Villains are every bit as important to the power of a thriller as the hero—maybe moreso. If the reader is going to care about the outcome, she will not only have to be interested in the characters, she’ll have to fear for them, fear that they are in real peril.
The peril doesn’t have to be melodramatic or even harrowing (the critic’s favorite word—you’ve got a hit if they call it ‘harrowing’). In fact, sometimes too melodramatic kills the suspense. Did anyone really fear that over-the-top military guy in ‘Avatar’? You knew he was just built-up for a comeuppance.
Suave, slick villains have been the norm at least since the man with the missing top-joint of his finger in ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ in 1935.
Other examples of that style include my favorite, James Mason in ‘North by Northwest’ (Cary Grant: ‘Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.’ Mason: ‘Your very next role—you’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.’) and almost every James Bond film.
‘Casablanca’ would seem to be an example of a conventional villain but in truth works in a completely different fashion.
Major Strasser—the supposed villain of the film—is thinly drawn and his shoot-out with Rick at the end is probably the most tensionless in the history of movies. Nobody watching that film ever had any doubt the Nazis would be foiled in the end.
The real tension is in the rivalry between Rick and Victor Lazlo over Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund. Which would make Lazlo the bad guy, right? Not a chance. Lazlo is such a saint that Paul Henreid knew (correctly) that the role would ruin his career. Bogart actually takes the bad guy role, comfortable with corruption, playing both ends against the middle and threatening to betray the Cause right up to the last moment. That tension gives the film its bite.
Tommy Lee Jones is another very satisfying version of the anti-villain in ‘The Fugitive’, pursuing Harrison Ford with an unhealthy (and very expensive–all those helicopters!) zeal. A true believer, a fanatic, a man of passion for his job and—it turns out only at the end—also for truth and justice (and maybe the American Way—the film doesn’t make this explicit). But it’s his conviction and determination that drives the story and makes us really fear for Ford. We know he’s up against a formidable and much more experienced foe—when he begins to hold his own, about halfway through, we develop a real respect for his character.
I read something recently about sociopaths – people with no conscience at all, no guilt or shame or constraint of any kind. They do whatever gets them what they want, without feeling. It says something about me—probably not something good—that my first thought was, wouldn’t do me much good as a villain.
To me, a thriller needs to pit one character’s passion against another’s—and interesting characters are almost always battling something inside themselves, in addition to whatever conflict they face from the outside world.
Without conscience, a character can present no passion at all, a true void. Strangely enough, often the audience fills that void with their own deepest fears and the sociopath ends up totally dominating the story. Hannibal Lecter is an obvious example—famous and successful villain but one who, I must admit, doesn’t do much for me as a character.
On the other hand, Heath Ledger’s Joker in the last Batman had passion to burn—passion for chaos, for anarchy. Ledger’s performance was totally engrossing and thoroughly unbalanced the film. There was no way that constipated Batman should ever have laid a glove on him, much less beaten him. A masterful performance but one I have no interest in watching ever again. It was too disturbing.
The highlight of the last Harry Potter film took me completely by surprise: with all the final bows, the summing-up of relationships I’ve spent ten years on and the death of several characters I care about, what’s really lingered after was Ralph Fienne’s Voldemort.
Every time the kids (they’re not kids anymore but since I’m no longer aging, neither are they, dammit!) would kill a horcrux—a piece of his soul—we got a shot of Voldemort flinching, cringing and eventually crying out in pain. You could sense not only was he in physical distress but actually frightened, feeling his mortality as we all do. By the time he and Harry finally had it out, there was a desperation underneath—and even a compassion for this twisted soul—that made the whole thing far more intense than usual. The movie humanized Voldemort without making him any less villainous.
To realize just what a good trick this is, remember George Lucas spending three films trying to make Anakin Skywalker’s transition to Darth Vader into something powerful—or touching—or at least interesting—and failing completely.
In ‘The Third Man’, you spend the entire film waiting for Harry Lime to appear, while everyone mourns, describes and wonders about him. And, when he does, he’s spellbinding—and totally fallen, a gifted brilliant creature, the most riveting character in a film full of them, but totally committed to the dark path. He simply sees himself as surviving in a miserable, fallen world. In truth, Harry is the hero of the film while selling poisoned penicillin. The point of the story seems to be that he might as well be the hero, since there are no heroes in that world.
My own villains in ‘Mindbenders’ see themselves as simply businessmen, taking advantage of a supply-and-demand opportunity—the ability to affect the minds of consumers, stockholders, government. And maybe to cause a few nervous breakdowns and assassinations along the way. I see their like on the front pages every day.
One of the most affecting villains I’ve seen in recent films was in ‘Children of Men’, Alfonso Cuaron’s nightmare of life in a literally sterile (no children anymore) society riddled by class and civil warfare. The film is full of televised images of icons of the State but has no real identifiable villain, just a pervasive System with universal reach and implacable motives. No emotion or justice, passion or even visible intent. A sociopathic society.
It was bone-chilling, maybe because it felt more true to life—our life today—than anything else I’ve seen in years.