Establishing Villains 4: The Kill

Did you think I was done studying villains? Really? I feel like I’m just getting started! Though, it may take a while to fully understand them…

Great new villains come out every year just waiting to be dissected, not to mention all the classics I haven’t gotten around to analyzing just yet. This time around I’d like to talk about killing, arguably the most interesting and evil part of the whole bad guy mystique.

Before you jump in, make sure you check out my other studies, The Unknown Principle, Sexy Beast, and Anton Chigurh.

No Mercy

The best way for a villain to clearly illustrate how threatening they are is to kill someone.  This is simple enough, we’ve all seen a good villain kill without conscience or consequence before.  It’s an effective way of showing rather than telling, and in this case, actions really do speak louder than words. Usually killing is one of the first things you’ll see a good villain do. That way, whatever they say from then on out really has meaning. You won’t doubt them, and as a character in the film on the same side as the bad guy (like a henchman), you won’t cross him either. So this is pretty simple, right? Rather than just having the villain say something hollow like, “Nobody will get in my way!” he simply kills someone nonchalantly, and then calmly says, “Do I make myself clear?” To me the latter is a much more believable, and interesting villain.

Fairly easy principle. We can all go home now…or we can look closer and see what else is staring us right in the face. You see, there are degrees of villainy in cinema, and killing just happens to be one of the biggest indicators and character revealing actions a villain can take. It’s not just the act of killing that tells you the villain is bad. How did they do it? Why did they do it? Was the villain angry? Sad? Did they show any emotion at all? The answers to these questions open up an endless possibility of villain variations and degrees of evil. It can mean the difference between your villain scoring a 1 or a 9 on the “Villain-o-meter.” So let’s start with why…

Four Reasons Why a Villain Kills

Most bad guy kill scenes are there for one (or more) of the four reasons that I call Greed, Statement, Desperation, and Disloyalty. If a villain kills someone for reasons outside of these four, then they are truly unique, interesting, and I want to analyze them further because these villains are usually the scariest, and I’ve already analyzed one such villain in part 2. Anyway, let’s move on for now.

1. The Greed Kill

Money, power, respect. Money leads to power, which leads to respect. Depending on the context, fear is usually in there somewhere as well (Many people have been ruled by fear). This is 99% of The Greed Kill’s motive. There are other reasons too, like sex, but it basically boils down to killing someone to get something you don’t have and want badly.  All villains want something they don’t have, so this is also 99% of the reason a villain will kill in the first place. If the kill isn’t for greed, it will probably be for one of the three other reasons mentioned later…Back to greed. Most James Bond villains want to take over the world (power).

From Russia With Love

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Commodus kills his father to become emperor of Rome in Gladiator (power).

A lot of heist movies have members killing each other to get a larger share in the take (money). The list goes on and on. Hired guns can also be placed in this category because in the end they are usually hired with money. Here’s some more good examples of villains that kill out of greed.

Alonzo (from Training Day) kills for money and power

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Agent Smith kills so the machines can take over (power)

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Gaear Grimsrud kills for his partners half of the money

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Cypher kills for the illusion of the good life (money)

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Charles Muntz kills for his reputation (respect)

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Frank Costello kills to maintain his money, power, and respect (through fear)

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Syndrome kills for power and respect, though there’s a bit of revenge in there too!

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2. The Statement Kill

This one is powerful; Killing to make a point. As mentioned above this is a great way to establish villainy. This tells the other characters you aren’t kidding around, and you won’t tolerate failure. Here’s two similar statement kills from different films.

Tony Montana’s colleague is rather creatively disposed of in this scene from Scarface.

It appears that the main motive behind the kill is Disloyalty, but that’s only half of it. Later on Tony is warned not to mess with his new business partner. These words mean nothing without the previous Statement Kill. Now we see the motives behind the kill are both Statement and Disloyalty.

George Jung is shown his new business partner’s policies in a similar way in this scene from Blow:

In this scene from Sexy Beast, Teddy is trying to intimidate Gal. He knows Gal knows more than he’s letting on, so he makes a stop before dropping Gal off at the Airport to try and get some information out of him. Killing someone is a sure fire way to make someone loose their poker face.

3. The Disloyalty Kill

Usually proceeding and sometimes coupled with a statement kill, this lets everyone know you get one strike and you’re out. Someone is made an example of, and everyone else picks up the slack so they’re not next on the chopping block. I would also lump incompetency in here because it all boils down to the same thing. Someone is putting the villain’s neck out there, which is just not cool. Religious disputes can also be lumped into this category because each side is being disloyal to “God” in the opposition’s eyes. Here’s some examples of disloyalty kills:

Brick Top from Snatch

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Ordell Robbie from Jackie Brown

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Jules Winnfield Pulp Fiction

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Lefty from Donnie Brasco

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4. The Desperation Kill

Sometimes things start going wrong, and the villain must reaffirm his conviction to his opposition. A good way to do this is to kill someone. This happens a lot in hostage and hijack movies.  Here’s some good examples:

Let’s say the good guys want to call your bluff. They don’t believe you will kill if they try to escape the bus you’re remotely holding them hostage on. So kill someone…

Oh look, now they’re taking your seriously…

What if they don’t deliver on time? Kill someone.

Pretty sure that money will be on rush delivery now.

The Runner Up

I haven’t included revenge as a reason, which can be a very good one, because killing for revenge is usually warranted, and the audience usually empathizes with such killings. I’m talking about killing that the audience is not on board with here. There are plenty of films with bad “good guys” that don’t follow the same rules. The Brave One and Man on Fire are good recent examples.

Post Kill Disposition

We’ve explored the motives, now it’s time to look at the reaction. In other words, how the villain acts after they’ve offed someone. If a bad guy kills someone to make a point (statement), we can see that he will kill if he has to. But what if he’s all sweaty, shaky, and pale after the kill? This comes off threatening, but I still think I can take him myself if I have my guard up and I’m not caught by surprise.

But say instead of that he shows pleasure or even worse, no reaction at all (displaying the unknown) after the kill? This is where I take a step back, or even start to run away. It makes a much more powerful point that this guy is not only evil, but kind of crazy too. At the very least he believes life is cheap.

I personally think that the cooler they are after killing, the badder they are. If they didn’t break a sweat, or if they have a creepy smirk, or have a post-kill ritual, you know they have lots of experience killing. You can take these villains much more seriously than others. But these aren’t even the best villains yet…

Conclusion: Go Off The Map

As I briefly mentioned before, not all villains kill for the same reasons. It is hard to think of reasons outside of the four mentioned above and revenge. That’s why villains that don’t follow this pattern are my favorite. They are completely different. They range from completely psychotic to just mildly disturbed, but they all share one thing in common, they are the most memorable villains in film history. Here’s a list of villains that don’t follow the four reasons above: Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, Anton Chigurh (he is a hired gun, but he’s so much more than that) from No Country for Old Men, John Doe from Se7en, Jack Torrance from The Shining, Kevin from Sin City, and The Joker from The Dark Knight (kills partially for power, but like Anton Chigurh, there’s so much more to this guy). Starting to get the picture?

These guys stick in your brain because they make you think. You’re trying to rationalize their actions. You’re disparately trying to figure them out so you can yell at the screen and tip off the protagonist before it’s too late. But you can’t do that because they don’t follow the pattern. You just don’t know what they’re capable of, when or why they’re going to kill, and what they’re going to do next. Sound familiar? Ding, ding, ding! The Unknown! So now that I’ve truly identified my favorite type of villain, my next article (Part 5) will attempt to break one down and really analyze them. Tell me these guys aren’t the most memorable villains. Go on, tell me they aren’t…I dare you!

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