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

Anton Chigurh

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.

Take, for example, this scene in which Anton Chigurh locates Lewellyn Moss via a beacon planted in a bag of stolen money

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

The Joker

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

Daniel Plainview

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.

Alonzo Harris

Alonzo Harris

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.

Don Logan

Don Logan

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.

40 Responses to “The decade’s best in film villainy”
  1. Adam says:

    I’d argue that Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” makes for an iconic and bad-ass villain as well.

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      Totally agree, but I think my distaste for “Gangs of New York” tends to make me forget about poor Bill the Butcher.

      • Adam says:

        How about the “Wishmaster”?

      • Kevin Mattison says:

        I’ll pretend I didn’t see that : )

      • Tim Carmody says:

        Watching Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York is a little like watching Christopher Walken in about two-thirds of his movies: it becomes clear halfway through that he doesn’t know that the rest of the movie isn’t as good as he is, that they’re playing a different game completely. They all think the movie’s about something else.

  2. Tim Carmody says:

    PS: Ben Kingsley as Don Logan deserved two more paragraphs, especially since 1) he’s the most startling villain on the list, 2) it’s at least a tie for the most virtuoso acting performance and 3) the character is the list well-known.

  3. Kevin Mattison says:

    For the record he’s probably my favorite villain on the board. Unfortunately that deadline caught up to me fast (and even more unfortunately for him, he’s on the bottom of a list organized by haircut originality.. and he has none).

    Perhaps an update is in order? Or even an entire column on Mr. Logan?

    • AVGW says:

      How about a column on the hilariously stiled dialog in the Star Wars prequels? Or, better yet, real people read the Star Wars prequels scripts aloud to each other. The funniest line: “Hold me like you did on Naboo.”

      • Kevin Mattison says:

        Ha! I love it. Isn’t that line delivered during the balcony scene in “Revenge of the Sith”? I seem to recall that being the worst scene in the entirety of the prequel trilogy, which is saying something.

  4. AVGW says:

    I thought Det. Alanzo Harris was the worst kind of film villain – the stereotypical kind. For me, that character was completely unoriginal. A black cop on the take, lord of the underworld, etc. Even the way Washington played the character seemed like a caricature, like he was in on the joke.

    And unlike the other villains on this list, there’s not an ounce of humanity to Harris. When he dies at the end of the movie, it’s difficult to care.

    Maybe it’s due, in part, to the director’s experience in music video work before Training Day, who knows. But that movie seemed to me to be part of a disturbing trend. The year that Washington won his Oscar for playing an incredibly stereotypical role – black thug – Halle Berry won for her own venture into stereotype – black single mother with fucked up backstory.

    I would have included on this list Nick Naylor (Thank You for Smoking), Nikolai Luzhin (Eastern Promises) or Tom Stall (A History of Violence) — both fabulous nuanced villains from Viggo Mortensen.

    I’m also struck that there are no great female villains. I don’t watch a ton of films, but are there really so few roles for female villains?

  5. Kevin Mattison says:

    I get where you’re coming from with Harris, but I have to respectfully disagree. I think Harris himself was playing a part, which is revealed steadily as the film moves along. The key to that character is the brief glimpses of fear we get. The discomfort he projects during the scene with his co-workers (The ones who don’t buy into his BS, that is). It’s all in his face.

    As far as humanity goes, I’ll have to disagree there as well. His humanity is his fear. Alonzo may have forgotten how to care about anyone else, but he’s certainly aware of his own mortality. He fears the men who are after him. They’ve brought him straight back to earth. This guy DID think King Kong had nothing on him. Then he met King Kong. I think if you were going to make an argument for lack of humanity The Joker or, better yet, Anton Chigurh are better subjects.

    Nick Naylor is a great character, but a it too softly handled for me to consider him a villain. There’s a better argument for Nikolai Luzhin, who I must admit I forgot. Still, I’m not sure I feel like his presence is quite as powerful as these other fellows.

    I’m not a terribly big fan of “A History of Violence”. I have a hard time viewing Tom Stall as a villain because he’s trying to do right (even if he’s not terribly aware of what right is, exactly). If anyone’s the villain in that flick it’s Richie Cusack. Tom’s just trying to live his new life. Also, I’m not a big fan of “A History of Violence” ; ).

    I think there are few good roles for females period, which is a shame ( Still, you’re not wrong. Miranda Priestly wouldn’t have been a bad choice. I’m certainly open to some suggestions.

    • Gavin Craig says:

      Kudos for citing the Bechdel test. Extra points if you can name Alison Bechdel’s two major works without running to Wikipedia. (Then run to Wikipedia if you must. They’re both worth reading.)

  6. Kevin Mattison says:

    I’m hip to “Dykes to watch out for”. Number two eludes me…. Wikipedia, here I come!

  7. Dirk says:

    Li’l Dice from “City of God”. He should be at number one on the list…

  8. Cliff W says:

    No doubt Kingsley stole the show in Sexy Beast, but the really brief time given to Ian McShane’s character was pretty villian-tastic as well—a chilling, unnerving yin to Don Logan’s aggressive, harassing yang. The last quarter of that movie always felt tacked on and I hoped they’d pick up McShane’s character and do something deeper in another film.

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      Yeah, Ian McShane’s pretty great. His crowning moment is the scene in the car when he drops Gal off after the job. “If I even cared a little…”. Great stuff.

  9. Lincoln says:

    I’m too lazy to look it up but no way NCFOM is 2005.

  10. Martin says:

    Col. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds (2009) is the best movie villain I’ve seen, period. And he’s not even on your list!?

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      He’s a great villain for sure, but I didn’t feel like he took the film over the way these guys did. There’s plenty more going on in “Basterds”. Solid choice though. That’s what the comments section’s for!

    • Dan Dreifort says:

      Good call. Landa was pure villain. I’m also a huge Senator Palpatine fan.

  11. Danny says:

    Billy Mitchell in The King of Kong

  12. Dan Dreifort says:

    Training Day?! Scratch that garbage and replace it with Senator Palpatine and you’ve got yourself a list! ;)

    • AVGW says:

      SERIOUSLY. Training Day. Well, I spent my load explaining how I felt about the main character, so just consider that my feeling for the whole movie. What a terrible film: “White kid, black people are every bit as scary as you imagined.” AWFUL.

      • Kevin Mattison says:

        I think I spent my load on that one as well. We’ll have to agree to disagree about Training Day.

        As far as Senator Palpatine goes, I have to assume you’re referring to the prequels and I’m having a hard time imagining anything about those films ending up on a best of list! You wanna talk about Emperor Palpatine? Then I might be down. Wrong decade though : ) Thanks for the comment, Dan.

  13. Alain says:

    Guys I’m surprised that no one mentioned here the movie Oldboy and the excellent Min-sik Choi. Also, what about Paul Bettany from the movie Gangster No. 1. Was he not goddam crazy?

  14. Alain says:

    And *do not forget* Sergi López from Harry, he’s here to help. This looks like yet another thread on movies in English. Educate yourself and watch movies from abroad, and learn to read the subtitles you bunch of lazy basterds! :)

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      I appreciate your input, Alain, but the list isn’t about proving how many foreign films I watch. That being said, it’s nice that this thread might be a means by which people can discover new films. I enjoyed Old Boy, but don’t think Min-sik Choi is “larger than life”. Just my opinion. And to be fair, I haven’t seen “Gangster No. 1”. Consider it added to my list. Thanks, Alain.

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