To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.
On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious, whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.
Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.
There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.
Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.
Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.
That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.