Oh Villainy, Thy Name Is Man!

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

January 10, 2008

The Devils And Daniel Plainview: Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, one of American cinemas forerunners of evil, in "Night Of The Hunter"; Denzel Washington as LAPD officer Alonzo Harris in "Training Day"; Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood", and the poster of the film "No Country For Old Men", with the haunting presence of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh.  Of these four, Mr. Washington received a Best Actor Oscar in 2002 for his role.  Both Mr. Day-Lewis and Mr. Bardem however, are expected to be nominated on January 22 when the Academy Award nominations are announced, with both likely to go and win in February.  (Photos: MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films respectively)


Many a villain has made an indelible mark on the big screen over the years, whether in films like “Citizen Kane”, “Touch of Evil”, “Chinatown”, and a host of others.  Years after his death, Robert Mitchum still stands out as evil incarnate in Charles Laughton’s “Night Of The Hunter” as the wicked Preacher Harry Powell, and as Max Cady in J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear”, three decades before Robert De Niro’s Cady terrified audiences in Martin Scorsese’s remake in the early nineties.  Mitchum played the heavy in films to a tee, but he could also be sympathetic as a good-guy down on his luck.  Some of the actors in the films mentioned received Academy Award nominations for their work.  So far in this nascent 21st century, many actors have shredded the screen with their bad-guy portrayals.  Women too, and machines like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” have cultivated unforgettable menace and marauding in films.  Whether it was Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?”, Jessica Walter in “Play Misty For Me”; Louise Fletcher in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”, Kathy Bates in “Misery” or Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction”, to name just a few, there are no shortage of significant mean Mrs. Mustards on the big screen.  In this new century and for all time, men unsurprisingly continue to corner the market in bad-to-the-bone audacity.

Within the last seven years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given its seal of approval to men behaving badly forever, with nominations or rewards of Oscar.  Baddies in recent films have been most notable standouts for their ferocity, unapologetic fervor and immorality.  Some of these portrayals are more complex than others but all are unrelenting in their malevolence.  Sir Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan was le pit-bull extraordinaire in Jonathan Glazer’s seductive and turbo-charged “Sexy Beast” (2001) and there was no stopping him.  Don acknowledges his weaknesses albeit for a split second in conversation with Gal (Ray Winstone), whom he is trying to aggressively recruit for one last London bank heist, and he is bitterly forceful.  After Gal, weary from sleep has politely refused Don’s request, Don unleashes a fusillade of affirmatives.  “YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!”  Throughout, Mr. Kingsley’s Don never comes up for air, for taking a breath is surely seen as a sign of weakness, yet Don is probably the weakest link in the chain, low in the pecking order of the bank thieves, inferior, whether it is the Napoleonic complex that masks his insecurities or Ian McShane’s lead thief character’s more subtle bad-guy traits.  At the end of the day, Mr. Kingsley received a supporting actor Oscar nomination in 2002 for his work.

The 21st century Oscar also has rewarded the nice-guy clean-cut actor or personality who decides to take a turn for the worst or the baddest in film portrayals.  Two recent examples are Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, both of whom have directed, and both of whom are widely- respected and liked by their peers and fans.  They are onscreen now in Mr. Washington’s “The Great Debaters”.  In the same year Mr. Kingsley electrified audiences in “Sexy Beast”, Mr. Washington repelled them with his depiction of Alonzo Harris, a ruthless LAPD narcotics police officer who schools Ethan Hawke’s green Hoyt in Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day”.  He is ominously charismatic as Alonzo, and in one telling moment he says to Hoyt, in a complex and moving piece of acting “that you’ve got to make change happen from the inside.”  Alonzo is almost tearing up as he says this, and has already offered some lessons that Hoyt won’t soon forget.  After adding one big scalp in the narcotics kingpin wall of shame, Alonzo says to Hoyt: “I watched this cocksucker deal dope to kids with impunity for ten years and now I got him!”  As Alonzo utters those final five words, self-righteousness burgeons, and that righteousness is aggrandized to maximum effect in one of the climactic scenes of Mr. Fuqua’s film with Alonzo’s pronouncement: “I’m the man up in this beast!  I run shit here, you just live here!”  Alonzo thinks he plays by the rules of the street, but the laws of nature and karma have caught him and he’s been outfoxed by forces both greater and smaller than he anticipated.  (You can insert Ned Beatty’s “Network” moment here: “You sir, have meddled with the primal forces of nature.  And you will ATONE!”)  The Academy lauded Denzel-as-demon, and awarded Mr. Washington his second Oscar (his first Best Actor accolade.) 

