Charismatic Movie Villains

I mentioned the other day that in general I root for villains because villains have more class. That’s a bit of sweeping statement, sure, but think about it: who’s ultimately cooler, Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker? The good guys might have the moral high ground, but the bad guys have more class. I mean (staying with Star Wars for a second) Luke’s a good, wholesome farmboy, a jedi and a freedom fighter. But Darth Vader is a seven-foot-tall cyborg voiced by James Earl Jones. Luke has two cute robots. Darth Vader has a death star, all these cool stormtrooper dudes and a red lightsaber. Purely from a design point of view, I have to hand it to The Empire. I’ll take colour-coded uniforms and military aesthetic over farm-boy charm and cobbled together, crappy spaceships. So I’m rooting for The Empire. Star Wars is a big disappointment for me.
And things aren’t so black and white – the rebellion doesn’t really have the moral high ground, as was pointed out in this infamous scene from Clerks:
One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. So maybe rooting for the bad guys isn’t always so bad. I have a list of characters (call it a fantasy dinner party) that I think transgress from the purely evil to the big grey area in the middle, purely because of how cool and charismatic they are.
Hans Gruber, Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. If we’re sitting at the table, eating turkey and doing that thing with the crackers, and you turn on the TV, you’d better hope to god it’s not It’s A Wonderful Life playing because I will punch you in the face. I can’t bear It’s A Wonderful Life because it’s a sappy, achingly sweet movie, and whenever I watch movies of that calibre I can feel a hole, widening in the sun, blotting out everything, and then I get this empty feeling and I wake up covered in blood and moaning. Come on, who hasn’t had a few christmasses like that?
But if you put on Die Hard we can be friends. It’s a story about a couple reuniting at Christmas, and people getting shot in the face, and gratuitous uses of the word “motherfucker”. That’s the sort of thing that warms my heart.
And also Alan Rickman, who is a boss in many capacities, not least in his ability to turn a German terrorist bastard into quite a likable character. Hell, he even defends Hans Gruber:
Sil, Species (1997)
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Natasha Henstridge plays a blonde woman who’s also a monster (designed by HR Giger, who also did Alien) who has sex with men and kills them. And she gets naked. Quite a lot. I’m thinking that the main draw of Species is not plot structure. It’s also not fair that my ideal woman is actually a man-killer from space.I mean sure, she looks like this underneath:
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But she also looks like this:
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It’s very confusing. Do I have anything in particular to say about Species? No. I’m just using it as an excuse to post pictures of Natasha Henstridge.
Dammit I totally lost my train of thought.
Dorian Gray, The Picture of Dorian Gray (2009)
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I have this idea for an academic paper about the rise of the Victorian psychopath, and a large part of the paper is concerned with Dorian Gray. A narcissistic, childish social fixture with very little regard for consequence or morality, Dorian Gray lives unchanged by the horrors he perpetrates. A lot of the book only alludes to the terrible things he does (including homosexual acts, because this was the Victorian era) while successive films portray things more clearly. the most recent iteration spends a lavish amount of time on what it is that Dorian Gray does (murder, BDSM and juicy sex scenes) and more or less makes it obvious that above all Dorian Gray is devoted to short-term sensual pleasures. Anyone who’s read Herbert Cleckey’s study of psychopaths with recognise these symptoms more or less immediately. Dorian Gray is totally nutso.
But when he’s not being nutso he’s a surprisingly nice guy, wanting to leave his horrible, awesome life behind and get to know the daughter of his closest friend (this was totally added in for the movie – it doesn’t exist in Wilde’s original novel) and he seems to express genuine, or simulated, remorse. But my point is this: Dorian Gray is the first example of the grand tradition of sympathetic psychopaths that includes Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan. It all starts with him.
Roy Batty, Blade Runner (1982)
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The unstoppable killer robot hell-bent on meeting his maker, Roy is the most realistic of all the characters in Blade Runner. Faced with a life with no resolution and no answers from his maker, and preprogrammed to die, Roy relents, saving Deckard from certain death and delivering a monologue where he expresses sadness that his memories – the things that make him unique – will no longer persist in the world. Realizing his own mortality is the turning point for Roy – no longer an unstoppable cyborg who can do what he pleases, Roy recognises that life is fleeting and transient, and that his own death is imminent:
Kurtz, Apocalypse Now (1979)
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“I watched a snail crawling along a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering..along the edge…of a straight…razor…and surviving.”
Madness has a face – Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. I don’t talk often enough about that film because when I do I get all emotional. It is the perfect war movie. A war movie that sums up the horror that people visit on each other for territory or due to their beliefs. And the point is that Kurtz is not mad – not in a world where things like Vietnam can happen. He’s sane because he recognizes the horror of the war and the sheer unstoppable brutality of man. Marlowe, the man sent to capture him, is led on a path through the centre of the war to meet Kurtz, and the film is about his dawning revelation that his mission, his employer, and the whole world is as mad as Kurtz.
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