by Emily PackerEver since William Blake declared Milton to be of the Devil’s party without knowing it, artists in all media have relied on exceptional villains to provide a creative jolt to old storylines, and add a certain measure of twisted appeal to their dramatic repertoire. In the world of film, where directors have visual as well as verbal means at hand, some villains become so iconic as to eclipse not only their virtuous opponents, but the movies in which they appear altogether.
The villains that linger longest in the public consciousness – Dracula, Frankenstein, even the Joker – are not so much men as magnificent monsters. They hover before us not as human beings but as collections of visual cues or as personifications of a horrible ideal. For instance, Darth Vader, that hoary old devil of science fiction, once petrified audiences with no more than a face-masking helmet and an unnatural union of man and machine. So famous are Vader’s voice and appearance that his past and his eventual redemption are almost beside the point; when we think of Star Wars’ most famous villain, we think not of his rather hackneyed character-arc but of the heavy breathing, the easily-parodied catchphrases and the inability to retain qualified subordinates.
Yet however enduring these eminent monsters, portraying them in film is often a thankless job; think only of how many tired jokes James Earl Jones must have to endure in the queue at the supermarket. Assignments in villainy that yield more productive careers – and Oscars – tend to be of a more subtle sort; evil that is equally foreign and implacable, but hidden behind an unlikely face. One such face is that of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in a much-lauded adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In Kesey’s novel, the author’s misogyny flexes itself in a portrayal of mental-hospital warden as lurid, emasculating witch. But the film departs from the book in the inspired casting of an actress who is girlishly plump, superlatively average: exactly the sort of mild, beleaguered professional whom you’d expect to find in the whitewashed halls of a sterile ward. When she halts the rebellious hero in his tracks with a rebuff in that bland, serenely infantilising coo, we perceive just as he does that he is up against an institution incarnate; an ethos of control unassailable by mortal man.
Under the aegis of a Czech director, Nurse Ratched becomes not only a single power-mad official but a symbol for the social oppression perpetrated by Communism and all systems like it. The Nurse belongs, in that capacity, to another popular category of adversary: villain as social diagnosis, bringing to life the disturbing extremes beneath a familiar cultural or national cliché. In American Psycho, Christian Bale, trimmed and buffed to a gym-bland perfection, plays Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street shark so consumed by the quest for money and status that he murders a colleague who one-ups him with a supremely elegant new business card. “Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it,” deadpans Bale, the very voice of helpless envy. “Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.” Bale’s performance transforms a lone psychopath into a rather hilarious satire on a culture that pursues the most exclusive dinner reservations, office stationery, and – at least in this instance – thrill kills simply to escape ennui.
Yet however compelling a Vader or a Ratched or a Bateman, they are ultimately the object of our gaze rather than the agent of it; we marvel at them, but we do not inhabit them. It takes a more recognisably human villain to submerge the viewer in the mind of a fiend. For instance, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley plays deftly with the viewer’s social instincts by exploring how old class resentments can curdle into murderous rage in the psyche of a scrawny everyman. Mistaken by a shipping magnate for a college friend of his son’s, restroom attendant Tom Ripley lies his way into an all-expenses-paid vacation to Italy to reclaim the errant scion. Having met his quarry and succumbed by slow degrees to obsessive jealousy, Ripley brutally murders the dissolute heir on his boat. Yet as Minghella again and again contrasts our weedy villain with his rich, handsome, leisured counterpart, he summons the latent sympathies of the nerdy, ostracized young exile inside all of us, and we are left with the furtive feeling that the golden playboy perhaps got what he deserved. A villain of the Ripley sort often becomes the film’s most sympathetic protagonist, because he is an outcast in a world of glittering insiders, a man with whom we can easily, though reluctantly, identify. It is very easy to see oneself as a Salieri, for instance, but much less so to imagine oneself a Mozart – so our affinities are at once with the thwarted and scheming mediocrity, not the giggling, filthy-minded imp blessed by the gods.
The Ripleys and Salieris of the world of film are, to me, its most frightening villains. Very few of us will ever have to reckon with Dracula or Leatherface in a dark alley, but each of us might become the prey of a resentful rival, or be tricked by these same vengeful victims into unwilling empathy. The most memorable villainy is in the end that which is closest to home: the dangerous gleam in a neighbour’s eye, the flickering shadow at the end of a dark lane, or the suspicion that even you, in a certain set of circumstances, could somehow find yourself as the black hat.