Trial: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?
*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*
This week’s question: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?
Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Levi Hill
Easily, the best villain — or rather, villains — of the year comes from Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The Armitage family function as terrific movie villains in every conceivable way. They offer thrills that more than justify the price of an admission ticket, but also transcend the entertainment value of a masterfully crafted horror film.
The Armitages hold up a mirror to our society in the most affecting way possible, presenting us with a clan of white liberals that are as destructive as any MAGA-branded, outed racist and as insidious as Freddie Krueger. Sure, maybe Dean (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama for a third term, but the way he drives the point home is more like a nervous tic designed to hide a deep-seated undercurrent of racism, rather than anything remotely approaching sincerity. It’s a feeble attempt at preserving the illusion of white racial innocence, an illusion that is outed as soon as the Armitages host their party — less of a party, and more of a montage of barbed microaggressions.
And if it wasn’t obvious that the Armitages are innately and intensely harmful, then they reveal themselves as outright monsters when they enact their body-snatching plan, trapping Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in the Sunken Place while they perform their heinous operation. Jordan Peele has been direct in naming the Sunken Place as a metaphor for the silencing of Black voices, while the Armitages’ body-snatching operation is a literal takeover of Black bodies.
Though I can’t know what it’s like to view Get Out as a Black audience member, it is clear that Peele’s film is a cinematic expression of racial anxiety — one made from a uniquely Black perspective. This expression of racial anxiety is effective, by and large, because of the Armitages, and the writing behind them.
Going beyond the abstract, the Armitages are an example of compelling villains, particularly Rose (Allison Williams). When she gets found out, she resorts to attempting to seduce Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a truly despicable moment in a film filled with them. She also tries to use her whiteness to pin the violent third act on Chris. Thankfully, it doesn’t work, but it once again exemplifies the depths of depravity that define Rose. Jeremy’s (Caleb Landry Jones) overbearing masculinity and Missy’s (Catherine Keener) hypnotic tea cup only add to the villainy.
Ultimately, the Armitages represent a villain we’ve never seen before. As white liberals, the Armitages are a far-cry from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), or the snarling Epps (Michael Fassbender), which allows them to lend nuance to conversations about race, making them significant in the pantheon of film. Confronting racial anxieties has become ever more important — this country’s leadership is exacerbating such anxieties, rather than soothing them and finding solutions to them. Therefore, it is up to us to shoulder that burden, and films like Get Out — through its nuanced villains, among other aspects — can point us in the right direction.
While it’s an especially on-brand choice, I believe that my pick for the best villain of the year so far is the right one: “the enemy” from Dunkirk. We’ve seen “the enemy” in countless pictures before — flaunted with their symbol, uniform and leader. But we’ve never seen them quite like this. In Dunkirk, “the enemy” is faceless, a haunting spectre that terrorizes the British soldiers like the shark does to the beach goers in Jaws. And in that sense, “the enemy” is all the more frightening for it. Not only is there a sense of realism to the approach — as the real soldiers themselves almost certainly lacked any visual — but it also allows Christopher Nolan to get creative.
The main visual we do have are the ME 109 planes, and there’s something about how they’re realized that’s more terrifying than if we were also in their cockpits. They pop up of nowhere, coming “out of the sun.” They follow determinedly, with an unstoppable motivation, a horrifying monster always on our soldiers’ tails, and they hold equal terror in their evasion, a villain just out of grasp.
But with any other visuals taken away, Nolan turns to the other sensory aspects, mainly sound. The sound design of Dunkirk almost feels as though it’s for a horror film, which leads to some seriously horrific scenes of destruction and death. As eyes wander into the sky and bodies start to scramble or duck for cover, the hard cut to the approaching dive-bombers, their intimidation horns sounding out, is literally arresting and utterly transfixing.
And their impact is devastating, with bombs lifting sand and soldiers into the air and gunshots splintering and riddling the wood of the mole as man after man takes cover.
“The enemy” terrifies even simply with its guns. Bullets pierce without origin, with a purpose solely to murder. The opening scene as soldier after soldier falls and, when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over the fence, the gate is blown apart by countless bullets stands next to the Dutch ship scene where three gunshots inject endless fear into the soldiers below as two of the most frightening in the film.
And that’s exactly where “the enemy” becomes more than just a faceless villain. Below deck of the Dutch ship, and on deck of the Moonstone with the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), our men start to tear each other apart, absolutely terrified by the thought of murder. “The enemy” invokes a fear of annihilation, a fear that digs into our characters’ bones and causes them to turn on each other — the only direct uses of “German” being directed at our own allies. While the sounds are scary as all hell, and would alone be almost enough reason to win, it’s the effect that “the enemy” creates here that puts them over the top. Without ever being seen, they get into the minds of our heroes and almost pull them apart.
We’ve all been granted far too omnipresent, omniscient views of “the enemy” in countless films before. Dunkirk’s rendering is one of the first that shows us how real soldiers likely saw them. And we all know who they are and what they stand for, so seeing them in this light is refreshing and, truly and immensely, far more terrifying.
First and foremost, Kyle, your undying love of all things Nolan will never cease to draw my utmost respect and admiration. Additionally, before I make my points, I would like to emphasize that my rebuttal is not intended to detract from the validity of “the enemy” as a movie villain, nor as a real-world source of evil. I am in no way saying that Nazis are less terrifying than the Armitages — both represent terrible evils that must be stamped out with the utmost vigor.
