The decade’s best in film villainy
There is nothing like a truly great villain. Heroes are simple. You get the kitten out of the tree because it’s the right thing to do. But what kind of diabolical mind would even think to put the kitten there in the first place? Great villains peel back the layers and reveal our darkest nature. They make us think.
And so, with my “kitten in the tree” argument in place, I submit that the past decade has offered us five truly phenomenal movie villains. Here they are, in order of haircut originality:
ANTON CHIGURH is no man. He is a force of nature, a symbol. Those who complained about a lack of resolution in the Coen brother’s 2007 best picture winner No Country for Old Men were missing something. For Chigurh to have been killed or end up in prison would have been too pedestrian and, as an indestructible symbol of “all that dark and all that cold,” an impossibility.
It’s brilliantly executed. Chigurh is never seen but his presence is always felt (occasionally as a shotgun blast to a window!) It further reinforces the sense that he is something more than human.
A rival hitman—expertly played by Woody Harrelson—tries to impress upon the film’s protagonist exactly who he’s dealing with:
“You don’t understand. You can’t make a deal with him. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.”
These “principles” reflect the sort of existential indifference that permeates the film. No one is safe. Anton Chigurh is the embodiment of that theme, and his decision to end your life may come down to a simple toss of the coin. Call it.
THE JOKER made his first appearance in 1940 and has arguably become the most recognizable villain in the Batman’s sizeable pantheon. But it wasn’t until Alan Moore put his spin on the character in DC Comic’s Batman: The Killing Joke in 1988 that the Joker finally reached his true potential. Moore was the first writer to delve into the very nature of Batman and the Joker’s epic rivalry and its almost inevitable outcome. It was also listed among the chief sources of inspiration for Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Batman, at his best, is a character that exists on the fringe of insanity. He is, after all, a man dressed as a bat. The idea that Batman’s latent madness only attracts more of the same has never been more fully realized than in the Joker, who seeks only to strip the Bat of all he knows and loves and reveal that we are all just a step away from madness.
So the Joker reminds Batman exactly how close he is to madness, but he also reminds him why he does what he does. The two need each other. They are what happens when “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”, and they are “destined to do this forever,” if we’re lucky.
DANIEL PLAINVIEW of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 oil epic There Will Be Blood may not be a villain in the conventional sense, but that’s exactly what makes him so extraordinary. True villainy is often committed with great certitude, and Daniel’s last name says it all. There are no pretenses with Daniel. His only desire is to get enough money so that he can “get away.” Here is a man so filled with contempt for humanity that nearly every word that passes his lips oozes with venom.
The center of the film is the rivalry between Daniel and a young preacher named Eli (seen in the above clip), whom Daniel views as the only real opposition in his attempt to control the town. Theirs is a game of constant one-upmanship, culminating in the the pure madness of their final confrontation.
Daniel Day Lewis has created a genuine monster in Daniel Plainview, but there is an element of tragedy in his brief moments of humanity. Take Daniel’s son, who eventually enters the family oil business. Daniel cannot stand the thought that his son is going to move away and make something of himself on his own. His reaction to the news is vile to be sure, but the reason behind it is heartbreaking. Even great villains can be human.
DETECTIVE ALONZO HARRIS of 2001’s Training Day is charismatic, funny and intelligent. You get the feeling that there was a time when he was considered the baddest (Michael Jackson Bad) detective in the city. Now he’s most certainly the baddest (like, actual bad) detective in the city, shirking his real duties for some gambling action, struttin’ and straight up thuggery. Alonzo has become nothing more than a bully and it is Jake Hoyt’s (Ethan Hawke) bad luck that he happens to be assigned to ride along with him for his first day of training.
Alonzo grins, jokes and intimidates his way through Hoyt’s first day, all the while executing a plan that doesn’t come into full view for us (and Hoyt) until nearly halfway through the movie.
There is also the scene where Alonzo meets with several other detectives. They share some stories and some laughs, indicating that they were probably friends at one time. But as the conversation moves along we realize that Alonzo has forsaken all friendships by now. He is truly alone in the mess he’s created, and we all know how animals react when backed into a corner.
Training Day relies almost completely on Denzel Washington’s larger-than-life performance, and it pays off. If you don’t believe me, check out Washington in the scene below. Alonzo’s transition from cocky thug to frightened street punk is about as perfect as you could ask for.
The 2001 british gangster film Sexy Beast is certainly well-written and well directed, but its real claim to fame is Ben Kingsley’s performance as DON LOGAN. His introduction is pitch-perfect. He marches through an airport like a scud missile aimed squarely at former ganster Gary “Gal” Dove’s new found happiness.
“Gal” has retired to Spain from a less-than-savory career in England’s seedy underworld. He has been accompanied by a couple of friends and his wife, with whom he is still madly in love. Things couldn’t be better until they receive news that Don Logan is coming for a visit. Don has a job offer for “Gal” and he simply will not take no for an answer.