“Debaters” co-star Mr. Whitaker is one of the most likable and soft-spoken actors off-screen but as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin tore through Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland” with a fervor unrivaled in any lead acting performance so far this century.  Mr. Whitaker’s Amin is given an Ogre-like status that mirrors the real-life Amin, who passed away in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003.  The director of “Waiting To Exhale” gave Amin a psychotic visage and a tenderness that was shattering, and his trust in the fictional character played by James McAvoy reveals some of the most priceless moments of acting in their scenes together.  We feared his menace, his turn-on-a-ragged dime disposition, and were galvanized by Whitaker’s electricity.  And the Academy voters were also.

Even in supporting roles in films like last year’s “No Country For Old Men”, come characters who tower over the main actors.  The film’s poster sets up the trap of evil incarnate with Javier Bardem’s giant hollow eyes hauntingly presiding over the miniature-sized Josh Brolin, who as Llewellyn Moss is ostensibly the film’s lead, even though the film is narrated by Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.  All three actors deserve Oscar nominations for their work in the best Coen Brothers film to date, but it is safe to say that of the three Mr. Bardem is most likely to receive one as Anton Chigurh, a soulless terminator without a pause.  Whenever Chigurh talks the air inside the movie theater, as well as in the viewer’s blood, is likely to go cold or simply freeze.  Mr. Bardem’s chilling portrayal is as close to a real-life serial killer one can get: he never stops even when he’s wounded in his Achilles heel and when being captured is not an option.  One of the film’s most powerful and understated scenes because of its implication occurs when Chigurh accosts a mom-and-pop store owner, whom he tells to keep a quarter coin.  Their exchange is fraught with tension, danger and deep fear.  Mr. Bardem however, should not fear the Academy’s reaction to his work during the last calendar year (he also starred in “Love In The Time of Cholera”) when January 22 arrives.

Another fearless soul on nominations morning should be Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s well-crafted “There Will Be Blood”.  Mr. Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for a best actor nomination.  He gives the second-best performance of the new century as an oil man whose misanthropy is barely concealed.  A big cinematic clue to the evil heart that lurks within him arrives right at the very beginning in an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, with Johnny Holliday’s piercing score sequence resonant amidst a sunny, open expanse of blue sky and mountainous landscape.  Plainview is apelike, hammering away deep below the ground, a figure anything but dormant in a primordial soup of what will eventually be oil.  Like an animal, he doesn’t give in as his hunter-gatherer instincts are fully intact despite prior failures to strike it oil-rich.  Daniel Plainview is an island of oil, a self-worshipping mess of liquid sable, and he is married to himself, or perhaps, because he hates people to the core he is married to his own self-hatred.  Only the thrill of pillaging from others’ land keeps him sated, if not sane.  At one point in "Blood" there is an iconic shot of the back of Plainview as he is covered in oil.  Something in that shot screams tragedy and heartache, not menace and mayhem.

Mr. Day-Lewis who won an Oscar in 1990 for “My Left Foot”, has played a menacing character before, in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs Of New York” (2002) as Butcher Bill.  He had a steely-eyed menace, but lacked charisma, as if Bill himself was a cardboard incarnation.  The following February in a surprise, Adrien Brody would win for "The Pianist" playing legendary pianist Vladyslaw Szpilman, but this time around should Mr. Day-Lewis secure the expected nomination, he is likely not to be denied a second time. 

