5 Great Protagonists Whose Names We Never Knew

layer cake 610 5 Great Protagonists Whose Names We Never Knew

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare inquired of his audiences. A great deal, apparently, considering the amount of thought that has traditionally gone into what names are bestowed upon fictional characters. A great name is meant to completely fit the character, to roll off the tongue in a way that fully evokes their personality, appearance or importance. Severus Snape perfectly encapsulates the sullen, sneering superiority of the Hogwarts Potions professor, while Keyzer Soze is an arresting, mysterious name for the devilish criminal at the center of The Usual Suspects, to give two examples of many (my personal favorites: Pussy Galore, Freddy Krueger and Chev Chelios).

However, sometimes what isn’t said on screen can make just as much of an impact as what is. Some movie characters are simply never given names, in direct contrast with our society’s considerable focus on immediate identification of ourselves and others (if you don’t believe me, think about how much time we spend on social media these days). Not giving a character a name often helps to accentuate an aura of mystery surrounding them, while other nameless characters are intended symbolically to represent the ‘Everyman.’ It’s a tribute to the screenwriters, directors and actors responsible for the films on this list that the following fictitious individuals are still remarkably memorable – even if we still don’t know quite what to call them.

Read on, as we count off five of the best nameless protagonists in cinematic history.

WARNING: The following list contains spoilers.

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1) Ryan Gosling - Drive (2011)

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Identified in the credits of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gorgeous, evocative neo-noir only as “Driver,” Ryan Gosling’s stunt performer-turned-getaway driver is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma if ever there was one. Externally effeminate, quiet and well-mannered, the Driver has a feral animal nature that only emerges when he feels threatened, either by brutish thugs or a deliciously vicious mob boss (Albert Brooks).

When provoked, he strikes with the speed, ferocity and lethality of the golden scorpion that adorns his distinctive white jacket. A psychopath with a heart of gold, the Driver shifts between kicking in heads in elevators and calmly courting the girl down the hall just as easily as moving between gears behind the wheel. Less of a fully-formed man than a quietly seething machine, the Driver is built to unleash brutal violence, though he desperately tries to prove that he’s also capable of love. His pursuit of damaged-goods neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) is strangely touching, as Driver struggles to reconcile his humanity with a deep-set affinity for carnage.

The purpose of the Driver’s namelessness is sheer anonymity; he moves unnoticed through a neon-lit cityscape, a shark hunting for the scent of blood. What separates him from the other gangsters, with names like Nino and Bernie Rose, is his unwavering belief that he’s one of the “good sharks,” designed to protect the innocent (in his case, Irene and her young son) from those who would do them harm. By the film’s end, he has disappeared again into the darkness from whence he came, a high plains drifter for the modern era. He’s also a staggeringly effective symbol for the duality of man, instinctively savage but consistently restrained, both by society and his own unique moral code.

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2) Clint Eastwood - A Fistful of Dollars (1964)/For A Few Dollars More (1965)/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Though believed by some fans of Sergio Leone’s landmark spaghetti westerns to be named “Joe” or “Blondie,” Clint Eastwood’s roaming gunslinger is actually never identified, and most viewers know the antihero simply as “The Man with No Name.” The point being, he doesn’t need one. The Man with No Name is intentionally enigmatic, a gruff and quiet stranger who sees no issue with killing any individual who stands in his way. Though some interpret him as the far-reaching arm of the law, intended to tame the Wild West, it’s purely his own sense of justice that he enforces. Most of the time, he’s motivated solely by financial gain, the perfect antithesis to heart-of-gold cowboys found in earlier Westerns.

Known particularly for his laconic demeanor, colorful ponchos and lightning-quick reflexes, the Man with No Name is the ultimate cool cucumber, so numbed to violence that he considers killing a basic instinct rather than a last resort. Before a violent confrontation in A Fistful of Dollars, he calmly chats with the local undertaker, warning him to, “Get three coffins ready.” After the same fight: “My mistake – four coffins.”

Part of why the Man with No Name’s anonymity works so well is that we don’t need or even want to know much more about him. Whenever he appears, he wreaks havoc, kills bad guys and rides off into the sunset, presumably to do it all again in the next town over. More of a legend than a bona-fide human being, the Man with No Name’s unwavering commitment to silent badassery made the three films in which he appeared instant classics. An eternally stony countenance and impeccable aim also make him the most iconic gunslinger in cinematic history.

