“A hero is a hero, but everybody loves a great villain.” – Ferb, Phineas & Ferb
I wrote previously about a conversation with a young film enthusiast and how it led to a discussion of heroes. We also talked about villains. “What makes a great villain?” At that point, we parted paths, so that just kind of hung out there, in the air and in the corner of my mind, nagging at me.
Heroes tend to be a bit easier because, no matter how messy they are, at the core they just want what’s right, what’s fair, what’s just. A villain is more of a balancing act: they have to be menacing to the point you think they might prevail (and in some cases, evil does prevail), but they also can’t turn into a gasbag who can’t cash the check his ass is writing. For example, Bond villains. They tend to lack any true menace, and I’ve always been pretty sure that – given a baseball bat and a couple of minutes to go to work with it – that I could have absolutely wrecked Goldfinger, Le Chiffre, Sir Hugo Drax, etc., weeks before their ludicrous plans every came to fruition.
One of my favorite examples of how this menace-follow through balancing act can work is a character from both literature and film: Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is a contract killer for pay, although destiny has selected him to be an agent of chaos, a coin flip determining who will live and who will die as the poor unknowing wander into his path.
What interests me is the difference in Chigurh’s impact when you compare Cormack McCarthy’s gritty novel to the faithful screen adaptation by the Coen brothers. In the novel, I feel like the impact comes from the reaction by Chirgurh’s victims, particularly the effect on Sheriff Bell. Make no mistake, Tommy Lee Jones does a terrific job in the movie, slowly weakening at the knees as he realizes the evil he is facing. That said, I’m more shaken by just how much Bell is shaken in McCarthy’s novel. The depth to which Chigurh’s killing spree shakes Bell’s faith and perception of the world as it is and was comes across clearer, harder in print.
In the movie, Chigurh is brought to life by Javier Bardem’s performance. Bardem’s Chigurh is magnetic. The viewer is sucked in by Chigurh’s dark-eyed intensity in all manners, his obedience to the randomness of fate. Whenever Chigurh is on screen, there is a pit in the viewer’s stomach, that queasy feeling that something is going to happen and it will not be good, it will not end well. The scene where Chigurh flips a coin for the life of a gas station attendant is chilling and sickening. When Carla Jean Moss (in a brief but awesome piece of acting by Kelly Macdonald) refuses to play Chigurh’s game near the end of the movie, the fear and anticipation mount further. Plus the effect Moss’s refusal to play Chigurh’s game really throws a curve to the killer. Well played, well written and well directed.
The same character, the same story, the same menace … but done in a slightly different way to slightly different effect. It’s a perfect mesh of long-form written fiction and the screen portrayal of the same story.