Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Top Ten Movie Villains

A lead character in a movie facing ethical and moral dilemmas is pretty common. A character who doesn't struggle doesn't typically serve for much drama or emotional investment in the story. It's also common for lead characters to make mistakes. Criminal protagonists require this, as they're already working outside most peoples moral code. This might us the chance to ask ourselves, is there a motive strong enough to justify, killing, stealing, or many other moral transgressions. Typically however, even a character who kills people for a living has some code to live by, and some line he won't cross. Most of all, for us to care about a character, whatever his stance, we need to see his/her humanity. A man who kills people for a living, is not necessarily the same as a man who enjoys killing people for a living, or for his own amusement. Questions of evil are often relative, and we may even cheer a character who has no choice but to kill to save his own life or those of others.  A man who commits a crime as it's the only way he can raise the money to save a relatives's life. Sometimes we can admire a character's drive or ambition, as long as innocents aren't really hurt.  A real villain however, elicits no sympathy, which is why they're rarely cast as the leads in film. They typically care about nothing and no one, and will commit whatever deed necessary to further their own ends. The best villains, make us care more about our protagonist, who always looks better by comparison. Villains make the leads more important. As the Buddhist saying says "What is a bad man, but a good man's job?" Many times it's the bad man that reminds the main character of whatever good he himself possesses.

Obviously there are many others, and I hope you feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. I chose to stick with the fairly grounded characters, as I'm sure you could likely get another ten out of sci-fi and fantasy movies. I've also elected to only use one role per actor as many below have had other roles that would make my list. Daniel Day Lewis, for example, played "Bill the Butcher" in "Gangs of New York" but (in my opinion) Bill the Butcher never reached his villain potential as I didn't find DiCaprio a believable adversary. Daniel Plainview on the other hand feels like a more affecting monster.

10. Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman, The Professional)

Full Review

Norman Stansfield is a powerful DEA Agent with a personal drug problem and a lucrative business based on the drugs he should be getting off the street. He has an uncontrollable temper and no tolerance for betrayal or any risk to his established position. When Stansfield kills a man for not having his money, (after discussing why Beethoven with him) he also decides to kill the whole family. He misses one the kids though, the young girl Mathilde (Natalie Portman) who is taken in by top class hit man Leon (Jean Reno) Mathilde doesn't care about her abusive father, but wants Stansfied to pay for killing her baby brother. She enlists Leon's help, but can't resist trying for Stansfield herself, only to discover, he's more formidable and twisted than she could've imagined. He effortlessly confronts her in a restroom and asks her if she likes life. When she says Yes he tells her, "That's good, because I take no pleasure in taking life if it's from a person who doesn't care about it." Mathilde doesn't have a chance, and despite Leon rescuing her from the DEA office, Stansfield is obsessed with killing Mathilde to tie up his loose ends. He sets his sights on Leon, showing how truly formidable he really is. After Leon dismantles everyone sent after him, Stansfield shoots him in the back. However, he doesn't plan for Leon being willing to give his life to save Mathilde, blowing himself up as Stansfield gloats, and fulfilling his contract with Mathilde. Stansfield is as evil as they come, thinking nothing of shooting children or innocents in cold blood if it furthers his goals.

9. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Full Review

Nurse Ratched is very comfortable as the emotionless head nurse of a mental institution. She calmly revokes necessities from patients in order to keep things orderly. She easily terrifies all of the patients, who know better than to cross her. That changes when McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has himself admitted in a scheme to get out of serving jail time. He seems to take pleasure in challenging any rules, especially hers. More troubling to her is the fact that McMurphy inspires the other patients to stand up to her authority. Her low key manipulation quickly turns more brutal. She abuses the patients and McMurphy flagrantly in any way necessary to crush their spirits. McMurphy is as chaotic as she is orderly, and their clash has severe consequences. In a meeting with the institution head staff, she agrees that while McMurphy is sane, she will keep him there anyway to ensure that he's punished for challenging her. She doesn't blink at the thought of subjecting him to shock therapy. In a pivotal moment she brutally humiliates weak minded Billy Bibbitt to the point where he kills himself. Even this doesn't cause her to show an ounce of emotion, and McMurphy finally loses his temper, choking and almost killing Nurse Ratched (which does change her expression briefly) McMurphy is rewarded with a lobotomy, becoming a vegetable until his friend Chief mercifully suffocates him and escapes, leaving Nurse Ratched (in a neck brace) and the Institution behind.

8. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, American Psycho)

Patrick Bateman works on Wall Street as an investment banker and obsessing with his rich like minded associates about nearly invisible differences in business cards and other status markers. Facial cleansing masks and workout routines do nothing to quell his sense that he's empty inside. His  emptiness and drive to be noticed lead him to take up murder as a new hobby. In Bateman's world, he is indistinguishable from his associates which bothers his need to be noticed. He kills the homeless, prostitutes (after fulfilling a sexual fantasy which is mostly watching himself have sex in a mirror) and rival, Paul Allen, who had a nicer business card than him. His murders frequently involve him lecturing on the differences in Huey Lewis and Phil Collins albums, as if to educate his victims before they die. Ultimately his murders are about getting attention, but in his world this is a useless goal. Visiting an apartment where he kept bodies, he finds everything completely cleaned to avoid stigma which might complicate sale or rental. His murders are mixed with hallucinations, and everything colored by his insanity. His complete confession left on his lawyer's answering machine doesn't solve anything, as he insists that he just saw Paul Allen, revealing that Allen was as indistinguishable as Bateman, leaving him just as shallow and unfulfilled as ever.

7. Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier, Marathon Man)

Dr. Christian Szell was a dentist at Auschwitz, ruthless and skilled in torture. He would bargain with his victims for the gold in their teeth and their fortunes, preferring diamonds. Fleeing Germany with his brother to avoid being charged with war crimes, he hides out for years until learning his brother, en route to claim their diamonds from a safety deposit box, has been killed in an accident. Szell's brother was being watched by secret government agencies, most notably by Henry "Doc" Levy, who hopes that the accident will bring Christian Szell out of hiding, which it does. Szell arrives remarkably well informed and quickly kills Doc, before turning his attention to Doc's younger brother, Babe (Dustin Hoffman.) We learn that Szell has everything under control. He's in collusion with Doc's boss Janeway, who has used Szell to inform on other Nazi criminals. Janeway delivers Babe to Szell, and Babe discovers that his recent girlfriend Elsa, was working for Szell. Although Babe knows very little, Dr. Szell uses his dentistry to make sure, drilling into the nerves of Babe's healthy teeth and demanding "Is it safe?" repeatedly, referring to retrieving the diamonds, which Babe knows little about. Szell is as comforting with cutting a man's throat with a knife in his coat sleeve as he is with dental torture, but ultimately, his greed is his downfall. Babe turns the tables and tells Szell he can keep as many diamonds as he can swallow, which Szell attempts, before Babe dumps them down some scaffolding. Szell goes after them, losing his footing and finding his own blade.

6. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear)

Max spends eight years in prison, for a rape which he committed. He blames attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) for his sentence, and spends his prison time learning all about the law in order to use it to torture Bowden once he's free. Cady quickly makes his presence known to Bowden obviously watching him and his family, while being careful not to break any laws. Out of legal options Bowden arranges for some thugs to beat up Max and scare him off. Max however, easily gives them a beating and knowing Bowden is behind it, threatens to use the knowledge to have Bowden disbarred. Cady makes a special point of paying attention to Bowden's daughter. Cady delights in the tension he creates, making Bowden struggle with his own principles, as the law can't help him at all. Mitchum puts a charming public face on his evil, until he's finally ready to finish his plan. He delivers excruciating tension and torment, not hiding his intentions from Bowden, as watching him squirm for as long as possible is Max's idea of fun.

5. Frank (Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West)

The epitome of the "black hat" as villain in the Western movie. Frank is established very early in a scene where his gang kills an entire family, the McBains, except for a little boy, who comes out of the house just afterwards. Rather than leave it to his men, Frank himself puts a bullet in the child himself. The now dead McBain's wife soon arrives however, ruining Frank's attempt to put the land up for grabs. We find that Frank is working for the wealthy Morton, who needs the land to continue his railroad. Morton is not pleased at the murder, only asking Frank to scare the McBains. A stranger nicknamed "Harmonica" (Charles Bronson)begins interfering with Frank's plans.  Harmonica kills some of Frank's men, but later saves Frank's life. He obviously has business with Frank which he won't reveal except "at the point of dying." a proposition Frank agrees to accept. In one of the most riveting showdowns on film, mostly comprised of Bronson and Fonda's eyes in close up, we see that many years ago, Frank hung Harmonica's older brother from an arch in the middle of the desert, propping Harmonica underneath him with a harmonica in his mouth, so that when his strength gave out, he would assist in hanging his own brother.  After the showdown Frank gets the Harmonica back.

4. Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers)

Full Review

Mickey and Mallory play by their own rules, killing for amusement as much as any practical purpose. Devoted only to each other, they're perfectly happy taking on the whole world. The fact that they can't get along doesn't alter their plans at all. Both of of them start out as badly damaged goods, and their first activity as a couple is killing Mallory's family, including her grotesquely abusive father.Their reckless and showy behavior gets them imprisoned and also makes them celebrities celebrated by the media and the public. They're not easily stopped however using a sleazy tabloid true crime show reporter, Wayne Gale, they reunite in a bloody prison escape, which shows that there is a life form that's lower than they are. We're left with the chilling thought that the two sociopaths Mickey and Mallory are retiring in order to raise a family.

