There are villains. And there are villains. Among the pantheon of evildoers who've been robbing, marauding and broom-riding their way through the American cinema since 1903 (when "Bronco Billy" Anderson committed "The Great Train Robbery"), there have been plenty of bad guys who've inspired nightmares, including Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West and Hannibal Lecter. Far fewer provoke genuine fear, however. Or revulsion. Or loathing. Or even hatred.
The differential in movie villainy -- between the bad guy we merely root against, and the bad guy whose demise incites spontaneous applause in a movie theater -- is exemplified by Charley Rakes, the nasty piece of work at the center of director John Hillcoat's "Lawless." Opening Wednesday, what Hillcoat called his "country gangster" drama based in the Prohibition-era South features a super-cast of young stars, including Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf and Mia Waskikowska. But it's the veteran Guy Pearce ("Memento," "L.A. Confidential" and Hillcoat's "The Proposition"), who, as Rakes, galvanizes the entire movie and worms his way into the spleen of the audience. Comparisons are elusive, although Jack Palance in "Shane," in which his character, Jack Wilson, shoots a hapless Elisha Cook Jr. in cold blood, or Billy Drago as "The Untouchables' " Frank Nitti, who described the death of Sean Connery's character in such gleeful detail that Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) throws him off the roof, come close to being as vile as Rakes.
"I'll take that as a compliment," Pearce said from the North Carolina set of "Iron Man 3," in which he'll be playing another scoundrel, Aldrich Killian. Rakes the lawman is special, however: In "Lawless," he comes to the Virginia backwoods prepared to destroy the lucrative moonshine business of the Bondurant brothers (Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke) and, if necessary, the Bondurant brothers themselves (a real-life Bondurant grandson, Matt, wrote "The Wettest County in the World," the book from which the movie was adapted). Rakes kills the movie's sweetest character in cold blood, over an insult, and clearly has sexual issues that manifest themselves in unsavory ways. He's also an insufferable snob, a preening fop and a font of vindictive cruelty.
"He's an interesting character," Pearce said. "And obviously, the film is based on a book, but Rakes really is a Nick Cave invention," he said of the film's screenwriter and sometime rock star. "The character of
Rakes in the book is a local, and it's a different dynamic and situation. I think Nick and John wanted to create someone who brought in a real outsider's point of view, not just bringing him literally from the city [Chicago], but with a real, thorough disdain for how these guys live, and who views them with an absolute judgment. It separates the two worlds."
The film's heroes may be lawbreakers, but Rakes' combination of egomania and biliousness puts any question of good and evil in "Lawless" on a plane that transcends statute -- just as Rakes transcends the usual dramatic antagonist. To wit, he provokes no sympathy at all. Even Shakespeare's Iago provokes a certain amount of pity. For that matter, Satan himself is a figure of pathos in "Paradise Lost." Charley Rakes? Not so much.
It's a curious thing about villainy, especially at the movies: No one would want to see "Psycho's" Norman Bates at the motel room door, but do we despise him? Not really. Leatherface? Michael Myers? Freddy Krueger? They're scary, but they have issues. Hank Quinlan, the physically revolting specimen played by Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil," was really bad -- but he didn't think so. We don't hate crazy: In the old noir melodrama "Kiss of Death," Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) pushes an old lady's wheelchair down the stairs, with the old lady still in it. What do we do? Oddly enough, there's a tendency to laugh, simply because it's all so over the top. Similarly, there may be a tendency for viewers to laugh at Rakes, because he possesses such a virulent, sputtering abhorrence of other human beings.
"Look, of course," Pearce said, agreeing. "I think he's got to be close to being absolutely ridiculous. And I think the wonderful thing is that John's sense as a filmmaker is so grounded that you can get away with being over the top."
But even if Rakes' full-throated evil provokes a giggle or two, audiences won't be laughing at him much. Just as they never laugh at Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) in "Cape Fear," or Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," or Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in "Mommie Dearest" or, seemingly, anyone named Frank -- Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in "Blue Velvet," Frank Nitti (Drago) in "The Untouchables" or just plain Frank (Henry Fonda) in "Once Upon a Time in the West." These are characters who are really scary. Perhaps because they just enjoy being bad.
Long-delayed 'Lawless' won't be starless
BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday
The original cast of "Lawless" -- before the economy went belly up in 2008 and Sony pulled the plug -- included Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Dano and Shia LaBeouf. The film finally got made independently, and was ultimately picked up by The Weinstein Co., but it still seems to be populated by stars about to happen -- or who have happened, like Tom Hardy ("The Dark Knight Rises"), Jessica Chastain ("The Help"), Mia Waskikowska ("Jane Eyre") -- and LaBeouf ("Transformers 1, 2, 3"), who alone remained from the initial cast.
"I'm thrilled with the cast we have," said director John Hillcoat, reached in Romania, where he was working on a new film. He gave a subdued Australian laugh. "And I'm very fortunate, but the reason they're all in the film is they weren't as heavily booked as they are now. Tom's now on the new 'Mad Max' movie, and Jessica's in the middle of a film. The difficulty is doing press: Now that we're finally releasing the film, they're all booked."
Hillcoat, whose background in music videos led to the Australian Western "The Proposition" and the post-apocalyptic drama "The Road" (from the Cormac McCarthy novel), has created the grimy, tactile backwoods Southern locale of "Lawless" with several long-term collaborators: production designer Chris Kennedy, who's worked on four Hillcoat films; costume designer Margot Wilson ("The Road," "The Proposition"); rocker-cum-screenwriter Nick Cave, who also wrote "The Proposition," and Guy Pearce, who's been in all of Hillcoat's features.
"Between John and Chris Kennedy and Benoit Delhomme, the cinematographer, they uncover everything," Pearce said. "A leaf on a tree, the personality of a character, a dirt road. I always feel like I'm seeing more than I should be able to see."
For Hillcoat, "Lawless" marries his two favorite genres: Westerns and gangster films.
"I was looking to do a gangster film before 'The Road,' as my first American film," he said. "But I was a little bit stumped by where you go after 'GoodFellas' and 'The Sopranos'; they seemed to be the final word on the subject. So you try to find some way of reenvisioning it and still work within the genres."
What's unusual about the world of Matt Bondurant's "The Wettest County in the World," on which the film is based, is that "it's actually where the West ends and the gangster world begins," Hillcoat said. "Because in those same hills you have that whole family tradition of rebels and outlaws -- the Jameses, the Daltons all came out of that. There's a whole history of Appalachia being apart from the rest of the country and the Scots-Irish were up in those woods and took on the British even before the battle for independence. They actually helped inspire the American Revolution."