There’s a certain romantic appeal to the idea of the rebellious loner, and many movies have alluded to the notion that being anti-authority, anti-establishment and anti-just about everything is full of Hollywood glamour and radical idealism. It’s generally a different story here in Britain though, these teenage thugs, beatniks, nihilists and runaways often pay a heavy price for failing to fall into line. Delusional, deadbeat and desperate, these memorable characters strip away the fanciful illusions of lives lived on the edge.
‘I hope you dream about me…and I hope you wake up screaming’ – Johnny
Mike Leigh has given us many memorable characters throughout his career but none have matched the impact of David Thewlis’s iconic performance as Johnny, an anti-hero for the modern age. Lank haired, unshaven, unemployed and dressed in regulation black, Johnny doesn’t so much live as survive, and his existential howl of agony is relentless, pitiless and shot through with a level of gallows humour rarely seen before or since on the big screen. Fleeing his native Manchester in a stolen car to avoid a beating for an alleged rape Johnny pitches up at the home of ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp) and leaves a trail of nihilistic chaos in his wake.
You don’t have a relationship with Johnny, you endure one, as a multitude of characters discover; Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) the hopelessly neurotic goth flatmate, Peter Wight’s (in)security guard Brian, a sexually frustrated drunk and an emotionally repressed waitress all feel the wrath of Johnny’s tongue, even if they initially offer the hand of friendship.
Quoting lines from the Book of Revelation, musing on philosophy, raging at the materialism of the modern world and forever answering a question with another question or a sarcastic putdown, Johnny is intellectually hardwired towards confrontation and self destruction. Whereas the repulsive yuppie Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) has embraced capitalism and the rat race, Johnny has rejected it to the extent that his prospects are all but destroyed.
Thewlis’s magnetic presence makes Johnny dangerously charismatic even in his most repugnant moments and he briefly shows glimpses of the damaged humanity within, but even in helping two Scottish runaways to be re-united Johnny constantly harangues, ridicules and antagonises them. Offered one last shot at redemption by the downtrodden but warm hearted Louise, Johnny spurns the opportunity and limps off with a pocket full of stolen cash to who knows where, the last of his bridges burnt for good.
Made in Britain (1982) / Director: Alan Clarke
‘Everything they teach you in School is useless’ – Trevor
Sixteen year old Trevor (Tim Roth) is ‘your worst nightmare’, borderline psychotic, bright but consumed by hatred, racist, uncontrollable and defiantly anti-authoritarian. His parents, his school and his social worker have all failed to straighten him out, and Trevor couldn’t care less. A product of mass unemployment, racial tension, class warfare and generational divide’s Trevor is unloved, unwanted and seemingly incapable of existing within the confines of normal society. Sent to an assessment centre for troubled youngsters Trevor wreaks havoc immediately, fighting with staff members, throwing a paving slab through a job centre window, stealing a car and then a van and urinating on the centre’s case files.
This is rebellion without an achievable goal, Trevor’s angst is the cry of a dispossessed, disillusioned underbelly of society. His skinhead garb and the Swastika tattoo in the centre of his forehead mark him out as the enemy of conformity and compliance. He is also a reflection of how a changing political and social landscape can create a vicious backlash, his actions are inexcusable but his hopelessness is depressingly familiar to many of those that grew up in Thatcher’s Britain during the 80s.
It’s no coincidence that Alan Clarke shoots Trevor staring blankly at a shop window display of mannequins parading all the comforts of a good home. Clarke’s mis-en-scene places the shirtless Trevor the wrong side of the divide in all respects, ex-communicated from family life and the social order because of his failure to conform Trevor runs off through the soulless concrete shopping precinct screaming like a wild animal let loose in unfamiliar surroundings.
Roth’s career making performance as the teenage thug is explosive and unsettling, and Clarke and screenwriter David Leland nail the futility of Trevor’s actions as well as the inadequate and brutish responses of the authorities to wayward adolescents in this stark and powerful commentary on Britain in the early 80s.
London to Brighton (2006) / Director: Paul Andrew Williams
‘What a pair eh? Me and you…black and blue’ – Kelly
Paul Andrew Williams’s low budget debut, reportedly costing less than a hundred grand to make, is an uncompromising and shocking thriller that throws together two rebellious loners who are faced with no alternative but to rely on their collective wits and a lot of luck to stay alive. Street prostitute Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), ruled over by violent pimp Derek (Johnny Harris), and eleven year old runaway Joanne (Georgia Groome) flee London on a night train to Brighton after a sickening encounter with shady businessman Duncan Allen (Alexander Morton). Having been co-erced by Derek to provide a young girl for Allen’s pleasure, and with a traumatised Joanne stabbing Allen to death Kelly assumes a maternal role previously alien to her and whisks the naïve and vulnerable Joanne away to the south coast.
These virtual strangers are united by their outsiderdom and the perilous predicament they face as first Derek and then Allen’s son and his henchmen begin to hunt them down.
When Kelly asks Joanne why she ran away from home in the first place, so exposing herself to the perils of life on the streets of London, her reply is bleak and succinct – ‘my mum’s dead, my dad’s a bastard…and he’s always pissed’. There is no such illumination of Kelly’s history though you get the impression that her own home life bore similarities to Joanne’s.
