|In film, the best monsters are human.|
Now and again I will watch a movie where I might admire the bad guy. In some of those cases I find myself actually cheering him on. Even while I’m admitting this admiration for the monster I still realize that the hero is a creep but that he is imbued with such glowing traits that there’s nothing to do but like him. Or, if not able to feel any affection for him, to realize that the evil dude is one seriously tough person with a true agenda.
The first movie I ever saw wherein the bad guy was effectively portrayed as the hero was the Paul Thomas Anderson film “There Will Be Blood”. The hero in this case was Daniel Plainview, a sefl-described oil man portrayed so brilliantly by Daniel Day Lewis that he made me forget at times that I was watching a fiction. Plainview is described as a driven man with an obsession for wealth and the power it will give him over the rest of humanity, all of whom he finds disgusting. He even hates the rich among whom he hopes to one day live.
The first time we see Plainview he is busting his ass at hard labor, working to find a vein of silver that he can then sell off to create the seed money for what he knows will make him fantastically wealthy: oil. In fact, the movie is loosely based on the novel OIL by Upton Sinclair. We watch as this hard, rough, driven fellow almost blows himself up and, finding himself in the wreckage of the explosion that almost kills him discovers that he has at last located silver ore that will give him the economic leverage he so dearly needs.
Over and over Daniel is revealed to us as conniving, lying, ruthless, obsessive as only capitalism can make a man so. He wants that wealth so much that his persona seems to ache for it. And it’s not just the masses he hopes to rise above by gaining this wealth–no. He hates the rich at least as much as he hates the poor. Plainview is a complete monster, but even if we cannot identify with the needs that drive him, we are forced to admire the effort he uses to achieve his goals.
Around the same time I saw “There Will Be Blood” I also saw a movie by the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” based (faithfully) on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. After some exposition and the setting up of a seemingly rather complicated situation we are introduced eventually to the real central character of the film (and book), one Anton Chigurh. Chigurh is a kind of hired assassin with no loyalties beyond his own singular code, to which he adheres fanatically.
The assassin is portrayed in a frighteningly clear performance by Javier Bardem. It’s almost as if Bardem had been born only to play this character as his crowning achievement. He gives us a driven person who may or may not even be a human. I’ve argued for some time that the story is just a retelling of the Jesus versus Satan myth with Bardem giving us his version of Satan, with Llwellyn Moss as Christ. And Chigurh is one Hell of a Satan. Not without his own kind of flaws, and certainly not infallible, but nonetheless relentless.
It is in this implacable force and through his resourcefulness that I was forced to admire Chigurh. While he may be the complete antithesis of what we think of as good, he never lies and he never steers away from his goal. Similarly to “Blood’s” Plainview, we have a man who has his own code and who will not be denied it. Monstrous though Bardem’s Anton may be, he remains true to that code to the very end.
Another monster who is nonetheless admirable for many of the same reasons as the two already listed creatures is the Sicario of the film of that title, directed by Dennis Villeneuve and written by Taylor Sheridan. I wrote about this movie fairly recently and don’t want to repeat any of the things I already mentioned. So I will be brief here and just say that the portrayal of the man who proves to be the principal character was by Benecio Del Toro who I have to admit is one of my favorite modern actors (like Bardem and Lewis).
The script of Sicario allows Del Toro to deliver a performance that moves across a kind of graph that does not allow you to peg down what kind of man you are seeing until the final scenes of the movie. He seems to be moral at some times. There are moments when he comes off as compassionate, even caring. But in the end you see a thing that is moved only by a kind of drive that is both monstrous and all too human. By the time the end credits rolled I found myself awed by the job of Del Toro as an actor, but realizing that the director and writer delivered the raw materials for the actor to refine. And the whole gave us a picture of the pests who actually do these things, who really do walk the Earth, who deliver to the people what we seem to somehow deserve by accepting what they do without much in the way of complaint.
Unlike the first two films, Sicario left us with a situation wherein we’ll see a new film featuring the enigma called Alejandro.