Centuries of storytelling have taught us about the villain’s role in the plot. He is the antagonist—the one who must stand in the way of the hero’s destiny. He must disrupt the hero’s life, and when possible, rip the very heart from the hero’s cage. The villain is the malicious, supercilious, sadistic, brutal bad guy. He tries to triumph truth with forged reality. He despises honour and courage, laying a suffocating oily diatribe over the chivalrous traits of old, until they are diluted with his slickness. The villain is no hero. He should never pull at a woman’s heart strings or rise up in the eyes of men. And yet, there are those villains who can reach into our very guts and tickle our entrails with a tremulous thrill. No matter how we want to despise this type of villain, no matter how well we know we must spurn this creature that stands for anti-humanity, still we cut our eyes his way.
In the film, Highlander, a 1986 film about a Scottish immortal who must battle a barbaric opponent in order to win immortality, we are introduced to just such a villain. We first see the Kurgan on the crest of a hill, a silhouetted rider on a black stallion that rears up against the lightening streaked sky to kick its hooves in defiance of the battle below. Then the film flashes back to pre-battle preparations, zooming in from above the Kurgan’s skull helmet to slowly reveal a face of heroic structure. The Kurgan’s eyes are dark and hard to read under the fanged helmet. But the rest of the villain’s features will make us return to the eyes and imagine sorrow and regret in their depths. The foggy blue light of the Scottish dawn casts a ghostly glow on the Kurgan’s high cheekbones. The viewer’s eye is drawn down his smooth, youthful skin to a full mouth that rests tenderly above a strong chin. His lips are not pursed in determination, nor is his mouth leering with mocking. These are not the lips of a villain. They reveal a vulnerability that makes a mother want to reach out and caress the Kurgan’s face with her hand. His lips promise a pliability that could tempt a young woman to lean forward and test how they will give beneath her press. Perhaps by leaning closer, we would notice the Kurgan’s tender lips are scored by the shadow of the fang thrusting from his helmet. It is a brand, a mark that tempts us to believe that destiny is the villain, and that this man is its victim.
This is the audience’s first kiss from the Kurgan, the kiss we will remember and regret indulging as we watch this vicious, immoral beast slash his way through the film with no care for human life. But we won’t wipe his kiss from our mouths, because it is too delicious to have tasted such forbidden fruit. It is too thrilling to have thought, even if only for a second, of loving such a creature.
In the 2000 film, Quills, the Marquis de Sade is just such a villain who inspires the smallest hope of redemption. The man who allows himself to see past the vile, perverse inmate is the Abby, played by Joaquin Pheonix. The Abby’s hope in the smallest shred of humanity is fulfilled when the Marquis sheds tears for the death of a washer woman, and it is at this moment that the Abby is rewarded for his most humane act of loving the villain.
Is it the human condition that leads us to flirt with such folly, or is it the talented cinematography and writing that draws us to these characters that are meant to repel human decency? And is that very attraction something we should be ashamed of? I think not. In many cases, I believe it is the belief that evil has some cast of good, and that even the bad can be vulnerable, and perhaps even redeemed, that draw us to the villain.