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What makes a hero or a villain in the eyes of the world? It’s seemingly an easier question to answer in fictional contexts, such as The Matrix and the role of Joe Pantoliano’s infamous “traitor” Cypher. But when you re-examine such a concept in a different light, morality isn't so black and white, as demonstrated in the actor’s recent defense of his character’s actions.
On the most recent episode of CinemaBlend's ReelBlend podcast, Joe Pantoliano discusses a number of subjects, like how he felt Bad Boys For Life was the best of the bunch. And one of those subjects was the following argument in support of Cypher’s actions in 1999’s mind-blowing sci-fi classic from the Wachowski siblings:
I always have arguments with fans of that movie because they look at Cypher and they say ‘You were a traitor.’ And I, being years in show business and having to dissect and having liberal vision of the character I’m portraying, I’m always arguing on his behalf. On Cypher’s behalf. Like, who wouldn’t take that deal? If you were given an opportunity and a choice and then you decided you made the wrong choice. You take the red pill, the girl that you love is in love with somebody else. You’ve gone through six or seven ‘Ones;' Neo is just another guy that’s gonna get his ass killed. And he’s going, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake! Ignorance IS bliss. Why shouldn’t I go to back to a world and pick the person I want to be. Pick the career I want to have and have no memory. I’d betray anybody, I’d kill anybody.’
Considering the situation, it's an offer some would probably find harder to refuse than they’d admit: to collaborate with your supposed enemy in the name of personal comfort. The Matrix sets it up so perfectly, as we watch Joe Pantoliano ponder his existence, discuss the offer, and even name his terms in one memorable scene from the pop culture landmark:
The Matrix is a story about true belief, and the power that faith carries when taking on an epic quest. The concept of “The One” isn’t easily bought into by anyone, and Neo himself is living proof. For a good portion of The Wachowski’s calling card, Keanu Reeves’ protagonist is dealing with his own crisis of faith, and he ultimately buys into his role as the savior of the human race.
When you really look at it, Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher is doing the same thing. The big difference is that while Mr. Anderson/Neo is new to this business with “The One,” as Pantoliano himself pointed out to the ReelBlend hosts, this is roughly the sixth or seventh run in he’s had with the savior idea. The man is tired of the fight, and he really wants to just kick back with a steak as his acting career takes off.
Looking at Cypher’s actions in the long view, The Matrix history can easily write him off as a traitor. But when you nail it down to an individual level, Cypher wasn’t acting as a revolutionary striking a blow for Agent Smith and the hive mind running the machine world. He was looking to end the war in a way that could set him up for life. He’s a villain that doesn’t even see himself as a baddie, and in the end, those are the most intriguing antagonists of all.
You can hear more of the conversation with Mr. Pantoliano, courtesy of the latest episode of ReelBlend, included below:
Was Cypher a villain and a traitor? The jury’s honestly still out, and most likely people will still vote yes; and that’s because of the knowledge we have of how The Matrix shakes out. Of course, if Lana Wachowski decides to accept Joe Pantoliano’s offer to return as Cypher in the currently paused production of The Matrix 4, we might get even more details into why he made this decision that’ll either further muddy the waters, or nail his moral compass down even further.
For now, you can reconsider this argument as you (re)watch The Matrix Trilogy, which is currently streaming in its entirety on Netflix.