One of the most surprising aspects of punk rock is that people who would never listen to the music have long responded to punks on screen. That's because the best punks in movies have irresistible qualities that add something powerful to the stories in which they appear. Regardless of the genre, cinematic punks embrace a bold fashion style that sets them apart from all the other characters. Their intense anger and defiance can be used to maximize drama or even earn laughs. In other words, they're pure scene-stealers.
What follows is a list of the best punk characters from a wide variety of films. Good movies have been made about real punks, with Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy chief among them, but these are all fictional characters. Whatever stereotypes you have about punks, these examples will shatter them with their diversity. Men and women are both represented. Some have overt punk looks, while others are more subtle in their punkness. Many of them have tender qualities underneath their shocking exteriors. A couple are pure anti-establishment rage.
Interestingly, there are certain filmmakers who repeatedly depict the lives of punks on screen. Penelope Spheeris directed two of the films featuring memorable punks, Dudes and Suburbia, and Allan Moyle directed two others, Empire Records and Times Square. They, like their audiences, know the appeal of a charismatic punk.
Stick it to the Man by voting up the best movie punks from the list below.
Who He Is: Matthew Lillard plays Steven Levy in 1998's SLC Punk! "Stevo" rejects the generally conservative lifestyle of Salt Lake City, Utah. His parents want him to embrace a traditional way of life, but he's not having it.
His Style: Stevo sports bright blue hair and often wears a razor blade on a chain around his neck.
His Most Punk Moment: He turns down acceptance to Harvard Law School because that's for squares, man.
What He Rages Against: Salt Lake City is a conservative town, so the liberal Stevo is continually rebelling against what he views as a politically backward mindset. SLC Punk! is set in 1985, so he similarly rages against his parents' embrace of Ronald Reagan.
Who She Is: In 1985's great horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead, B-movie legend Linnea Quigley plays Trash, a punker stuck in Louisville, Kentucky. There's little to do there aside from wander the streets with her fellow punks, Spider, Scuz, Casey, and Chuck.
Her Style: Trash stands out with her brightly dyed hair, painted-on face designs, sleeveless vest, and leather arm covers.
Her Most Punk Moment: While the crew parties in a cemetery, Trash jumps on top of a tomb and does a complete striptease dance.
What She Rages Against: Initially, Trash just rages against all the conservative people in Kentucky. After brain-eating zombies are unleashed upon the town, her rage is eventually directed toward the undead.
Who He Is: Mark "Rent Boy" Renton (Ewan McGregor) is a Scottish junkie looking to get clean in Danny Boyle's 1996 masterpiece Trainspotting.
His Style: Because he's so deeply hooked on controlled substances, Mark isn't really spending a lot of money on punk accouterments. He does, however, have a shaved head and an earring. His clothes often look dirty, which could be either a fashion choice or simply an economic issue.
His Most Punk Moment: Diving into "the worst toilet in Scotland" to retrieve some suppositories wins this distinction by a country mile.
What He Rages Against: Sobriety, for starters. Trainspotting is, in part, about the allure of substances, how people often enjoy them, and the way recovering junkies still feel the pull of them even after getting clean. It's also about the explicit rejection of living an ordinary, "upright" life, as Renton famously declares in his "Choose Life" speech: "Choose life.... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons." That's undeniably punk.
Who She Is: Deb (Robin Tunney) is one of the employees of the titular record store in the cult favorite Empire Records. She's known for being depressed and despondent.
Her Style: She likes tank tops and necklaces, and she's got a nose ring. At one point, she shaves her head.
Her Most Punk Moment: Aside from the aforementioned head-shaving, Deb allows her coworkers to hold a mock funeral for her, even going so far as to hop into a makeshift coffin. Then again, she also stares down a guy with a side arm. There are honestly so many punk moments with her that choosing one is impossible.
What She Rages Against: Herself, mainly. Deb is depressed and harbors thoughts of self-harm, so she's in a near-constant state of emotional agony.