What is true of all of these 21st century cinematic villains is that they aren't cartoons.  The screenplays -- most of them very finely-tuned with the exception of David Ayers's "Training Day" -- make them human, the actors make them complex, and though Mr. Day-Lewis in his portrayal of Daniel Plainview comes closest of the actors mentioned to hamming it up, he stops just prior to the point of no return.  Mr. Day-Lewis has some unforgettable scenes in completely silent moments as well as raucous and highly theatrical ones.  Another actor, Sergi Lopez, evil to the core in "Dirty Pretty Things" (2003) and especially "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) was a quieter but flashier villain whose bad boy designs smacked of the macabre more than the madcap.

There are villains from recent films of the prior century that carry weight but may not be as indelible as the performers detailed here but ala Mr. Washington's play against type in "Training Day" still made audiences if not Academy voters sit up and take notice.  Tom Cruise went full-fledged bad guy as contract killer Vincent in Michael Mann's "Collateral" (2004), although one can posit that Mr. Cruise had already tried his hand at stepping to the bad side with roles in "Rain Man" (1988) as the selfish younger brother to Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant, in "Interview With The Vampire" (1994) as the vampire Lestat; as the misogynist who has disowned his father in Mr. Anderson's epic "Magnolia" (1999), and as the self-absorbed somnambulist David Aames in "Vanilla Sky" (2001).  By the same token Tom Hanks, Hollywood's undisputed perennial nice-guy, went rotten-apple-to-the-core on us with his portrayal of a cold blooded killer in "The Road To Perdition" (2003), which featured Paul Newman.  Neither Mr. Cruise nor Mr. Hanks was nominated for an Oscar, but both, especially Mr. Cruise, was memorable.

Clive Owen was memorable as the smarmy louse Larry in Mike Nichols "Closer" (2004) and received a supporting actor Oscar nomination.  Larry wanted his cake and got to eat it too, and he loved it.  Larry could be a distant cousin to Chad, the make-them-then break-them lady-killer of the corporate office in Neil LaBute's "In The Company Of Men" (1997), a harsh film which sticks its incorrect behavior in your face and says, "smell this".  Chad, who spends much of the time doting on a female office colleague who is deaf, while telling some of the most offensive "jokes" about women that one can have the disdain of hearing.  Chad, a white, athletic golden-boy type, doesn't spare black people his wrath either, particularly in one scene where he completely shreds a co-worker, ridiculing him for the way he speaks, using purposeful hyperbole to make the point, flaunting his racism openly and unabashedly.  The Texaco "jelly bean" boardroom racial slur civil litigation was going on at around the same time in the news, and Mr. LaBute's film was a powerful reminder of it.  Chad's greatest damage however, was done to his co-worker buddy Howard, whom he has roped in from the beginning, ultimately breaking his weak heart by film's end.  Aaron Eckhart, who played Chad, has repeatedly told of instances where several women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan actually confronted him while he walked the city streets, one even going so far as to slap him in the face, admonishing him for playing such a character.  Mr. Eckhart will not likely be nice later this year either, in Alan Ball's film "Towelhead", in which he plays a redneck.  (The film will get its premiere at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in a matter of days.)

It would be fascinating to imagine what all of these wounded amoral souls would say to each other if they shared the same prison cell, or were at a Killing Spree Anonymous meeting or more aptly, a Wicked Hearts lecture circuit, touring the world with their evil hearts firmly unbounded.  What on earth would Sir Ben Kingsley's Gandhi say to Don Logan?  What would Robert Mitchum's Lt. Elgart of Scorsese's "Cape Fear" say to Mr. Mitchum's Max Cady of the original "Cape Fear" (besides "get a lawyer, buddy"?)  What would Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin say to James Farmer, Snr. of "The Great Debaters"?  What would Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh say to Florentino Ariza of "Love in the Time of Cholera"?  He might engage Florentino in a philosophical conversation before doing what he does so many times in the latest Coen Brothers film.  Or he might instead grow strangely sympathetic towards the tender-heart who has waited some 53 years for the woman he has loved for a lifetime to marry him, tossing a coin in the air while saying to him, "call it, friend-o".  

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

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