This month, some of the BFBs elected to write about a film or TV character who is just absolutely terrible. These characters have very few redeeming qualities, and even when something bad happens to them, they manage to use it for their gain. Usually, it’s a great credit to the writer–director–performer trio to create someone so loathsome, so props to these artists for making us feel such passionate disgust.
Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch. The Netflix mini-series is a supernatural horror drama about the impact of a Christian church on a small island fishing village. The meat of the show lies within the nuanced characters: the priest alight with the passion of revival, the world-weary, isolated Muslim sherrif, or the bitter and painfully sympathetic town drunk.
Flanagan writes each character with depth and insight and it is impossible to find a forgettable performance within the show. Because the show is about the damage religion can cause, one symbolic character stands out as an evil-to-the-core antagonist: church acolyte Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan).
Bev is the personification of religious judgment. She regularly quotes the kinds of Bible passages that imply violence in the pursuit of “justice” (like Jesus’ statement, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”). She is a person of decisive action and she sees herself as an earthly agent of divine authority – a dangerous combination. Further, Bev takes it upon herself to rid the town of anything that she finds to be out-of-place or a nuisance.
It is increasingly clear that the other characters see Bev for exactly what she is and dislike or even fear her, but this suits her fine. Bev does not plan church events or support her priest for the sake of popularity; she cares nothing for integrity, compassion, or honesty. She only desires power and control.
Bev is infinitely hateable not just for the fact that her judgmental and superior attitude is at the root of so much of what is wrong with Western religion, but for how easy it is to find people like Bev Keane. Take a look at your or your friends' ultra-religious or conservative family members’ social media page (or just scroll through Twitter for five minutes) and you’ll find Bev’s brand of straw man arguments wielded against those they hate, switching at random between condescension and defensive self-victimization.
Coming from a religious background, I know Bev Keanes and the damage they can cause only too well. As Midnight Mass shows, not all religious people are Bev Keane – but religion usually makes room for, and sometimes rewards, those that weaponize scriptures and orthodoxy for their own selfish gain.
Whiplash features J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, an iconic antagonist who adds harrowing intensity to the film. We enter the world of Shaffer Conservatory through the eyes of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer who aspires to greatness. At the head of Shaffer's jazz program is Fletcher, an acclaimed bandleader who recruits Neiman to play in the coveted top band.
Although his gruff persona is apparent from the start, the first day of rehearsal reveals a much darker side as he verbally berates and ejects a trombonist for playing out of tune. Later that same day, Fletcher escalates against Neiman for slight tempo deviation by throwing a chair at him, slapping his face, and unleashing harsh and humiliating invective.
Fletcher stands in for countless other creatives and leader figures whose abuses are excused by their achievements and titles; he also represents the most negative aspects of masculinity, deploying bigotry and violence to assert his power. Rather than facilitating a positive and educational experience for the students, he creates an environment of terror, forcing them to endure traumatic encounters in the pursuit of his craft. Neiman becomes driven to impress Fletcher (and avoid his temper) at the cost of his relationships and health, practicing endlessly every day until his hands bleed. Fletcher doesn't even hold back when Neiman gets into a car accident on the way to a performance and is too heavily injured to play, leading to a brawl on stage.
After this climactic moment, Neiman hears of another student who was driven to suicide by Fletcher's pressure and decides to testify against him, resulting in Fletcher's firing. This comeuppance couldn't be more earned, but Fletcher is too connected and respected to be fully removed from the jazz world.
One of the most fascinating scenes in Whiplash is also one of its quietest, where Neiman runs into Fletcher at a jazz club; Fletcher advances the argument that his tyranny is in fact essential to pushing future jazz legends to realize their potential, stating that "there are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'" As despicable as he is, Fletcher still tries to justify himself and spin his actions into something beneficial, which adds a nuanced moral note to the character.