Kelly is no stereotypical ‘tart with a heart’ though, she’s a hard nosed survivor who’s battered humanity only surfaces and supersedes her fear of retribution, and her financial motivation at the outset, at the point of it being extinguished for good. These loners come close to paying the ultimate price for their rebellious actions, learning that wrong choices made in dire circumstances can have potentially devastating consequences.
Bronson (2009) / Director: Nicholas Winding-Refn
‘I had a calling…I just didn’t know what as’ – Charles Bronson
Whilst the fictional rebels may entertain, appall, dishearten or rile, we leave the cinema knowing that it’s just a movie. In the case of Winding-Refn’s Bronson the waters become a lot more muddied armed with the knowledge that Michael Petersen (aka Charles Bronson), played with such ferocious intensity by Tom Hardy, is based on the life story of the ‘most violent prisoner in Britain’. Having spent over 34 years in prison, 30 of those in solitary confinement, Bronson has a claim to being the ultimate rebellious loner both in real life and on the big screen, but to what end?
The movie, part fact and part Brechtian fantasy, recounts Charlie’s dismal failure to be anything other than his own worst enemy, and Winding-Refn’s theatrical and animated sequences are fitting for this tale of an arch fantasist in thrall to his own alter ego and the publicity generated by his violent behaviour. Combine that with a caustic satire on celebrity culture and a barbed comment on the at times barbaric state of the prison and asylum systems and you have a heady brew of despair, black comedy and authority baiting social commentary.
Hardy inhabits Charlie’s physique and persona to a level that Brando or De Niro would be proud of, snapping in an instant from wisecracking performer to fleeting introspection and finally explosive violence. Perhaps the ultimate irony of Bronson’s pitiful life is that he has, to a degree, achieved a certain level of celebrity status, having as he does a cult following due to his bizarre life story and latterly through his award winning poetry and art. Whether or not that is sufficient consolation for a life wasted behind bars, I guess only the man himself could answer that.
Beat Girl (1959) / Director: Edmond T. Greville
‘We’ll do everything, feel everything. Strictly for kicks’ – Jenny
This cult curiosity, part of a wave of British juvenile delinquent exploitation movies, appears impossibly innocent by today’s standards with it’s beatnik kids, jive dialogue and coffee bars. At the time though Beat Girl tapped into the growing fear in mainstream adult society over the emergence of that most dreaded of things – the rebellious teenager. Granted an X certificate due to it’s racy striptease scenes Beat Girl has a number of things that add to the film’s cult appeal: Christopher Lee as strip club owner Kenny King, Oliver Reed as a plaid shirted hipster, Adam Faith as a guitar strumming wannabe, David Farrar as the cold and out of touch father and it’s biggest plus – John Barry’s unforgettable jazztastic theme tune, his first score for a film.
Directed by French veteran Greville, Beat Girl is the tale of Jenny, played by Bardotesque starlet Gillian Hills, all sullen looks and pouting princess tantrums, a teenage beatnik frustrated and angry at having a new stepmother, Nichole (Noelle Adam), foisted upon her. On learning of and investigating Nichole’s less than squeaky clean past Jenny is drawn to the vice ridden world of Kenny’s strip club, growing tired of her beatnik friends and increasingly keen to explore the more exciting and dangerous avenues available to her.
Beat Girl is part conservative morality tale, part genre exploitation and part time capsule, and with it’s daddios, squares and phoneys it scores highly on the cheese factor. Greville’s movie deserves a nod of approval though for giving a glimpse, however authentic, into the days of the emergence of the ‘teenager’ and the inevitable rebellion that brought with it.
Kes (1969) / Director: Ken Loach
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead down t’pit’ – Billy
Young Billy Casper (David Bradley), on the verge of leaving school, has little prospects other than following his abusive half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) down the mines. This scrawny, semi-literate perpetual dreamer is emotionally neglected by his mother and his teachers, and with an absent father Billy may be lacking in self respect, guidance and education, but he is self aware enough to know that he wants to break free from the seemingly pre-ordained path that awaits him. Considered a ‘hopeless case’ by his mother and ridiculed and bullied in class on a regular basis Billy’s one source of comfort and escape comes in the form of ‘Kes’, the Kestrel he rears and trains from a young age. The natural world offers Billy an outlet away from the frustrations of a life of semi-poverty and limited options.
No stranger to light fingered pilfering, Billy learns the art of Falconry after stealing a book on the subject from a local secondhand bookshop. Shunning the company of his peers, and desperate to avoid turning into another Jud, Billy’s emotional nourishment and sense of self worth comes from his solitary and sole hobby. Ken Loach’s gritty, lyrical and moving adaptation of Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave shows how some rebellious loners make their marks through small victories and private pleasures.
In his dedication to and enthusiasm for ‘Kes’ Billy commits a small act of defiance against the callous treatment he routinely endures – he displays tenderness and passion where his peers and his elders are brutish and beaten down by life. In a common Loachian touch Billy’s achievement is bittersweet, the reality of his oppressive environment re-instated by Jud’s killing of ‘Kes’, leaving Billy heartbroken once more by the casual cruelty of those around him.