The Top Ten Dark Women in Film

Can't get enough of Lisbeth Salander? Here are ten female protagonists to keep you company until she hits Blu-ray.

Editorby Editor


Lisbeth Salander. The protagonist of Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy has made an enormous impact on the popular culture since her introduction in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, inspiring fan devotion for her dark persona, brought on by a traumatic childhood, the ensuing antisocial attitudes towards social convention and an overpowering hatred for misogyny. She'd just as soon rip your head off as look at you, probably, but that makes her all the more compelling a protagonist. She's not an anti-hero, she's just an impossibly dark one. But she's not the first great dark women in cinema. Here's our list of The Top Ten Dark Women in Film, to tide you over until David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hits DVD and Blu-ray on March 20.


  Kou Shibasaki in Battle Royale

For years, Battle Royale was never properly released in America because it’s about teenagers forced to kill each other for sport by an oppressive government. Luckily, The Hunger Games made that perfectly all right again, so Battle Royale can finally get a proper Blu-ray release later this month. But we digress. The ensemble cast of Battle Royale is full of compelling characters, but few embrace the violence of their situation the way that Mitsuko does. Played by Kou Shibasaki, she goes a bloody rampage tearing her way through her various classmates, motivated by a tragic childhood illustrated in the film’s expansive director’s cut. There are no bad guys in Battle Royale (well, maybe Kiriyama), only teenagers forced to compete because the institution tells them too. Just like real high school. Mitsuko’s just making the most of a sh*tty situation.


  Angela Bettis in May

Another film that opened to little fanfare but gradually garnered a reputation as a horror classic, May stars Angela Bettis as May, as a quiet girl who thinks she’s finally found the perfect guy in the form of Jeremy Sisto. But it turns out that nobody’s perfect… only parts of them are. So May decides to chop off those parts to make the kind of friend she’s only dreamed about. Lucky McKee’s film is a haunting look at genuine oddness, and the difference between appreciating superficial aspects of beauty and eccentricity, as opposed to loving someone for who they are, warts and all.


  Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted

James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted stars Winona Ryder as Susanna Kaysen, an 18-year-old woman who voluntarily checks herself into a mental hospital in the late 1960s after a failed suicide attempt. But although the plot is supposedly about Kaysen (the film is adapted from her memoir), the movie is clearly about Lisa Rowe, a sociopath played with vicious charisma by Angelina Jolie. She steals the film and walked away with an Oscar for her fantastic performance as a deeply troubled woman with no idea how dead she is inside, because she thinks that liberation from empathy makes her strong. The rest of the movie is pretty good too.


 Winona Ryder in Heathers

Winona Ryder earned her cred with Heathers, an almost impossibly dark comedy about teen suicide. Good luck getting that made today. She plays Veronica Sawyer, one of the most popular girls in school (all the rest of whom are named “Heather”). When she falls from the Heathers’ grace, she falls in with an anarchic rebel played by Christian Slater. Together they murder their horrible classmates and forge their suicide notes, which ironically makes them more sympathetic in death than they ever were in life. Soon suicide becomes a symbol of popularity, and the same old terrible social mores adapt to include genuine atrocities. Ryder’s character does the right thing in the end… sort of. In the original ending she proudly blows up the entire school. Heathers is Fight Club for the John Hughes crowd.


 Everyone in The Craft

Those goth kids in high school, the ones who wear pentagrams and act like a coven of witches? Guess what… they really are witches. That’s the set-up of this 1996 cult favorite that briefly made Fairuza Balk and Robin Tunney household names, and also co-starred Rachel True and a pre-Scream Neve Campbell. Together, they gleefully live out the ultimate adolescent power fantasy, exacting revenge on their enemies until, naturally, Fairuza Balk goes too far and has to be taken down in a supernatural brawl that won The Craft an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight. A slumber party favorite for everyone who hates Dirty Dancing.



 Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values

Not so much a dark “woman,” but little Wednesday Addams is well on her way. Unlike many of her sisters on our list, her darkness stems not from traumatic incidents but a set of family values – Addams Family Values, if you will – that fly in the face of social convention. Attempted murder, occultism and implied acts of utter horror are played for laughs in Barry Sonenfeld’s pair of excellent “family” comedies, which somehow found mainstream popularity despite being dark as hell. Christina Ricci plays Wednesday Addams as soulless creature in the first film, but truly shined in the sequel, which found her falling in love and exacting righteous vengeance on the milquetoast inhabitants of an oppressively conservative summer camp, some of whom are apparently cannibalized. Schadenfreude never felt so good.


 Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone’s love note, or possibly hate letter, to glorified violence stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory Knox, two mass murderers on a killing spree across the United States. Luckily for them, they have magnetic personalities that turn them into media darlings. Stone portrays his “heroes” in a hallucinogenic, MTV-inspired miasma of worshipping imagery that celebrates their purity of spirit, while letting their horrific deeds speak for themselves. She’d be any other film’s villain, but Stone sees something almost valiant in the way Mallory Knox overcomes her history of terrifying sexual abuse to become a cultural icon. And the fact that we can even write that sentence should illustrate why Natural Born Killers remains one of the most controversial films ever made.


 Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins in Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps, a film that has quietly been accepted as a modern horror classic (and certainly as one of the best werewolf movies ever), stars Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as the Fitzgerald sisters, Ginger and Brigitte. Together they make photomontages of themselves dying in disquieting ways and balk at the popular kids. But Ginger gets bitten by a werewolf, which jumpstarts her puberty, turning her into a hot, popular and sexually active bitch, much to the horror of her younger sister Bridget, who doesn’t understand what Ginger is going through. Ginger Snaps is a pointed parable about the perils of growing up, and apart, and it has werewolves.


 Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns

Tim Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters took a turn for the cerebral with Batman Returns, a film that was less about action thrills and more about the complexities of maintaining dual identities. Case in point: Selina Kyle, a wallflowery personal assistant whose boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) throws her out a window when she discovers his criminal schemes. Pushed around for the last time, the traumatic incident causes Selina Kyle to retreat into an alternate, empowered persona who embraces her sensuality and doesn’t take kindly to being pushed around by a man, even one in a handsome bat suit. Michelle Pfeiffer never forgets that at Catwoman’s heart, she’s embracing her dark nature to compensate for her own exacerbated feelings of helplessness. Her power is intoxicating, but her vulnerability makes her human.


 Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club

“I want to have your abortion.” Doesn’t get much darker than that. As portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, Marla Singer glides through life half-suicidal and half-free spirit, embracing life’s every gift – like free clothes from a dryer at a Laundromat – while simultaneously embracing an attitude of sheer pessimism. The only thing more infectious than her confidence is her very existence, which seems tailor made to complement the life of the film’s nameless protagonist, who desperately needs somebody to shake up his existence. She’s the ultimate satire of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before the trope was even invented, and that makes her our dream girl.


Full Disclosure: This article is sponsored by Sony.