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3) Daniel Craig - Layer Cake (2004)

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“Life is so fucking good I can taste it in my spit,” declares Daniel Craig’s cocksure drug dealer in the electrical opening narration to Matthew Vaughn’s convoluted West London crime thriller. That’s just a taste of the character’s brazen and whip-smart outlook on life. A cocaine dealer (or “businessman,” as he refers to himself), the character is alternately charming and reprehensible, sincere and conniving, a smarter-than-average criminal stumped by the sheer unpredictability of his cretinous associates. It’s a tribute to Craig’s terrific performance that one can simultaneously love and hate the guy, as he schemes to retire from the criminal underworld with all his fingers intact.

While his witless associates are known by monickers like The Duke and Tiptoes, the protagonist is only ever identified as XXXX in credits and closed captioning. To him, anonymity is a potent weapon if wielded correctly, and so he moves like a chameleon through the criminal underworld, always cautious of becoming too well known, even to his closest partners. As he orchestrates a complex series of deadly double-crosses, XXXX is painstakingly careful never to get to close to anything, instead pulling all the strings from a (seemingly) safe distance.

XXXX is widely credited as the role that got Craig the role of James Bond in Casino Royale, and it’s not hard to see why. Suave and internally unflappable, XXXX is a bizarre inverse of the secret agent, a street-smart criminal with a strong dislike of guns and super-inflated sense of self.

The character’s witty, smarmy irreverence, certainly the main reason he ranks so highly on this list, is best summed up with this tragicomic, fourth-wall-shattering final jab at the audience: “My name? If you knew that, you’d be as clever as me.”

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4) Edward Norton - Fight Club (1999)

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So much attention is paid to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s now-classic drama that many viewers of Fight Club didn’t even realize that Norton’s character is never given a name. In the credits, he’s simply called The Narrator. In the film, Norton’s character is an average office worker, suffering from insomnia and a distinct lack of purpose; he’s an Everyman, lost in his own life. The character’s anonymity is indicative of his incomplete personal identity; he has neglected to fill his life with meaning, opting instead to conform completely to his surroundings. Though convinced that he wants to live a picture-perfect life like he sees idealized in advertisements, the character fails to fill it with actual people, instead focusing on buying material objects and studying the art of being normal.

As the Narrator immerses himself in the dangerous world of fight clubs, viewers get increasingly extensive glimpses into his fractured psyche, but he remains sympathetic through the film. One widely-accepted take on the film is that he is just a victim, attempting to wrest control of his own life from parts of himself he doesn’t control, as well as those around him.

The Narrator is a symbol of society’s loss of masculinity, brought about by undue focus on materialism, particularly among gray-collar workers who feel overwhelming pressure to conform to a ‘norm.’ His insomnia suggests deep-set unease at his materialistic, hollow lifestyle, which the fight clubs eventually begin to alleviate. By retaining author Chuck Palahniuk’s practice of not giving him a name, Fincher conveys the character’s sense of self-delusion and also creates an effective parable about the dangers of a consumerist society, presenting The Narrator as a John Q. Public, emblematic of every person’s deepest emotions and fears.

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5) Viggo Mortensen - The Road (2009)

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Why does the grizzled protagonist of John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic drama remain nameless? Because he could be any one of us. As the character, identified only as Man in the credits, struggles to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the dangers of a ravaged American landscape, viewers immediately feel a strong connection to him – he’s a normal guy floundering in the worst of worst case scenarios, a good man forced to do unspeakable things by circumstances beyond his control. The Road, based on an novel by Cormac McCarthy, is perhaps the most realistic post-apocalyptic film ever made, focusing on the unpredictable effects that doomsday has on the mindset of Man and humankind as a whole.

Mortensen’s haunting, emotive performance allows audiences to full identify with Man’s deepest fears, as well as his unwavering sense of hope for the future. The character doesn’t need a name – he represents all of humanity, its strengths and weaknesses combined. He’s a devoted father, a grieving widower, a skilled craftsman, a ruthless predator and, above all, a resilient survivor. Whether viewers feel they would act like Man does in The Road in his situation is entirely subjective, but Mortensen makes him never less than entirely, organically human. As a character, he’s fascinatingly complex, and as a metaphor for humanity, he’s stunningly plausible.

So that’s our list of the top five nameless protagonists in cinematic history. Do you agree? Did we miss anyone? Sound off in the comments section below!

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  • blarga blah

    Edward Norton’s character is Tyler Durden.

    • blarga blah

      Other characters actually refer to him as Tyler Durden, most notably Marla.

    • CarolH

      Read the book – when he talks to Marla about Tyler – he shows her his driver’s license which he says has a different name on it and she agrees. However the reader is never given that name.

  • Scot McKay

    Tommy Chong is simply credited as “man” in “Up In Smoke”.

  • Name

    The Doctor?

  • pussyeater

    I mainly agree with this list. The Man With No Name would be my pick for number one though