3. John Doe (Kevin Spacey, Seven)

John Doe is a killer with convictions. He doesn't particularly care about attention or even his own life, as much as he cares about sending a message. He begins a gruesome killing spree, staging murders to illustrate the seven deadly sins; gluttony, pride, greed, lust, sloth, envy and wrath. The gluttony killing, for example, is a man forced to eat until his stomach burst, and Sloth was chained to his bed for a year.  John Doe appears completely unremarkable,but sees his actions as carrying out a holy mission. Two police detectives, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) the jaded veteran and Mills (Brad Pitt) the idealistic young achiever out to make a name for himself, are charged to find the killer. Unable to catch Doe, they're surprised when he turns himself in with two murders still undetected. They agree to take Doe out into the desert at the promise of information. Doe reveals that he himself is going to be an object lesson as he was guilty of "Envy," towards Mill's relationship with his pretty young wife, who. he claims, he has already paid a visit. Strangely, a delivery truck pulls up at their location with a package for Mills. When he realizes that the package is his wife's head, he can't help but assist Doe in his plan, executing him and providing the illustration of "Wrath."

2. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis, There Will be Blood)

Full Review

Plainview is above all things an opportunist. Even while breaking his leg mining for silver, he doesn't pass up the opportunity to collect and sell what he's mined before draggining himself off to find help. Plainview's main motivation is to become wealthy and soon turns to oil, rather than silver. When one of Plainview's worker's dies in an accident, Plainview takes the man's infant son, referred to as H.W., and passes him off as his own, eventually making his "son" his partner, in order to present himself as a "family" oriented businessman. Plainview is given a tip about an oil rich property by a travelling man named Paul Sunday. He visits the property pretending to be quail hunting, in a ploy to make an offer for a low price. His plan is slightly disrupted by Paul's twin brother Eli, a religious scam artist in waiting, who wants money to build a church. Eli and Plainview have an immediate animosity towards each other, Plainview refusing to pray with Eli despite insistence. Plainview agrees to $5,000 down and $5,000 when the property produces. A drilling explosion costs H.W. his hearing, rather than accompany his child to get help. H.W. is sent away with an employee as his condition makes him less useful than he was before.  Plainview has several oil wells working, but when Eli demands the final payment Plainview beats him and smears him with mud, pointing out his supposed faith healing abilities have done nothing for H.W. A man shows up claiming to be a brother. He's initially embraced by Plainview, but when he discovers the man is a fraud, Plainview kills him without hesitation. Plainview succeeds in becoming quite wealthy, although he trusts no one and becomes completely isolated from the world. WHen H.W. shows up as an adult, asking to be released from their partnership, Plainview shows the depths of his spitefulness, revealing that H.W. was never his real son, taunting him as "a bastard in a basket." Eli Sunday also comes to visit, in order to offer Plainview the chance to obtain a property, that had been unobtainable for years. Plainview reveals that the property doesn't matter anymore, and demands Eli admit he's "a false prophet" Eli complies hoping for money, but Plainview can't resist beating him to death with a bowling pin.  Plainview is a man who starts out as driven, but sacrifices everything good about himself to achieve more. As he tells his fake brother. "I want no one else to succeed " Daniel Day Lewis makes Plainview's madness terrifying.

1. The Joker (Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight)

Quite a few actors have played the Joker, the character himself having a much longer history from Batman comic books. Completely insane, yet incredibly intelligent, he stands out from other Batman villains in that his motivation is not profit, but simply destruction and chaos, making him impossible to appease or truly stop, short of killing him. Jack Nicholson played him very well and entertainingly in the Batman film starring Michael Keaton, but Heath Ledger played the role much darker, showing a glimpse of true and unimaginably dangerous insanity, which is not the conventional and popular version of evil as the opposite of good. Ledger's Joker is an avatar of pain and destruction, fully realized by his role in the destruction of Harvey Dent, an idealistic figure, who is the goodness that inspires people to battle their own cynicism. The twisting of Harvey Dent into the villain Two Face paints the Joker as a figure truly beyond motive based understanding. Credit means nothing to him, he simply enjoys destroying anything he can. The more meaningful it is to others, the more thrill he takes in it's demise. Win or lose don't even matter to him, so much as the act itself. In the Dark Knight, he successfully makes Batman a supporting character in his own story.

So there you have it, my top ten villains at the moment. Feel free to tell me if I missed your favorite. I'd love to hear about it.


Widow_Lady302 said...

