Film critic Neil Young (The Hollywood Reporter, Sight & Sound) explores IDFA 2019 focus program The Villain.
Alan Rickman was once at a party when a friend’s cheeky child asked the much-missed thespian, “Alan, why do you always play villains?” Rickman’s icy response: “I don’t play ‘villains.’ I play very interesting people.” The appeal of antagonist roles among actors is proverbial: the devil has all the best tunes, and most of the best lines, too. Villains, evildoers and miscreants appeal to performers—and audiences—for their many layers of complexity: Joaquin Phoenix’s titanic performance as the anti-hero “Joker” was a crucial element in Todd Phillips’s eponymous picture, landing the film the Venice Golden Lion. Phoenix: “I was interested in the light of [the character], for lack of a better word. It wasn’t just the torment; it was his struggle to find happiness, to feel connected, to find the warmth and love.” He is already a red-hot favorite to pick up the Best Actor Oscar in February, confirming (after Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) that Batman’s wisecracking foe is the only comic book/superhero/multiverse character capable of obtaining recognition from the Academy.
The irresistible fascination of the “bad guy” (and gal) dates back much further than the invention of cinema. The 17th century was a particularly purple patch for the extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile, from Shakespeare—in the play that bears his name, Othello actually has fewer lines than his nemesis Iago, that embodiment of “motiveless malignity”—to Jacobean revenge-tragedies and Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic 1667 poem is comprehensively dominated by an irresistibly charismatic, dynamic and articulate Satan, whose motto “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” rapidly entered the language.
On Deadly Ground
While cinema audiences have delighted in hissing myriad Wo/Men We Love To Hate since the days of Lon Chaney, Tod Slaughter and Eric Von Stroheim, matters are much trickier in the non-fiction arena. The wrongs committed by real “villains”—such as the eclectic gallery of rogues featuring in this year’s special IDFA program—can yield terrible consequences for real people. Their victims bleed, they suffer physical and/or economic hardship, they die. And when extreme villainy occurs at the upper echelons of government—as in Barbet Schroeder’s General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence—they can die in vast numbers, in horrible ways, leaving hideously deep societal scars.
Any documentary filmmaker electing to tackle such subject matter is entering hazardous waters indeed: circumspect sensitivity is a given, as the survivors of atrocities (and/or their relatives) may well be out there watching. And when the miscreants are still alive, kicking and active, thorny questions of responsibility inescapably proliferate. The simple fact of devoting a whole feature-length film to such individuals gives them further boosts, and they tend to have super-inflated egos to begin with. A case in point: Alison Klayman’s The Brink, chronicling several months on the road with populist-nationalist demagogue Steve Bannon. As Pat Mullen put it in his POV review of the film, “Should documentarians make movies about ultra-conservative toxic scumbags like Steve Bannon? The answer, after watching [the film] is, unfortunately, ‘Yes.’ One must inevitably question Klayman’s responsibility in giving Bannon so much exposure and airtime. There are moments when The Brink nearly humanizes Bannon...”
As is the case with several pictures in the Villain program, The Brink presents a multifaceted portrait, one that may well surprise and disarm those—especially Bannon’s liberal-inclined enemies—who expect to encounter a sulfur-stinking pariah sporting horns and a tail. For much of the film, Bannon is charming, humorous, self-deprecating and even witty. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: one can’t craft a multi-decade career across media and politics without charisma and interpersonal skills. But such talents don’t excuse or lessen Bannon’s “toxicity.” As with Milton’s Satan, positive traits do not a sympathetic or admirable individual make: indeed, these individuals are arguably even more contemptible because they elect to place their considerable abilities at the service of the “dark side.”
And in the end, while Klayman certainly doesn’t underplay Bannon’s witty, bluff charisma, the structure of her film provides crucial undercutting: the bulk of the film sees Bannon in triumphant mode. The final stretches, however, see savage disappointment in the U.S. midterm elections: learning the news, Bannon’s chumminess curdles into foul-mouthed aggression. The Brink overall provides one model of how directors can avoid accusations of complicity with their reprehensible subjects: the ultra-patient filmmaker should eventually obtain enough material for their subject’s true nature to become apparent.
There are exceptions, most intriguingly Omar Amiralay’s Rafic Hariri profile The Man with the Golden Soles, made in 2000 when Hariri was still Lebanon’s Prime Minister, five years before his assassination. Structured around a series of one-on-one interviews between Amiralay and Hariri, the film becomes a cautious gavotte of manipulation and intellectual one-upmanship. Having successfully won over (and, as we were later to learn, comprehensively defrauded) the Lebanese political class and ordinary voters, Hariri understandably reckons he can woo and wow even a skeptical, questioning filmmaker. Necessarily constrained by the respect commanded by a head of state, Amiralay is frequently wrongfooted by his “opponent”—but obtains the last word via his own measured, calm voice-over, which gradually builds into a convincing indictment of Hariri’s perfidy.
Above the Law
Amiralay perhaps took a leaf from the playbook of Barbet Schroeder, who set “ground rules” for this sub-genre with his 1974 Amin “auto-portrait” (in which the General, like Hariri and Bannon, likes to refer to himself in the third person.) Schroeder’s only direct voice-over is in the closing seconds: “After a century of colonization, let us not forget that it is partially a deformed image of ourselves Idi Amin reflects back at us.” Elsewhere Schroeder relies on an utterly deadpan British narrator of cutting detachment: “In 1972, after a dream [!], General Amin declared the economic war...” he informs us early on. This scene-setting colors all that follows, as we observe the giant-sized genocidal general—described by Time magazine as late as 1977 as a “big-hearted buffoon”—at the apex of his deranged grandeur. Long since unmasked as a murderous despot, even Amin shows his comical, self-deprecating, even charming sides here. But again, editing, structure and narration are crucial, as when the dispassionate Brit relates how one hapless official, spotted incurring presidential displeasure, turned up messily dead within weeks.
Most powerfully, Schroeder elects to place at the end of the film a meeting in which we finally gain intimate access to the true face of evil (the kind of catharsis that the sub-genre is, at its best, capable of providing). As Amin listens to an innocuous but tactlessly-phrased question from a medic, Nestor Almendros’s camera closes in as the ruler’s features slowly congeal into incomprehension and then chilling contempt. But the camera is, of course, present. The world, of course, is watching. And Amin knows this. Sweat beads subtly on his face. We hear Amin’s belabored breathing, even the noise of a tight swallow coming from somewhere deep in that bull neck. And then we see his mighty hands: writhing slowly in bestial impatience, spotlessly clean, and dripping with invisible blood.
Neil Young is a film critic, programmer/curator and filmmaker from Sunderland, UK, now based in Vienna. His main regular outlets include The Hollywood Reporter and Sight & Sound magazine. He is the International Programmer for the European Film Festival in Palić, Serbia, and works for several other European film festivals in various capacities.