From Max Dembo to The Driver: Four anti-heroes who sacrificed their love in “30 seconds flat”

Loners. I find them to be the most interesting characters in fiction, both on the written page and the silver screen (especially). Some of the most iconic movie characters are loners: James Bond, Travis Bickle, Neil McCauley and Bruce Wayne/Batman to name a few. They led a life of solitude, away from the clutter and chaos of the modern world – despite being caught up in them – and preached their own fascinating philosophies. Neil McCauley, one of Michael Mann’s most memorable creations and played by Robert De Niro, uttered a line that many fans of his 1995 crime classic Heat can now say by heart:

“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Interestingly, Neil is not the first movie character that followed this principle (or at least half of it). There were several others before him and also after. For now, I’ll just concentrate on four. Another Michael Mann character Frank, from his 1981 debut Thief, was eager to have someone special in his life but in the end, makes the extremely difficult decision of walking away from her and it’s such a heart-breaking moment. They had even adopted a child. In Neil’s case, despite telling Chris (Val Kilmer’s character) that criminals like them shouldn’t get themselves attached to anyone, he is compelled to break his rule and begin a stable relationship with a woman who is also a loner just like him.

From above: Frank in 'Thief' and Robert De Niro in 'Heat'
From above: Frank in ‘Thief’ and Robert De Niro in ‘Heat’

Neil gets too attached to this woman and for some odd reason this incredibly smart criminal, who up until that point had been good at outsmarting the cops, makes the fatal mistake of risking his love for revenge. I’m sure that every single one of us who saw this movie was rooting for Neil and cried: “No! No! Don’t take that detour! Go with her! Don’t go after that asshole!” For some reason, we thought he would be able to accomplish both but in the end, he had no other option but to stand by his oft-repeated philosophy when confronted by Vincent. Now, this brings me to a character who shared some similarities with Neil, only he is more reckless.

I’m talking about Max Dembo, the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1978 film Straight Time. A criminal who spent 6 years in prison, he is released on parole under the condition that he finds a job as soon has he got out. At the employment agency, he meets a girl called Jenny who finds him a job. Soon, they are dating and they both fall in love. But Max, whose life is a long series of one unfortunate event after another, falls swiftly back into his former life of crime. He is once again hunted by authorities. Jenny stands by him despite knowing about all the crimes he had committed and agrees to take off with him. But eventually, he changes his mind telling her that she won’t have a future with a man like him.

From left: Dustin Hoffman in ‘Straight Time’ and Ryan Gosling in ‘Drive’

In the recent Nicolas Winding Refn film Drive, which owes a big debt to films like Thief and also the Walter Hill film The Driver, the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling (simply referred to as “The Driver”) is a mysterious but likable loner who gets involved with a woman named Irene, who happens to be married to a criminal called Standard Gabriel. When Gabriel is killed in a robbery that goes awry, The Driver tries to shield Irene and her little son from some dangerous gangsters who want to see them both dead. After the intense final confrontation with the principal antagonist, The Driver drives away into the night but not before making a phone call expressing his affection for both her and her son.

If you know other similar characters, please sound off in the comments below.



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