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10 Unexpectedly Effective Movie Villains

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One of the many pleasures of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s slick new art house/action hybrid (opening in select cities tomorrow — and as Letterman likes to say, we sure hope your city has been selected) is the masterful performance of the great Albert Brooks. The comedian/filmmaker/comic actor (and, most recently, novelist) plays the film’s villain, a hard-boiled gangster type; Brooks harnesses his groggy weariness (that raspy voice has seldom been so well-utilized) and that impatient anger that’s always percolating under his best work. He’s unexpectedly chilling and effective.

His top-shelf work got us thinking about other actors who took on villainous roles and, whether due to their good-guy personas or comedic backgrounds, took us by surprise with the ruthlessness of their darker turns. We’ve rounded up our picks after the jump.

Robin Williams, Insomnia/One Hour Photo

No one was more keenly aware than Robin Williams that his career had taken a disastrous turn after his 1998 Oscar win for Good Will Hunting; the four films that followed (What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man) were maudlin, syrupy, and borderline unwatchable. Williams wisely took stock of his situation, shook off the quartet from hell, and cleared the decks. He started by embarking on his first stand-up tour in well over a decade, culminating with a run on Broadway. Then the Julliard-trained actor took two 2002 film roles with a decidedly darker bent: Christopher Nolan’s Memento follow-up Insomnia, and acclaimed music video director Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. The former found Williams convincingly playing author and killer Walter Finch; in the latter, he was Sy Parrish, a lonely photo attendant whose attachment to a seemingly perfect suburban family takes a chilling turn. Williams was terrific in both roles, encompassing the flatness of everyday evil as Finch, the danger of a man perched on the edge of sanity as Sy.

Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner

Martin had done a few serious-ish roles in films like Grand Canyon and A Simple Twist of Fate, but he was still making a specialty of broad comedies like Father of the Bride, Housesitter, and Sgt. Bilko when David Mamet cast him as the mysterious Jimmy Dell in his 1997 suspense drama The Spanish Prisoner. Martin eschewed his customary comic flourishes and played the role absolutely straight — giving the (seemingly) rich and powerful businessman a cold heart, a sharp tongue, and a tough way with a tart line. It’s a coolly masterful performance; alas, Martin spent must of the subsequent years churning out trash like Bringing Down the House and the Pink Panther remake.

Mo’Nique, Precious

Stand-up comic and The Parkers star Mo’Nique’s film work before 2009 was squarely comic — supporting roles in films like 3 Strikes, Two Can Play That Game, Domino, and Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, a movie-stealing set in the Queens of Comedy concert film, the leading role in the little-seen Phat Girlz. But no one was quite prepared for the sheer force of her work in Precious. As the title character’s verbally, physically, and sexually abusive mother, Mo’Nique is simply electrifying — by turns terrifying, tragic, and even (occasionally) bitterly funny. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, to no one’s surprise; it’s a tremendous and unexpected piece of work.

Bill Pullman, Lost Highway

In the early ‘90s, poor Bill Pullman made a specialty of playing milquetoast everymen in films like Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping; he was often cast as the guy our heroine left so that she could live happily ever after with the real romantic lead. Even when he played the president in Independence Day, he came off as stiff and vanilla. That’s why the twisted brilliance of his starring turn in David Lynch’s bug-fuck crazy (even for Lynch) Lost Highway is such a shock; he’s a twisted mess of murderous jealousy, and you absolutely buy it. In his brilliant essay “American Berserk: Bill Pullman’s Face,” Greil Marcus tried to pinpoint how that happened. “He is the anonymous, mild-mannered, all but unnoticeable all-American anybody,” Marcus wrote, “on any street, in any town, who can at any time find himself ambushed by all that he trusts — and capable of horrible crimes. He is a representative man in spite of himself: handsome, soft, weak, and somehow still capable of surprise, even if he believe in nothing but that the worst is yet to come.”