Brilliant list...I can tell you I watched 7 once, and it disturbed me so I haven't been able to view it again. Great stuff!

INDBrent said...

Thanks! Yeah I can see that. Seven is a pretty disturbing piece!

Unknown said...

Nice list! I'd also add:

Frank Booth - BLUE VELVET
-Hard to pick one from Lynch's films as he excels at creating memorable villains but I think Hopper's frightening creation tops the list. He does whatever he wants to whomever he wants and the world is a much safer place once he's dispatched.

Hans Gruber - DIE HARD
-Another memorable baddie for the ages. He has no problem gunning down Japanese executives and holding a whole building just for money.

-As good as Kevin Spacey is in SEVEN, I think he's even better and plays an ever better bad guy in this film... Mostly because they use misdirection throughout to throw you off that he's master villain. The final reveal is brilliant, IMO.

It's kinda cliche but...

-Forget the crap prequels, but Vader is a total badass. In the first film he chokes Rebels with the Force, hell, he chokes his own guys when they step out of line! That's pretty hardcore. Not to mention he chops his son's own hand off in a duel. Don't mess with him.

-I'm glad you had a Leone film on your list. I'd say Lee Van Cleef's baddie in this film is just as nasty as Fonda's in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST... case in point: the scene where he pulls a job for a guy, kills a family in the process, then comes back and kills the guy that hired him! Now, that's cold.

INDBrent said...

Thanks J.D.! Those are some great picks I think any one of them could easily fit in the list. As far as

Frank Booth- yes he definitely fits the bill but I view Lynch's characters by different standards than most. He definitely has his own shorthand for evil.

Hans Gruber- Love the character! His villainy is a large part of Die Hard working at all!

Of course Darth Vader would be right at the top, if I was including sci fi. I remember when I first saw him as a kid, he was unlike any character I'd ever seen. Shame about the prequels though!

As fars as "the bad." absolutely. He lived up to the bad and then some! Love that film and Van Cleef was perfectly cast.

Troy Allard said...

I think it's pretty cool that 2 of the movies in the top ten star Christian Bale. One in which he plays the villian(American Physcho), the other the hero.(Dark Knight). I guess they picked the right guy to play Batman, in this movie especially, as he is soo conflicted at times. Although it helps when you have a great butler, to keep you grounded:)

INDBrent said...

Thanks Troy. Bale is without question a talented actor with a lot of range. He does have a good command of "conflicted"

Anonymous said...

Great list Brent, I always enjoy your Top 10's.
My personal favourites here are Mitchum's Max Cady in the original Cape Fear and Henry Fonda's Frank in OUATITW.... and while I agree with J.D. that Lee Van Cleef's "Angel Eyes" was a memorable Leone villain, seeing Fonda playing Frank after spending most of his movie life playing "good guys" in Westerns was very satisfying.
As a massive Leone fan I'd also give an honourable mention to Gian Maria Volonte who was a memorable villain in the Dollars films.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Paul! Yeah Mitchum was great. DeNiro's Cady was good in his own way but Mitchum could show more menace with a look than most actors can when they're really trying. I'm also a big Leone fan and will gladly give mention to Gian Maria Volonte. I so enjoy seeing these suggestions!

Anonymous said...

Fabulous list, Brent, and as usual you have your unique slant. I like the inclusion of Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. Boy was he scary. Sometimes, I invent reasons to say, "Is it safe?" in a sinister way. ;P

JIM said...

great list hard to disagree and I am so glad you included Fonda. His only villain role I believe
I am going to start following you

INDBrent said...

@Sweepyjean, Thanks! Glad you liked it! Lol. Yeah he really gave "Is it safe?" a whole new meaning!

INDBrent said...

@Jim, Thank you! Glad to have you following! Agreed, Fonda's playing against type is what really made the role!

Evil Taylor Hicks said...

Norman Stansfield could be entries 10-1 on this list...."EVERYONE!"

No Anton Chigurh?

INDBrent said...

Yeah Stansfield was great! i thought about Anton, he is a perfect villain, but due to the structure of "No Country for Old Men" his power was a bit diluted (victim of circumstance like everyone else) Still, on another day he would have easily made the list. The coin toss was terrific.

Dave said...

Awesome list, I lIked your choices! But I gotta agree with JD - the exclusion of Hans Gruber was - yes, I'll say it - criminal! :-) And I know you weren't venturing into sci-fi but Robert Patrick was pretty amazing as T-1000 in Terminator 2. Never have I seen a villain with a force of nature as ruthless as his.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Dave! I think Gruber's awesome too, but he's so entertaining! I'd agree about the T-1000, terrific villain, but going with sci-fi I would have to pick Darth Vader before they ruined him, and I can think of a few others. Sci-fi villains are usually terrifying!

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