Where This Meets That
Good villains give us personal stake in a film. Sometimes they are effective simply because they give weight to our hero’s cause. Other times, villains simply give us a magnet for our animosities; we love to hate them for their dastardly deeds. A few manage to take it beyond the movie; in them, we might recognize something of ourselves – or at least of something from our own lives – and they actually feel a little important on some level that bleeds off the screen and into the larger world.
I thought it would be fun to assemble a list of ten top villains from the world of cinema. I’ve decided to leave off some obvious ones, such as HAL 9000, Darth Vader, and Gollum, because, despite their cultural significance, they were largely products of the studio, Vader being voiced by someone other than the actor who portrayed him and Gollum being greatly computer enhanced.
Cutting out those cinematic zeitgeists actually made this process a lot more difficult. I thought momentarily about expanding it to 20 but thought that would be cheating, compared to my original goal. Therefore, I’ll settle that dilemma by starting with . . .
The Top 10 who didn’t make the Top 10:
Clubber Lang (Mr. T) – Rocky III (1982)
Khan Noonien (Ricardo Montalban) – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Keyser Soze (Kevin Spacey) – The Usual Suspects (1995)
John Doe (Kevin Spacey) – SE7EN (1995)
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) – The Departed
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) – The Shining (1980)
Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam) – Sling Blade (1996)
King Edward “Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) – Braveheart (1995)
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) – The Godfather (1972)
Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) – Basic Instinct (1992)
Now . . . on to the real Top 10! Here go the first five.
10. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) – There Will Be Blood (2007)
Perhaps Plainview is not a villain so much as just a loathsome individual, for even though he personally kills two people in the film, he does so as a condemnation of their falsehoods committed towards him. But loathsome as he is, he has a wry charm about him. He is a self-made oilman who, aside from the arguably genuine tenderness he occasionally shows for children, is benevolent only as it is required to further his own success. After some drinks, he confesses to his brother’s impostor that he simply doesn’t like people. At the same time, he does love his son H.W.. Even as he heckles and berates H.W. in the film’s penultimate scene, reducing him to “just a bastard in a box”, he might do so as a means to liberating his son from his own corrosive ways. Lewis’s portrayal of Plainview is one of the most authentic performances anywhere.
9. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) – Platoon (1986)
Barnes, as much as anyone on this list, embodies evil. His moral counterpart in the film, Sergeant Elias (played by Willem Dafoe), denies this to his own end, explaining Barnes’s brutish ways by saying, “He still believes in the war”. As the film proceeds, though, Barnes oversees the razing of an ancient Vietnamese village and massacre of its people before turning on fellow American soldiers, killing Elias in an iconic scene. Prevalently scarred by battles gone by, his entire persona seems born for war, regardless of the foe.
8. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) – Die Hard (1988)
Polished, professional, and debonair, kind of like the guy who you sold you your wife’s engagement ring but much more dangerous (depending on where you bought your ring). Gruber is a former member of a West German radical group who has his eyes set on stealing $640M in bonds from the Nakatomi Corporation in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. He fully understands the protocols followed by the federal agents deployed to stop him and manipulates them to his own advantage. He knows his most extreme leverage points to get what he’s after, and he has no qualms about leveraging them, regardless of how many lives they cost.
7. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – No Country for Old Men (2007)
A hitman with a soul sleek and black as obsidian. For Chigurh, killing is as casual as a handshake; he can do it with a smile. His depravity is demonstrated throughout the film as he disposes random victims he encounters with no more thought than an occasional coin flip.
6. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Occasionally, an individual performance makes an entire film worth watching. Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (see above) are a few examples. If I came away from Pan’s Labyrinth with anything certain after the first viewing, it was that Sergi Lopez’s performance shaped one of the strongest villain characters I’d ever seen. He is the paradigm of fascist rule, worshipping order and mad to control the workings of everyone and everything around him. He is appointed to rout out surrounding rebels of Franco’s Spanish rule, and he works ruthlessly to do so.
Click HERE for my TOP 5 all time movie villains!