“I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs.”
We’ve all fallen in love with the anti-hero. In the nineties, two seminal films, American Psycho and Fight Club, showed us that ‘heroes’ didn’t have to be good guys. In the last few years, film and TV have picked up this intrigue once again with streams of charming anti-heroes. Anti-heroes in Wolf of Wall Street, Drive and Nightcrawler have stalked the big screen whilst TV’s Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy have lit up the silver screen. Yet, it is House of Cards’ Francis “Frank” Underwood who has really excelled. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, has none of the traits associated with conventional heroes, lacking any notion of self-sacrifice, courage, or morality. Yet, we still love him.
Frank Underwood’s defining characteristic is his unrelenting ambition. This may come through his own initiative or simply at the expense of others, but it’s all the same to Underwood. He is even willing to better his own position at the expense of his own President. As Vice-President, Underwood is either reaffirming his own position, or undermining those around him. His wife Claire, played by the amazing Robin Wright, is equally ruthless in her ambition. She has no qualms in manipulating the vulnerable or sending a close friend into a media shark-pit.
This ruthless ambition is not unique to the Underwood’s: it is also one of the defining characteristics of Nightcrawler’s protagonist. Dan Gilroy’s 2014 film was easily one of the best of the year and Jake Gyllenhaal’s unerring performance, as the protagonist Lou Bloom, was outstanding. His character’s success comes at any cost; getting his story at the expense of fellow press, the injured and occasionally, the dead.
House of Cards’ Frank Underwood is so exciting to watch thanks to his overwhelming obsessive nature. Underwood has an unearthly obsession with power; even his relationships are geared toward power and success. His marriage is one of mutual respect and influence rather than love and compassion and his association with Zoe Barnes is one of power and dominance. This is not the nature of the traditional hero.
This obsessive nature was previously epitomised in American Psycho. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman had obsessive views on society and personal dominance, into sociopathic levels. Bateman agonised over the calligraphy of business cards, and in the next heartbeat berated his colleagues on the specific ills of society. Bateman’s obsessions move into areas similar to Underwood, but he lacked Underwood’s slow, Southern drawl that intoxicates you into supporting him regardless of action.
Yet, the most shocking visualisation of Frank Underwood’s anti-hero mentality is his absolute lack of morality. Underwood is totally unafraid of performing any necessary action. In the series’ pilot, Underwood kills a severely wounded dog with his bare hands, reciting “Moments like this require someone who will act: Do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing.” Underwood’s lack of moral boundaries is hauntingly devoid of emotion. Death is a semi-regular feature of the show, usually with cold and calculated methods.
Once again, this is not a new characteristic. Lou Bloom and Patrick Bateman also have this lack of morals. Bateman takes excessive joy in killing and Lou Bloom has no problems rearranging a corpse to get the perfect shot. In reaction to a detective’s questioning about Bloom filming a dying man, he cheerily retorts “I’d like to think if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life.”
Despite his misdoings, one can’t help but support Frank. It is a symptom of our growing fascination with the anti-hero that charm, excitement and a steadfast resolve is enough to get the viewer on side. Frank often breaks fourth wall to acknowledge his misdeeds, talking honestly into the camera, and this forms part of his appeal. This is just part of his anti-hero charm, as Underwood, as well as Bloom and Bateman, is inspirational, Machiavellian and always exciting.
It isn’t difficult to see why we’ve all fallen in love with the anti-hero.
House of Cards: Season 3 will be released exclusively on Netflix on February 27th.