While I admire Nolan’s creativity in showing characters reacting to “the enemy,” I will assert that the uniqueness of the Armitages in cinema makes them the more significant villain. Jordan Peele doesn’t show us images of overt racism, but rather tries to impart a deeper understanding of the fears and anxieties of Black people by showing us villainous white liberals — people that seem harmless enough, but would reject such a deeper understanding, which only intensifies the aforementioned fears and anxieties.
Both Nolan and Peele show us new takes on villains we’ve seen before, but I would argue that Peele gives us new dimensions to a conventional racist antagonist, whereas Nolan removes dimensions from his Nazi antagonists. Again, this is not a criticism, just an observation — I mean, Nolan doesn’t give them faces or names. Nolan streamlines his antagonists, distilling “the enemy” into one thing — the sense of fear they cause.
In contrast, Peele gives the Armitages many different angles of deplorability — the privilege that Rose embraces, the objectification of Black people that all of the Armitages are guilty of, and the denial of a Black person’s consciousness that is the Armitages’ ultimate goal. Solely in regard to the films, the Armitages represent a wider swath of villainy than “the enemy.”
Finally, the Armitages are a deliberate exercise in scathing social commentary. While “the enemy” is as relevant today as they were in 1940, Dunkirk doesn’t deliberately position its antagonists as social commentary. “The enemy” exists in the film to escalate tension, but does little else, unlike the Armitages in Get Out. As such, Get Out has the better villain, on the basis that the Armitages antagonize Chris, while also serving the film’s satiric and symbolic ends.
Similarly to your rebuttal, it’s difficult to argue against how good of villains the Armitages are. Get Out is truly a landmark film and the unforgiving, scathing, honest and raw depiction of the damage that white liberals, apparent allies, cause is deeply nuanced in regard to how Jordan Peele writes and directs them. It’s a deeply needed portrayal within cinema. So, in rebutting, my framing is to simply show how “the enemy” is a better villain, not how the Armitages are worse.
I have to address the comment about how Nolan removes dimensions from “the enemy” because that’s exactly why they’re so phenomenally impactful. We know what “the enemy” stands for. We know the absolute atrocities that they committed and we’ve been beaten over the head with depictions of their deplorable ideology.
Thus, when Nolan removes those dimensions to focus in on a singular aspect, it actually enhances “the enemy” in ways that only reduction could. Dunkirk focuses on the visceral, invasive physicality of “the enemy” and its devastation. The film shows us images of death, tactics of intimidation — the “We surround you” papers are breathtaking in how much evil three words exude despite their simplicity — and effects of fear like we’ve never seen them before. So, because we already know the nuance, or lack thereof, of who “the enemy” is and what they represent, showing them in this light is actually a grander, more impactful and more horrifying rendering of them than we’ve gotten before.
It’s like Jaws, but if the shark were a Nazi. It’s like a Nazi shark. I mean, come on.
As I said before, the Armitages are terrifying villains. And I don’t want to argue with how Peele depicts them — it’s an approach that does its job and does it so well that it becomes deeply resonant in today’s world. I think, in purely cinematic terms, their tracks could’ve been laid a bit more methodically. I don’t mean this to undermine how abrasive and jarring white people’s microaggressive statements are, but it feels as though, in terms of cinematic crafting of villains, they might have even been more effective with a more paced out progression.
It’s difficult to argue that Get Out isn’t clearly more of a social commentary than Dunkirk is, but I do think that Dunkirk has a very subtle political idea that goes along with not naming “the enemy.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mark Rylance posited the idea that the Germans have been villainized enough in regard to the Nazis. They’re a country with guilt hanging over their heads and, more importantly, they’re a country that’s moved on from that evil while it’s in America where, somehow, neo-Nazis now hold a world stage. In that sense, not naming “the enemy” becomes more empathetic and all encompassing as it’s not a people that the soldiers were fighting, but rather an ideology. The soldiers were fighting fear and hatred, and that is something still relevant today.
As the second edition of Trial, or the Kyle vs. Harrison show, I once again had the dubious honor of having to choose between two wonderful arguments. Yet, instead of masking who I think is the winner, like I did last time, I will just come out and say that Harrison, once again, wins in a tough battle. Reading the rebuttals of both, I feel that this edition offered much more succinct arguments from both sides. Both promoted their arguments and neither attempted to bring down the others. That is a testament to the strength of both writers and the ideas behind both.
Kyle’s argument about how “the enemy” revolutionizes how we typically see war villains is true. It did. And Nolan’s Dunkirk is a stunning achievement. The way that it’s the ideology being fought — a violent, pretty much unseen force — is a frightening metaphor for how those violent, deep-rooted ideologies can pervade at any time. It’s quite like the shark in Jaws, as Kyle mentions, but with real ideological fervor and fear. Hatred and fear still persist today — both nameless and faceless.
But to me, the tangible reality of Get Out’s villains, the Armitages and white liberals, are a far too pertinent villain of today.
Peele’s film magnifies the anxieties regarding the way African Americans are viewed within society — with their voices silenced, with their bodies sexualized and glorified, with their minds traumatized — and the film confronts both openly racist and subtly racist white people and their causation in the way society problematically operates today. Because of the fact that Get Out puts a face to the ideologies and spends time letting the audience get to know the fake-good intentions of the Armitages, only to show their truly monstrous and manipulative plans, Peele makes a specific, yet wide critique of white people in America.
Ideologies scare us all. But a face to the ideology scares us just a little more.
Winner: Harrison Tunggal
Do you agree with Levi’s verdict? Sound off in the comments for which villain you think is better, or if you would’ve chosen another one entirely.
Featured image via Universal Pictures.