Writing an antagonist for any film is a challenging task, partially because you don’t want to make a character surface-level or not take realistic depictions in a serious manner. There are plenty of films that do it right and some that don’t hold up as well. In this analysis, we’re going to talk about the latter, discussing the antagonist of Fatal Attraction.
If you don’t know, Fatal Attraction is a 1987 psychological thriller directed by Adrian Lyne from a screenplay by James Dearden. Starring Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, and Anne Archer, the film centers on a married man who has an affair with a woman who becomes obsessed with him.
There is a valid criticism of the film today, primarily having to do with how mental illness is portrayed. This article isn’t here to lecture about the film, but rather to offer an analysis from a writing perspective. We’ll discuss the antagonists and related themes, and what works and what doesn’t.
Still from 'Fatal Attraction'. Photo credit: Glamour
Even from the most straightforward approach, it’s obvious that Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) is the antagonist of Fatal Attraction. We’re introduced to the character from the lens of Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) whom she meets at a party. Dan is the typical working man cliche, someone who has a wife and daughter but engages in infidelity without real concern that it’ll harm anyone.
The film very dramatically has Alex attempt suicide when Dan explains he has to leave, setting the story up for this obsession storyline. It’s completely fine to have a character act in that way, but the valid criticisms aren’t necessarily on the plot set-up but on how Alex’s mental illness is portrayed.
It’s mentioned that Alex suffers from borderline personality disorder which is the reasoning for why she grows obsessed with Dan. The film tends to scapegoat her disorder for the reason she’s acting like how she does, and many feel that’s harmful to people who live with BPD themselves.
Now, obviously, we can’t go back and change the film’s script, but can learn from it moving forward. If the film were to be redone, maybe the mention of her disorder can get mitigated from the script. Instead, we can focus on her singular actions rather than vilifying a mental illness. There can also be a deeper backstory of why she has these issues and attachment toward Dan.
Obviously, the solution isn’t clear, and the film does a lot of things right, there’s a reason why it’s as acclaimed as it is. Nevertheless, as you can expect from the story, Alex eventually tries to see Dan again, he refuses, and her obsession with Dan begins to grow.
The film’s story gets interesting when Alex reveals to Dan about her pregnancy, and it almost utilizes her pregnancy as the reason for why she’s acting how she is. I imagine if the film were made today, they would rely on that twist later in the story. This is a part that could work better if it comes to light right before Alex’s death, making her death a lot more impactful.
By the end, we kinda forget that storyline. Looking back, the happy ending with the family has an uneasy quality to it. Was Alex pregnant? So, did Dan easily drown this woman despite her pregnancy? Obviously, she was trying to kill his wife, so it makes sense why he had that reaction. Still, it seems like they forgot to clear the air about her pregnancy and give it a resolution, but what do I know?
Much of the film centers on a discussion of infidelity and the potential consequences of engaging in said act. Clearly, if Dan never acted upon it, he wouldn’t have been in this absurd situation with Alex. Dan’s character is strangely blameless, even though his attitude and determination to keep the affair from his wife infer that the affair isn’t his first.
Obviously, once Alex’s obsession becomes dangerous, Dan is viewed as a victim instead of an equal in the film. The film definitely forces the audience to consider the potential negatives and consequences of cheating, but I wish it told us if Alex’s pregnancy is true. Even if they kept it a mystery, there should’ve been an extra scene of Dan facing guilt because of the situation rather than solely having it on Alex’s character.
Alex’s obsession begins in a harmless way and quickly turns into the worst-case scenario with her suicide attempt. Eventually, her obsession turns into a stalker with impulses, severe anger, and a fear of abandonment. There’s also the component of how she feels about Dan, swinging wildly from value to hatred.
Analyzing Through a Modern Lens
Looking back, Alex exhibits traits of a sociopath, and it would’ve worked better through that lens rather than trying to blame whatever condition the film paints her with. Regardless, there’s a lot to appreciate from the film, and it’s worth looking back on while writing antagonists for your script.