-eight years later, we meet our protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a man tasked with leading the relocating the alien residents further from the city.

Protagonist's Goal

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

Like many protagonists in this list, Wikus what one might consider to be an unlikeable character. He is introduced to us as a twitchy, almost sadistic character, pinning eviction notices to the alien shacks while shouting things like “Don’t point your fockin’ tentacles at me!” While Wikus is our main character, we are firmly aligned with the vulnerable alien species; but this is enough to keep us invested for now.

At the end of DISTRICT 9’s first act, Wikus is infected with the alien’s DNA, and the story takes on a dramatic, Cronenberg-esque shift. Our protagonist now starts turning into a “prawn” himself, offering him a chance at redemption, and making him a much more sympathetic character to us.


3. THE BIG LEBOWSKI

What is the protagonist’s goal?

After being mistaken for a millionaire with the same name, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is visited by two hired goons demanding money that the real Jeffrey Lebowski owes to pornographer Jackie Treehorn. When the goons realise they’ve got the wrong Lebowski, they pee on his rug, and The Dude begins his search for a new one.

Protagonist's Goal

From here, the story spirals almost out of control; involving a kidnapping, ransom money, the Malibu police, and a gang of German nihilists. The story is, of course, intentionally ridiculous, with Joel Coen citing author Raymond Chandler as an influence:

“We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.”

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

A character’s goal works in relation to the world around them, and the world of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is just surreal enough to support The Dude’s unconventional quest. The promise of meeting characters like Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), The Dude’s Vietnam-obsessed bowling parter, and Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a Latin American “pederast”, ensures that audiences will stick around for the ride.

But perhaps the most important reason for our investment is The Dude himself, one of many instantly likeable characters that exist within the Coen Brothers’ canon. Any randomly selected scene from the film would be enough to make this evident, but let’s take a look at the film’s inciting incident below:

Here, The Dude’s nonchalant attitude cements him as a character whose journey we want to follow. He is a reluctant hero, not unlike Han Solo or John McClane, becoming involved in the film’s plot only for personal gain. And more often than not, The Dude is shown to be acutely aware of the ridiculousness of the mystery, making him the perfect surrogate through which the audience experience the it.


4. GATTACA

What is the protagonist’s goal?

In the near-future, genetic profiling is used to identify generically-superior individuals for professional employment while “invalids”, as they are known, are relegated to menial jobs. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is one of these invalids, but he dreams of travelling into space.

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

At it’s core, GATTACA is an underdog story. Vincent Freeman must fight against overwhelming odds to achieve his goal, and this is the kind of story that audiences will inherently invest in; if only to see how it plays out.

Protagonist's Goal

Vincent’s incredible work ethic and self-discipline are huge factors in our investment in his goal. The lengths he goes to in order to assume the identity of the genetically-superior Jerome (Jude Law) are meticulously detailed, from faking urine and blood tests to surgically increasing his height. We’re staggered by his dedication, and the world of the film is frighteningly believable, and so we rarely question our investment in his goal.


5. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL

What is the protagonist’s goal?

Socially inept Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling), a man afraid of human contact, purchases an anatomically-correct sex doll over the internet — though, in his mind, she is living, breathing human being, named Bianca. Lars’ goal, externally speaking, is to enter into his first relationship with her.

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

Our understanding of what led to Lars’ intimacy issues is integral to our willingness to invest in his goal. Fortunately, SIX FEET UNDER-alumni Nancy Oliver uses the opening pages of her screenplay to establish a protagonist we can’t help but root for.

Protagonist's Goal

In the beginning, we learn that Lars’ mother died when he was born, causing his grief-stricken father to become distant. Then, when he died, Lars moved into the garage of the family home, where his brother, Gus, now resides with his pregnant wife. Lars’ difficult childhood is something he must learn to overcome, and this becomes his internal goal. It is something we can root for while the external goal seems ever more unattainable.

The film’s charm comes from watching the residents of the unnamed American town warm to Lars’ relationship with Bianca. In another film, this premise would have been an opportunity to make fun of the protagonist, but not here. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL embraces its premise, and it’s protagonist, resulting in a goal we can fully invest in.


6. FIGHT CLUB

What is the protagonist’s goal?

When the film’s insomniac, depressed Narrator (Edward Norton) meets charismatic soap salesman Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the two start a fight club — an opportunity for men to fight recreationally and release pent-up aggression.w Their goal is to expand the club.

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

Our investment in the Narrator relies on our understanding of the world he inhabits, and FIGHT CLUB goes to great lengths to make us loathe the materialist, corporate America it depicts. Take a look at the scene below, in which the Narrator details the contents of his apartment in the style of an IKEA advertisement.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

There’s a sense of catharsis in watching the Narrator purge his life of these material possessions. We are able to live vicariously through him, watching something many of us fantasise about but few ever actually go through with. Along with THE MATRIX, released in the same year, FIGHT CLUB tackled themes of anti-consumerism in a way that doesn’t hold back.

