A movie is only as good as its villain.
Personally, I am a big believer in this old saying. If your film has a weak villain it will most likely result in a weaker film as a whole, so it is only natural most of the better villains come from better films.
But who is the best villain?
Well, it is not an easy answer.
In our current cinematic climate, it is very easy to look at superhero films and pull the greatest villains from there. Thanos, Loki, the Joker – all are fantastic villains with their own personal appeal, but they seem like a bit of a cop-out. Then you have the classics like Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West who also seem a bit too easy to explore. So, I have decided to look at two of my favorite movies and talk about why I enjoy the villains so much and what makes them unique.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained uses pre-Civil War America as its setting and a newly-freed slave bounty hunter as its titular protagonist. Calvin Candie, played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a large Southern plantation owner who owns Django’s wife, Broomhilda. Now, while it is easy to say a slave owner is evil and bad and just leave it at that, Tarantino does more to really make Calvin Candie come off as a despicable human being.
First, the audience is introduced to Candie at a Mandingo fight, which is when wealthy slave owners have two slaves fight to the death in front of them for their entertainment. That is a pretty brutal and sick way to get your entertainment. Candie is very much the type of person who does not see his slaves as “people”. But it is not just in the fighting regard.
There is a scene after Django and his white partner – Dr. Shultz – first meet with Candie where they are traveling to his plantation. While on their way, they run into a situation where one of Candie’s slaves has escaped and some other farmers with a pack of dogs have chased him up a tree. Candie then continues to belittle and mock the slave while the other members in his traveling party laugh and encourage him. The scene ends with Candie feeding the slave to the dogs, not breaking his demeanor through the entire brutal kill.
Calvin Candie is the type of person who thinks he is the smartest, best, and most important person in the room at all times. And when he can prove that, he really makes the most of it. He constantly flaunts his arrogance and “betterness” to Django and everyone around him for that matter, making it all the more easy to hate and be disgusted by him.
Near the end of the film, Candie bests Django and Dr. Shultz after realizing their plan. He threatens to bash Broomhilda’s head in with a hammer right on the dinner table where they are eating unless the men pay $12,000 for the woman (almost $400,000 in today’s money). The men submit and pay Candie without question. Candie takes the money and proudly invites the men to join him for dessert while paperwork transferring ownership is completed.
Holding himself high at this point, proud of what he accomplished, even the way Candie eats his cake is enough to make you squirm and hate him. The simplest act done the right way can make you despise a person due to what you know about them and their personality, and DiCaprio proves this in his portrayal.
One of the final despicable acts Candie does in the film is really one of the simplest. Once the ownership is transferred, Dr. Shultz officially frees Broomhilda from slavery and they all prepare to leave. But Candie will not let them go without getting the last word in. He stops them all before exiting and asks Dr. Shultz to shake his hand. When Dr. Shultz refuses, Candie claims all the paper signing and official documents mean nothing unless he shakes his hand. Candie then orders his men to kill Broomhilda if she tries to leave with them before Dr. Shultz shakes his hand.
Such a simple and seemingly insignificant act like shaking his hand becomes the most cruel and manipulative demand. The arrogance and unfounded confidence ultimately gets him killed, and leads to the most explosive shootout in the entire film.
Calvin Candie is not necessarily your stereotypical villain, but he definitely knows how to get people to hate him.
Martin Scorcese’s The Departed is probably my favorite crime movie to date. The villain in this film – or one of the villains – is that of a police sergeant working with the most powerful mobster in Boston. Sullivan is an extremely clever, convoluted, and, admittedly, sociopathic villain.
Sergeant Sullivan is an extremely clever antagonist. Working for both sides of the law in this film, he is able to explain his way out of almost anything. Being trusted by the police department for his valor and excellent work while equally relied on by the mob for information and help having been basically raised by Frank Costello, the most powerful mob boss in the city.
The interesting thing about this film and this villain is that in all reality, he is the main character of the film. Every other character we follow in the film is somehow related to him, and revolves around him. Our hero – undercover cop William Costigan – is only in the position of infiltrating the mob because of Sergeant Sullivan and his work as an informant to the mob. This is a big part of what makes a good villain. When the villain defines the hero, or is responsible for the creation of the hero – that is a complex and superior villain.
Another huge factor in what makes Sullivan such a good villain is his ability to think and act so quickly. Near the end of the film, Costigan figures out Sullivan’s allegiance and attempts to arrest him. A second officer working with the mob shows up and kills Costigan, freeing Sullivan. Knowing how the situation looks, Sullivan then shoots the officer in the head. He later tells his story of the situation, claiming it to have been a standoff where he was the last man standing.
Sullivan is also the one who shoots and kills Costello, successfully bringing an end to his crimes and making him out to be a hero in the police department. Sullivan ultimately looks out for himself, and that is all that is important to him. As long as he comes out unscathed, he succeeded.
A proper villain is understood, but still hated. I believe there are several of these out there nowadays, and we are in a golden age of villains. These are just a couple of my favorites, and I honestly believe a good villain can make or break a film.