Liking the Unlikeable 2: Jason Vs. Mallory– Who Connects with Us and Why

Yesterday I mused about how despite their similarities, protagonists Jason Bourne and Mallory Kane connect differently with film viewers. The biggest question is why.

When we first meet Jason Bourne, he’s got amnesia and he’s under attack. Instantly we’re intrigued, and we get Bourne’s astonishment as he uncovers his survival skills and hungers to know who he is.

As a viewer, I connect with how disoriented Bourne must feel losing his identity while being in imminent danger. In her talk on “Likeability in Characters”, Cynthia Leitich Smith said that unlikeable characters can be likeable if the writer wounds them. In action films, characters get wounded all the time, but it’s Bourne’s psychological wound that makes him human and vulnerable.

As Bourne glimpses his past, he confronts the reality that he has done horrible things. And as he’s pursued, he uncovers that he’s been set up and must find his betrayer to stay alive.

Bourne is a complex and seemingly contradictory character. A killer who feels remorse, who has a moral compass. Not only does he seek to take down his opponent, he searches out the Russian girl whose parents he assassinated so he can tell her the truth about their death.

Bourne illustrates how we don’t have to approve of a character, if we are fascinated by them. Bourne’s contradictions keep us involved.

Contrast Bourne with Mallory Kane, played by Gina “Crush” Carana, professional cage fighter for whom Soderbergh wrote Haywire.

We meet Mallory in a diner in upstate New York. A young man comes in and tries to convince her to come with him. They fight. She wins. She grabs a witness and drives off in his car. Then she tells him the story of Barcelona and Dublin.

We should care about this woman who thought she was rescuing a hostage and finds him dead and is now on the run. She thought she was doing good and she’s been double-crossed.

She’s gorgeous, an accomplished athlete and lethal opponent. But–we don’t care enough about her for a sequel. Why?

Mallory Kane suffers bullets and punches, but she’s never emotionally vulnerable.

She has sex with a colleague after they finish a job, but it feels as emotional and sexy as cleaning their guns. Her ex-lover, now boss, appears at her apartment and their relationship is cool, and we’re left clueless as to why she was once attracted to him. A deer crashes through the back window of her getaway car and she barely acknowledges it. The only caring relationship she has is with her dad, an ex-Marine, but even that is restrained.

We witness Mallory’s actions, and get glimpses of her past, but her emotions and motivations are not revealed. She is reduced to a fighting machine.

Going back to yesterday’s post–it’s key that the reader gain some understanding of the difficult character. In this month’s Vanity Fair, James Gandolfini praised the head writer on The Sopranos for getting the audience to care about Tony. Gandolfini said, “I think you cared about Tony because… you got to see his motives, what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what he was trying to fix, what he was trying to become. And then you saw it didn’t really work out the way he wanted it to. If you took the (Dr.) Melfi scenes away, you wouldn’t care about this man as much, or care about anything that was happening to him.”

When a reader/viewer sees that the difficult character has the same cares or concerns or motivations as the reader does, then the gap between them is made smaller. The character becomes human and real, and the reader may imagine himself or herself in that character’s place.

Thursday:  I give you Part 3: The Mallory Makeover or How I’d Revise Her