David Fincher, the film’s director, had this to say about the character of the Narrator:

“We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman [the Narrator] is created.”

Note that FIGHT CLUB did not originally include the Narrator’s voice-over, but David Fincher fought for its inclusion as, without it, the film seemed “sad and pathetic”. While it works to inject some humour into the film, the voice-over also allows us to view things quite literally from the Narrator’s point of view, helping us identify, and invest, in his goal.


7. ROPE

What is the protagonists’ goal?

Alfred Hitchcock’s film opens with Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangling their former Columbia University classmate to death. Watch the scene below:

Their goal is simple: to host a dinner party with the dead body hidden in their chest, which they plan on using as a buffet table for the food. Shaw and Morgan consider this the “perfect murder”, and believe that, by hosting the dinner party, they will prove their intellectual superiority.

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

“Now the fun begins.”

After the guests arrive, Shaw and Morgan begin discussing concepts such as Nietzsche’s Übermensch and De Quincy’s Art of Murder; in their minds, further demonstrating that what they have committed is the perfect crime. Conversations such as these keep the film thematically grounded, while constantly ratcheting up the tension and reinforcing our investment.

Rope is a film with undeniably high-stakes. Among the guests are the victim’s father and fiancée, who repeatedly question his whereabouts, causing the tension to skyrocket as the party drags on. The inevitable discovery of the body is what keeps us on the edge of our seats, and the constant hints are what keeps us invested.


8. NATURAL BORN KILLERS

What is the protagonists’ goal?

NATURAL BORN KILLERS is the story of Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two psychopathic lovers, and their a mass-publicised killing spree across the USA. At every stop of their twisted road trip, they leave one survivor to tell their story to the media. Their goal is simply to continue their rampage.

Protagonist's Goal

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

It is important to note that investment in a goal and support of a goal are two entirely different things. While audiences will recognise that Mickey and Mallory and undeniably bad people, that doesn’t affect our ability to invest, provided we understand them.

“It’s just murder. All God’s creatures do it. You look in the forests and you see species killing other species, our species killing all species including the forests, and we just call it industry, not murder.”

After their first murder-stop at a diner, we get a glimpse of Mickey and Mallory’s past in one of the most chilling flashbacks in modern cinema. Watch the scene below.

It’s difficult not to be disturbed by this scene, with the abusive dialogue contradicted at every corner by the cheery sitcom aesthetic, even including a laugh track. This all plays into the film’s negative depiction of the media, which, in many ways, is presented as more villainous than Mickey and Mallory themselves. In the world of a film, everything is relative.

“Media’s like the weather, only it’s man-made weather. Murder? It’s pure. You’re the one made it impure. You’re buying and selling fear.”


9. AMERICAN PSYCHO

What is the protagonist’s goal?

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a wealthy New York investment banker, begins indulging in his psychopathic alter-ego after becoming jealous of his associates’ expertly crafted business cards. His goal is catharsis through murder; but things don’t go quite as planned.

Protagonist's Goal

“I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

Are you noticing a pattern yet? Similar to NATURAL BORN KILLERS, we invest in Patrick Bateman’s goal, at least initially, because of what we know about him in relation to the film’s other characters. The difference here is that, with Bateman’s seemingly trivial motivation, AMERICAN PSYCHO leans much more towards dark comedy.

Like FIGHT CLUB, the film is a tongue-in-cheek critique of American society. Similar to Edward Norton’s Narrator, Bateman reflects our own narcissism, and the film addresses superficial culture from which it spawned. While he achieves no catharsis himself, watching Bateman’s story unfold is cathartic to us, and one would suppose that this is the reason for our investment.


10. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

What is the protagonist’s goal?

When unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) starts working as a file clerk, he finds a mysterious door that leads directly to actor John Malkovich’s mind. Schwartz reveals the portal to a colleague of his, Maxine, and she convinces him to sell fifteen minute incursions into the mind of Malkovich for $200 a pop.

Protagonist's Goal

How are we persuaded to invest in this goal?

The writer of this article is willing to wager that most would delve into this film on the basis of premise alone, but that isn’t the reason we stick around. Where a more conventional film would spend the rest of the running time attempting to reel in such a bizarre idea, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH instead continues to stack even more surrealist ideas on top of it. Take the scene below, in which John Malkovich uses the portal himself, creating a paradox.

This memorable, inventive, and wholly unique moment is merely one of many in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s debut. A later scene involves our protagonist spending eight months turning Malkovich into a master puppeteer. Another features Schwartz’s wife, Lottie, using the portal to live out her transgender fantasies.

If anything, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH teaches you not to be afraid of your protagonists’ goal, however wild it might be. Embrace it, run with it, and you might create the next great screenplay.


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10 Films That Skillfully Persuade You to Invest in Their Protagonist's Goal
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