Eric Bogosian, Under Siege 2

We may laugh about it now, but there was a weird moment in American cinema, back in the early 1990s, when many very good actors were playing villains in Steven Seagal movies. His 1992 film Under Siege was a breakthrough for Tommy Lee Jones; Michael Caine took on the antagonist role for Seagal’s 1994 directorial debut, On Deadly Ground. The next year, the straight-faced action star returned to his most successful film, starring in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (the first film was Die Hard on a battleship; this one was Die Hard on a passenger train). The wild card this time was playwright/actor Eric Bogosian, who was best known for starring in Oliver Stone’s film adaptation of his play Talk Radio and for his one-man stage performance pieces like Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Pounding Nails in the Floor with my Forehead. Them’s some awfully esoteric credits for the bad guy in a Seagal movie, but Bogosian performed admirably, making fine use of his dry wit and acidic delivery to convey an evil genius who is plum tired of being smarter than everyone. “Bogosian steals the movie,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann, “which isn’t saying much considering the waxwork whose name rests above the title.”

Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West

The opportunity to work with Henry Fonda, one of his favorite actors, was part of what pulled Sergio Leone back into the Western genre, which he had intended to leave behind after The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. His somewhat perverse notion: to cast one of classic Hollywood’s most venerable good guys as a cold-blooded killer. “Picture this,” Leone is said to have told Fonda. “The camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman’s face and… it’s Henry Fonda.” Fonda initially refused the chance to play so firmly against type, and even once Leone convinced him, he tried to play the role with brown contacts and facial hair. Leone vetoed that choice; he wanted those icy blue eyes for his famous tight close-ups. Leone’s instincts were right on; Fonda’s performance is a stunner.

Denzel Washington, Training Day

Washington’s characters weren’t always as pure-of-heart as Fonda’s, but it was nearly as big a shock for modern audiences when the actor took on the role of irredeemably crooked Detective Alonzo Harris in Antoine Fuqua’s tough-as-nails 2001 cop movie Training Day. It was a fierce, flashy one-man show for the actor, whose ability to surprise an audience clearly had not been smothered by a surplus of Poitier-style “noble leading man” roles. Washington won a Best Actor Oscar for playing against type, and would indulge his bleaker nature, to great effect, in later films like Man on Fire and American Gangster.

Wilford Brimley, The Firm

Beloved character actor Brimley was best known for his charming grandpa roles in the Cocoon movies and on TV’s Our House — to say nothing of his ubiquitous Quaker Oats ads — when director Sidney Pollack cast him wildly against type in his 1993 film adaptation of John Grisham’s bestseller. As William Devasher, head of security for the mob-connected law firm of Bendini, Lambert, & Locke, Brimley uses his gruff manner and no-nonsense delivery to create a genuinely threatening bad guy.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions

SMG was best known for playing the tough yet vulnerable heroine on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer when director Roger Kumble cast her in the villainous role of Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions, his modern-day retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (that’s Dangerous Liaisons for us Yanks). It was a decidedly bad-girl turn for our Buffy — a coke-snorting manipulator who sleeps around and promises an altogether un-familial reward to her stepbrother (Ryan Phillipe) should he prove victorious in their friendly wager. Though Buffy remains Gellar’s signature role, she proved here that she’s more than capable of taking on a darker, dirtier character every now and again.

Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs

Putting Hopkins on this list seems, from our vantage point, altogether ridiculous — his Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the best-known villain of all time, and he’s trotted out the role and variations on it for several sequels and imitations. But lest we forget, this was not slam-dunk casting back in 1991; when Jonathan Demme cast him as Dr. Lecter, Hopkins was best known for his stage work and for button-up turns in films like 84 Charing Cross Road, The Bounty, and The Elephant Man. It was that elegance and intelligence that made his Lecter so convincing; it was also what made him so terrifying.

Those are our picks — what are yours? Which actors surprised you with their dark sides?