J.K. Simmons plays this character with exceptional depth and energy, balancing moments of restrained resentment with explosive outbursts. Simmons' generally paternal image makes his performance in Whiplash that much more terrifying and electric: an all-time great to hate.
French filmmaker Éric Rohmer’s male protagonists always seem to suck just a little bit more than everybody else. This is intentional, of course. The filmmaker took deep enjoyment out of exposing the casual narcissism of a particularly privileged class of men. I fought hard picking between two of his slimiest leads in La Collectioneuse (1967) and Le Genou de Claire (1970), but ultimately, the unsavory climax of the latter convinced me that my choice for the most supremely intolerable guy to ever hit the silver screen is the predatory Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy).
Claire’s Knee, unfortunately, is just as creepy as it sounds. I would never knock a fetish if it was consensual but, alas, this middle-aged man becomes obsessed first with emotionally manipulating a tween and later feeling up (I guess you could put it that way) her teenage sister’s leg. I could write a whole separate piece on why his equally mischievous friend Aurora is complacent in his vulturine advances, but that is an argument for another day.
Jérôme is engaged to be wed to a woman whom he confidently claims he doesn’t even like that much (if he did, he would get bored of her, which apparently would be worse), and is still having extremely inappropriate conversations with an often solo 13-year-old who really doesn’t know any better. I won’t spoil the whole film, but yes, he does eventually forcefully kiss her in order to demystify her interest in him. I am pretty sure there are other ways, man. Weirdo!
Then, naturally, he gets bored and moves right along to her older sister who is smart enough to rebuke his advances and even has a boyfriend, which tends to be the only sign men respect when a woman says she’s not interested. So, like any normal person, he just goes about his days trying to find a way to break them up. Because: he really wants to touch her knee.
This movie probably sounds terrible at a glance, but Rohmer’s writing is the stuff of wonders. He articulates Jérôme’s justifications for his actions with finesse, all the while standing slightly at a distance, letting the man contradict himself and freely subserve to his most banal impulses. He's not portrayed as a social recluse or a man who is looking for a perverted escape from life's stresses; his curiosity is provoked purely by a sentiment of ennui. Rohmer contrasts the character’s machiavellian maneuvers with the beauty of the Annecy setting. It’s a master class in building character intention and tricking the audience into seeing things the protagonist’s way, culminating in the uncomfortably gratifying satisfaction of his desires. I may not watch it again, but boy, what a character to frown upon.
David Simon’s seminal crime drama The Wire, set in Baltimore, is all about how American societal institutions have failed their citizens, leading to a cycle of violence and negligence. The characters of The Wire are just trying to navigate through a world pervaded by these institutions, which are often indifferent to their plights, if not hostile and even deadly. No matter what side of the law they’re on, or whether they’re a hero or a villain, these characters are trying to emerge from these systems intact.*
*Except for Marlo, played by Jamie Hector. Introduced in Season 3 as an upstart rival to the declining Barksdale drug organization, he doesn’t share the values of cooperation that Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) do. He’s out for power that he can call his own.
Marlo embodies cold ruthlessness in his quest to dominate Baltimore’s drug trade. In doing so, he becomes the tyrannical king, disposing of anyone who might even remotely undermine his position. The Wire pre-Marlo still boasts ruthless characters like Stringer Bell, who orders the murder of a teenager on the mere suspicion of talking to the police, but these characters are humanized to an extent with their nuanced worldviews and relationships with others. Marlo has no friends or relations to speak of – he’s in it for him, and wants only for power.
Jamie Hector’s performance has an economical quality to it that underscores this almost utilitarian motivation. His movements are precise and deliberate. When he speaks, not a syllable is wasted. Hector’s face often assumes a reptilian expression, accentuating his cold-bloodedness.
