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” — are 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 Charlie Rakes, the nasty piece of work at the center of director John Hillcoat’s ” Lawless .” 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 Wasikowska. 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.
Taken as compliment
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.
Nick Cave invention
“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, 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.” Charlie Rakes? Not so much.
Bad but not despised
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.
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.” These are characters who are really scary. Perhaps because they just enjoy being bad.
Memo: ‘I think [they] wanted to create someone who brought in a real outsider’s point of view ” with a real, thorough disdain for how these guys live, and who views them with an absolute judgment. It separates the two worlds.’
On his character
Charlie Rakes in ” Lawless ”