I’ve finally figured out why we spend so much time treating our political opponents as implacably evil. It’s because Hollywood, which used to offer us villains we could love reviling, seems to have forgotten how to make its bad guys bad.
The other night on “Homeland,” the uber-terrorist the good guys have been chasing for a season and a half finally got to tell his side of the story. As it turns out, he’s not evil. It’s just that his family was blown to bits at the dinner table by a U.S. drone strike.
Oh. All right, then.
Or consider the new James Bond flick, “Skyfall,” where the bad guy, a renegade intelligence agent called Silva, is played by the superbly talented Javier Bardem. Just a few years ago, Bardem portrayed one of the few truly great villains in recent film, the unstoppable killer with the strange weapon in “No Country for Old Men.” His character, Anton Chigurh, is a throwback to the days of the traditional cinema bad guy — remorseless, inexplicable, diabolical.
What makes the traditional villain so terrifying is precisely that he is beyond our comprehension. “Nothing happened to me,” Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling in the novel “The Silence of the Lambs,” when she asks what made him this way. “I happened.”
But so long to all that. In “Skyfall,” Bardem’s not-quite-wicked hacker merely wants revenge for the sad and shameful way he was treated in the past by MI-6. This is a far cry from the classic Bond villains — Dr. No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld and their ilk — who possessed simple, cheesy motives, like taking over the world.
It’s as though the folks who make films don’t think we’ll appreciate an old-fashioned bad guy, the implacable face of evil. They seem to be forgetting what makes a cinematic bad guy so deliciously wicked to watch. The scary movie should be cathartic. The catharsis, as John Kenneth Muir notes in his study of the director Wes Craven, comes from staring absolute evil in the face — and surviving the experience.
Nowadays, even when filmmakers do come up with a brilliant bad guy, they ruin him by giving him a humanizing back story. Lecter was a lot more interesting when he was merely evil rather than the product of an agonizing childhood. Darth Vader was more fun before his wickedness turned out to be the result of adolescent anger and love lost.
Yes, there are still implacable monsters out there, but they tend to be evil corporate honchos — almost always from the banking or petrochemical industries — who lack back stories entirely but know how to hire legions of hit men to protect their profits. People who work for U.S. intelligence can also be evil and remorseless — look at the “Bourne” franchise, where a series of novels about a hero trained to hunt down terrorists becomes a series of films about wicked Central Intelligence Agency officials. (And, as the most casual follower of the “Law and Order” franchise knows, the most dangerous psychopaths are often found in the hallways of exclusive private high schools.)
As to the rest, they’re mostly misunderstood. Even the machines in the “Terminator” films turn out to have a point of view.
What happened to the bad guy who was bad just to be bad? I have in mind the one W.H. Auden described back in the 1940s in his brilliant lectures on Shakespeare: “There is a difference between a villain and one who simply commits a crime. The villain is an extremely conscious person and commits a crime consciously, for its own sake.”
A villain, to be memorable, should have dignity balanced by remorselessness, an implacable integrity in pursuit of his goal. Think the early Vader and Lecter; think Dracula as originally envisioned by Bram Stoker and then by Hollywood, before vampires turned out to be unhappy teenagers; think Auric Goldfinger, who in the book just wants the gold in Fort Knox and will kill whomever he must in order to get it. Think of the killers who drove the “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” franchises in their heyday.
There are still vicious, unreasoning creatures out there. But they tend to be invaders from other planets, or our own former friends and families transformed into hordes of zombies, who exist for the sole purpose of shuffling after us in search of a meal. They are not bad people.
In fairness, Hollywood managed a bit of the old magic with Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” although one had the sense that, but for Ledger’s untimely death, a sequel was in the offing that would have explained what happened to the poor fellow when he was younger. Performances like Ledger’s or Bardem’s Chigurh are memorable in part because they are increasingly rare.
Feminist film theory long ago developed the “final girl” theory of the horror film, in which the audience begins the story from the villain’s point of view, but, by the end, has switched allegiance to the lone heroine, the sole survivor who finally defeats him. Her triumph over evil buoys us.
It’s a lot harder to be buoyed when the bad guy is just another misunderstood everyman. His defeat becomes an occasion not for cheers but for pathos. The cathartic point of the horror is lost amid this moral confusion. We’ve exorcized none of the demons that plague our waking hours.
(On the other hand, maybe Hollywood has learned that there are limits. Even in “Skyfall,” I have a hunch that the filmmakers blinked, leaving on the cutting-room floor even more evidence of Silva’s humanity. Want evidence? Try solving the rather obvious anagram that sits at the center of the story but is mysteriously never mentioned by any of the characters.)
I’m not saying that real-life bad guys don’t have back stories. I’m just saying that escapist movies are more fun when they don’t tell them.
Umberto Eco, in the title essay of his newly published collection, “Inventing the Enemy,” argues “that morality intervenes not when we pretend we have no enemies but when we try to understand them, to put ourselves in their situation.” Perhaps that is true in the real world of international relations. But in the movies, this approach swiftly drains villainy of its fun. If the bad guy is just everybody else, what’s the point of making a movie about him? Onscreen heroes are larger than life, radically different from the rest of us. The villains should be the same way.
Jane Smiley, in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel,” points out that before the 20th century, evil was portrayed in literature “as randomly distributed, causeless, and incorrigible.” It was just there. You could neither evade it nor explain it.
This was the film villain of the 20th century, too, and it’s exactly what made him so thrillingly scary. Once you explain him, you wind up putting everybody (as Lecter notes in the novel but not the film version of “Silence of the Lambs”) in “moral dignity pants.”
So Hollywood, please. Get your villains off the psychiatrist’s couch. Don’t waste screen time telling us where they came from. Be content with letting them scare us half to death. Then maybe we won’t be so obsessed with finding evil elsewhere in our lives.
Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”