Marlo’s unrelenting drive for power, and the respect that comes with it, manifests itself in horrifically petty ways when he’s undermined. When confronted by a security guard for stealing a lollipop from a corner store, he tells the man, “You want it to be one way…but it’s the other way.” The security guard, an honest, hardworking man, wants to be respected by the world he inhabits, but Marlo is the type of person who commands respect in that world. Marlo later orders the guard’s murder in response to his insubordination. With regard to these dynamics of respect, Marlo is like the institutions that preside over the characters that populate the show. His callous disregard for others in the pursuit of dominance mimics the way societal institutions have come to disregard the livelihood of individual human beings and their outcomes in life as they’ve become corrupted by money and power.
Didn’t get enough discomfort from Lydia’s contribution? Well, you’re in luck. I have another creep for you: David (Peter Sarsgaard) from An Education (2009).
What is most troubling about Peter is that you could call him sweet. He’s a charmer with a boyish smile, not alarmingly fit and not intimidatingly rigid. Even as a second-time viewer, Sarsgaard’s performance lulls me into a false sense of security. But I know better! Despite his attempts to hide his true nature, David, a grown man, is still pursuing Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl.
Methodically building trust with Jenny’s parents, David whisks her away from her hometown, first across London and then across the Channel to Paris. Under the guise that he is providing her with real-world experiences that the classroom cannot grant, David is in reality hooking Jenny on alcohol, cigarettes and excitement so that she does not return to the life she once knew. In addition to taking her metaphorical innocence, David sleeps with Jenny after her seventeenth birthday, as she made a promise to herself to not have sex until then. It is evident that he did not prioritize her pleasure when, after the fact, Jenny listlessly wonders how so much poetry, songs, and film are dedicated to “something that lasts no time at all.”
The worst (but most realistic) part of David and Jenny's entanglement is that he leaves unscathed. And Jenny is a ruined young lady in the eyes of her parents and her teachers. Her dreams of a sophisticated college life full of foreign film and English literature are temporarily derailed. Realizing this, Jenny blames her parents for entrusting her to David so easily. She confronts David's friends who played along with the charade. Both parties point out that Jenny played along as well by not divulging the whole truth to her parents.
Ending with an apology to her teacher, Jenny is redeemed. And yes, Jenny needed growth, but lest we forget that growth stemmed from a grown man preying on a schoolgirl's openness and naivete. Of course, the film would lose its meaning if Jenny did not face any consequences for her actions, but David continuing to live as a serial predator after getting the best of my girl Jenny means that I will hate him until I'm in the ground. Jail for the banana scene automatically.
The avant-garde term “sleaze-bag” starts and ends with one colorful character of the Paul Verhoeven catalog, Clarence Boddiker of Robocop (1987). One of the main scums and downright cruel citizens of the movie, a character that, when introduced, upholds the highest grade of “ass-holery” one could hope for from a cinematic grub. Set in the world of Verhoeven’s Robocop, in which crime is rampant and justice is corporatized Mr. Boddiker comfortably slithers into this landscape world of filth and evil profit.
Wielding a big gun and an even bigger ego, Boddiker makeshifts into a phenomenal asshole that eats away at his surroundings by way of his phenomenally sarcastic attitude. We also learn he is a natural leader. Spending a large portion of the movie waging war on the innocent public and the titular Robocop with his merry band of cartoon-level anarchy agents, the man at one point begins blowing up cars because it makes him laugh.
Portrayed by the phenomenal Kurtwood Smith, Clarence’s 24/7 seedy-business mindset sets him apart from many of the juiced, action adversaries of the ’80s, and ’90s. Whether he be wise-cracking puns to dying innocents, insulting his peers, or even finding the opportunity to spit his own blood on things he doesn't like (twice, once on Robocop in the midst of being read his Miranda rights and the second on a legal arrest document in a police station before delivering the stupendous line-delivery “just give me my fuckin’ phone call"), you simply cannot top this. So here’s to you, Clarence! You’re a complete ass with no class.
-Nick, Jonathan, Lydia, Josh, Grace, & Jack