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Christof (The Truman Show, 1998)
Are there crimes in art? That’s the ultimate question of The Truman Show, the strangely prescient Jim Carrey vehicle directed by Peter Weir. The Truman Show stars Carrey as Truman Burbank, a boy legally adopted by a television studio and raised on the air. Every moment of Truman’s life is broadcast to an audience of millions, even as he matures to adulthood and develops an explorer’s spirit, requiring the production to create even more elaborate means of keeping him on the island set. At the end of the movie, Truman comes face to face with his creator, the artist Cristof (Ed Harris) who has operated the show as a grand installation.
Within the movie, Christof is framed as Truman’s antagonist, if not an outright villain. For the sake of art, Christof manipulates every aspect of Truman’s life and refuses to let him pursue his own desires. When the movie released in 1998, the climactic scene in which Truman defied his creator to leave the set and go out into the real world had people fuming against Cristof. But today, they may be more sympathetic toward him. In the 25 years since The Truman Show, reality programming has become a staple of television, and not just because it’s “strike proof.” In shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Big Brother, people willingly embrace the world Truman fled.
Frank T.J. Mackey (Magnolia, 1999)
Self-help motivational speakers have existed in the US for as long as there have been people willing to pay for them. But the explicitly sexist pickup artist is a relatively new phenomenon, and was a total shock to viewers of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in 1999. Remember, this is six years before the invention of YouTube, which allowed “pickup artists” to rot the minds of impressionable young men across the country. Instead of mirroring blathering men on social media, the “Seduce and Destroy” seminars hosted by Frank T.J. Mackey, estranged son of dying tv game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), better resemble business seminars or even the religious men’s Promise Keepers movement.
Tom Cruise plays Mackey as a man whose desperation for acceptance is barely covered by his sexual boasts. By this point, Cruise was already well into an auteur phase that saw him working with Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Brian DePalma (Mission: Impossible), and Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut). But he still retained the blockbuster energy of a charming leading man who won over every doubter with his undeniable skill and charm. Seeing Cruise channel that energy into an unrepentant misogynist genuinely unnerves viewers today as much as it did then. The climactic scene in which Mackey breaks down in tears by his father’s bedside only makes the character all the more upsetting, reminding us that we can’t simply dismiss him as an unreal monster. He’s still human, as much as any one of us.
John Coffey (The Green Mile, 1999)
Most of the characters on this list are controversial because they hold beliefs that some find upsetting or disagreeable. But no one could say that of John Coffey, the hulking convict at the center of The Green Mile, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the serialized Stephen King novel. After all, Coffey is a gentle giant, a Black man who does nothing to resist his false conviction of brutalizing two white girls in the Jim Crow South. Instead, Coffey uses his magical powers to help Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) pee and to make petty warden Percy (Doug Hutchison) kill murderous William Wharton (Sam Rockwell). But when it comes time for his execution on the electric chair, Coffey walks peacefully to his death.
John Coffey makes this list not so much because of his character, but because of his creators’ intentions. While it’s clear that King intended to make Coffey into a Christ figure, whose pure love for humanity drives him to sacrifice (at least until the novel’s surprisingly bitter final chapter), he instead fell right into one of the worst cinematic tropes. Coffey is just one of many Black characters who put their own needs behind them so they can improve the lives of white people. Sadly, many viewers fail to see the problem with that, landing Coffey onto this list.