We’ve dedicated a lot of words to discussing how framing, writing and other magic tricks can manipulate readers into liking characters they shouldn’t. And we’ve done so because I am clearly a villain and it’s important to understand my people. In all of these discussions, we’ve almost ignored one key aspect that can truly sell you on a bad guy: charm.
It’s what makes Negan from The Walking Dead so damn good. He’s a sly bastard. You may have dated a guy (or several) like him. He’s positively exuding in a certain sort of energy that almost makes it okay that he’s for sure a murderer.
And while I could have an entire blog just dedicated to charming villains (perhaps an anime tie-in or two, as well) I wanted to use this time to talk about one of my favorite directors: Quentin Tarantino and how he effectively mastered our brains into liking two of the worst possible people and I get to discuss two of my favorite movies of all time: Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Is this self-indulgent? Yes. Will you continue to join me for this ride? I certainly hope so.
We’ll start with what may be my favorite movie right under another Tarantino classic (the answer to number 1 is Kill Bill), Inglorious Basterds. This movie. This powerhouse of a movie centers around a group of Jewish-American soldiers during WWII who heroically (and in a blood-filled fever dream) fight against actual Nazis and aim to take out Hitler. It’s Tarantino at his best, having fun with an all-star cast and plenty of fake blood and glamour shots of feet. But this movie features one of the most charismatic bad guys in film in Hans Landa (expertly played by Christoph Waltz). Now, here’s the problem with Hans Landa: he’s just so fun to watch on screen. Each of his lines is fun and dripping with danger and Waltz chews up every scene he’s in. I’m leaving out a key detail which is that Colonel Hans Landa is a Nazi and this isn’t a euphemism, he’s an actual German soldier and a very proud one at that. He will tell you that he’s only doing his job when he has to perform violence. He will explain the “reasons” he is a racist and he will do so quite well. He will tout the experience of his fellow German soldiers and how proud he is of Germany and the leader he serves. And if you keep listening, you start to like him. He’s fun when on screen, a damn near delight. He’s well-spoken, seems to know everything (which is scary) and when he’s excited about something; it’s damn near infectious: one of his last scenes where he marvels at his own use of the word “bingo” is a delight even though he is essentially holding our actual protagonists hostage. It’s a scene that I use a lot as a GIF set because it’s fun. Nazis shouldn’t be fun. Really, the entire movie has a tone problem with that but it’s Tarantino so most give him a past. Many of the German soldiers are more fleshed out characters than our actual protagonists and we spend a great deal of time with many German soldiers. We build a rapport with them so even though the movie is great about not rewarding them for being actual Nazis, we spend entirely too much time with them for there not to be a bond formed. It’s sad when Frederick Zoller dies at the end, we’ve spent so much time watching him woo a married woman. It’s sad when Wilhelm dies, he was a new father and a soldier who was doing his best. In this instance, it isn’t framing that wrongs us, it’s just the charisma of a great actor playing a terrible human being.
The best example of this is in our second example taken from a Tarantino movie: Calvin J. Candie. Oh, Mr. Candie. It’s really a shame that Jamie Foxx is so good in this film and he is still completely overshadowed by DiCaprio who really only appears in the last half of the entire film but the spotlight is on him as soon as he is on screen. That’s the power of DiCaprio. But in addition to a very charming man, Mr. Candie is also given some of the best lines in the damn film. He dresses well, is funny, is smarter than most of the antagonists of the film. He has a lovely plantation: CandieLand (yes, actually the name of the place) and almost all of those he “employs” (they are slaves) seem happier and better taken care of than the other slaves we’ve seen in Django Unchained. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The long and short of Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy centered around a slave named Django and his desire to get revenge on those who have wronged him. He teams up with a white dentist named King Schultz (not joking, this is a Tarantino movie so subtly be damned) who is played by Waltz (because he can only play German characters) and they go on doing what they can to disrupt the accepted reality that is slavery and to get back Django’s wife, Broomhilda (again, be damned subtly). Broomhilda had been sold off to Mr. Candie’s plantation which brings us back to our favorite Southern racist. Yes, I’m getting to that part. Calvin Candie is a slave-owner. He’s a racist. He’s every Southern stereotype wrapped up in a silk bow. And Tarantino does all he can to frame Candie as a bad guy. We first meet him running an illegal Fight Club with African slaves as bartering chips. He’s a monster who does not see the humanity in enslaved Africans. This is even more damaging because he uses rhetoric and “logic” (with the biggest possible quotes I can possibly generate). During Mr. Candie’s most powerful scene he explains quite plainly that he has every right to enslave Africans. To him and his “science” (again with giant quotes) of phrenology, they are lesser than he is. And he’s very quick to discuss just how strongly he feels about the whole slavery situation. And even though framing and his eventual death do highlight how awful Calvin Candie and the rest of his family is, DiCaprio is electric in this role. Hell, I miss him as a character as I watch the rest of the film: upon other watches I’ll tend to stop shortly after his character dies and then resume the film just to get to one more scene. And I should not miss a racist. I should not miss a slave owner. I should not miss Calvin Candie. But because of writing and a masterful performance: I do.
And this isn’t a problem Tarantino seems to have in other films. We don’t go through Kill Bill thinking Bill is in the right despite an excellent performance from David Carradine (rest in peace). We spend so much time with The Bride and we learn so much about her revenge mission that no matter how good the performances are in the movie, we hate every single obstacle in her way. The same can be said for Hateful Eight which is a very appropriate title because this movie is devoid of anyone you can empathize with.
Charm is a part of the wider framing of baddies discussion because of the way it hijacks the brain’s logic center and creates a false connection to objectively terrible characters. And we could do an entire post on this just talking about anime (because, really, that’s my wheelhouse and you do not want to get me on that soap box…[Unless, you want me to. Leave a comment if you’d like for there to be a follow up to this just talking about anime.]) Charm is used to make you like a bad character and even though the frame around that character may still tell you this character is bad, it’s hard to hate someone who is so confidently evil.
It’s summed up by a line Negan gives us in The Walking Dead:
“I just slid my dick down your throat. And you thanked me for it.”
That’s it. The blog post could just be that line but I would like ad revenue one of these days and the current algorithm doesn’t like the profanity. But it’s exactly that swagger that made me want to cosplay Negan. It was that exact confidence and bravado that made me want to build a bat and made me walk with a little more power in my step. The moment I put on that jacket and zipped up my boots, I felt strong despite knowing that fact that Negan is a monster and wanting to be like him means becoming a monster.
Charm makes Ozymandias seem like a normal business man in Watchmen. Charm makes a racist lovable. And charm makes a literal Nazi a rooted for hero.
Charm is a skill good actors should have and really does separate the good from the great. The performances mentioned in this post are masterful and some of my favorites of all time and that is what makes them so damn insidious.