Do you feel the bad guys reap what they sow? Usually, media conventions on plot development, or tropes, establish the baddie will receive its punishment, one way or another, after the good guys “win” on whatever conflict they were facing. Recent decades, however, have seen a shift on the consideration of a villain, rising its importance to the story as the same level of the protagonist (Miles, 2015). TV shows such as Los Soprano, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, or Dexter feature villains as main characters. Importantly, though, is how their arc develops during the course of the plot. Beforehand, there was a moralizing intention, meaning that stories featured villains doomed by their actions at the end (Marqués, 2016). However, modern media disregards this motivation in favour of a “realistic” portrayal of crime and evil (TV tropes). Nowadays, the villain is able to escape “karma” and gets no punishment from his actions. This shift permeates as well in other genres apart from TV dramas, and can also be seen in movies and literature.
Recently I got to watch the movie Drive (2011). One of my afterthoughts about the film wandered about the implications of an admittedly minor aspect: Being a revenge story, I noticed that the retribution the villains received was quite variable. In particular, the mob leaders received from the protagonist (spoiler) a much less “gory” death than their henchmen. In theory, revenge plots in media would translate “violence against the villains” with ” justice“. I would like to draw attention to this, not only as part of the recent shift about how we conceive villains, but also as symbolic of our society. My main argument that I want to discuss here is that these moments indirectly capture the prevalent concept idea of impunity towards the élite, reflecting current and formerly criminal prosecution cases against economical élites. Because the media helps creating and perpetuating “myths” about crime (Holtzman, Sharpe; 2014), I propose examining some examples in which this impunity towards the upper class is sublimed in movies, starting with the one that made me think about this.
In Drive, the main protagonist is an unnamed getaway driver. He is led to participate in a heist in order to help a neighbouring family he got to know and cares about. After the robbery, he is targeted by the very same people he had to work with, in order to leave no loose ends of the heist. Furthermore, the Jewish mob leaders, who ordered the raid, realize too late they stole money from the Italian mafia. Fearing their wrath, they proceed to execute anyone involved, including their own henchmen that knew of the heist. The driver becomes trapped in this showdown, as his heist companions are also killed. Determined to avenge their deaths and to survive, the protagonist tracks the leaders of the mob to kill them.
The film is characterized by its extreme portrayal of violence. One of the more remarkable scenes is a composition of a romantic kiss between the driver and his love interest, juxtaposed with the sudden fight with an assassin who was going to kill them. The protagonist finishes him off by smashing the skull to a degree such that the head becomes almost pulp. The camera shows clearly the execution to make a point of the driver’s transformation from a “white-knight” into a reckless man-hunter. This is not the only explicit death in the film. Out of a total of eight deaths, only three could be considered not to show explicit violence. What is surprising is how clean in comparison the deaths of the mob leaders are compared to the henchmen working for them. For both of leaders, the camera focuses only partially in the assassination. In the first one, drowned, the film shot has a general perspective, making the participants of the scene look small under a landscape of sea. For the second killing, the execution is framed almost entirely on the shadows, while the driver stabs the mob leader. All two leaders are not brutally killed, in comparison to the henchman and companions of the driver. It could be argued that the leaders did not die in a gruesome way since they were portrayed by famous actors. While I cannot deny this, and may be partially true, it is worth noticing that Christina Hendricks plays one of the gangsters working for the mobs. Critically, her character dies by receiving a shotgun blast in the head, and the camera shows in full detail the gruesome execution. This could counter argue the thesis suggesting that violent deaths only occur for non-famous actors/actresses. So, if we assume as valid that villainous individuals in high ranks received a “testimonial” justice in the movie Drive compared to low-tier villains, we should ask ourselves if this phenomenon occurs in other movies, and why.
A more recent movie that can provide an example is the movie Django Unchained (2012) by Quentin Tarantino. The quest of the protagonist leads to a constant fight against villains, and the director is famously renounced by an “aestheticization of violence” (Morales, 2003; Foundas, 2009). In this American Western revision, Django, the main character, is a former black slave aided by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, in a quest to rescue his wife from slavery. Their attempt goes awry and they become trapped by the charismatic malicious Calvin J. Candie, owner of an extensive plantation, who employs Django’s wife as part of his slave work-force. Candie forces them to buy her freedom rights for a high sum of money after threatening them. As Schultz formalizes the payment, Candie demands to Schultz shaking hands as a gesture of deal sealed. Candie threatens to call off the negotiations otherwise, and Schultz angrily reacts to his provocations by shooting Candie in the heart.
Throughout the movie both the protagonists and the villainous characters have killed numerous people, and all deaths have shown various degrees of explicit violence: from huge splashes of blood, screams, brain sections flying from their victims, eyes squashed, and a slave being eaten alive by dogs. Tarantino puts the audience’s attention straight to all this violence. Interestingly, Schultz’s shot on Candie only leaves a few traces of blood into Candie’s suit. We the audience get to see the reaction of awe from the plantation owner, quite vividly, before he falls off the ground. Furthermore, Candie’s expression is not of pain or suffering, but extreme surprise. The “cleanliness” of his death contrasts abruptly with the following showdown between all the henchmen who try to exact revenge and Django. The ensuing mass shooting makes no effort in showing how pleasing violence is for Tarantino (Foundas, 2009); reaching the point of being almost literally a bloodbath. Similarly to Drive, all the henchmen, trade slavers, slaves, and bounty hunters are killed explicitly, showing a high degree of violence, but not for the established owner of the plantation, Candie.
What is interesting is how Tarantino writes a similar pattern in another of his movies, Inglourious Basterds (2009), albeit with a twist in its treatment towards the main villain. Before that, it is important to draw a thesis from this movie’s analysis. Although this war-film features Nazis and a plot to assassinate key Nazi’s leaders, my impression is that Hitler is ironically not the main villain of the story. Tarantino focused his attention throughout the movie in the character of Hans Landa, a SS coronel who was determined to capture the squad of Allies, the Basterds. He was the one playing mind games against the spies. While the black ops group planned a way to destroy the Nazi apparatus, Landa correctly guessed their intentions and was able to react swiftly. Not only that, it could be said that he worked with the Nazis, but not for the Nazis, since he allowed the Basterds’ plot to succeed. In his position, he managed to capture them and negotiate immunity rights, thus escaping theoretically any type of prosecution for his acts. Seen as this, the fact that Landa avoid justice charges instead of any other Nazi and German present in the movie could validate previous claims on how the high-ranked villains face a different treatment compared to low-tier villains.
However, Tarantino did not leave the character of Landa to escape without consequence: after letting himself arrested, he gets carved in the forehead a swastika, as a sign that he would always be a Nazi. Not only that, we as an audience get to see in close detail how the American officer pierces and cuts Landa’s tissue with his long knife. Moreover, Landa is clearly shown to experience full pain and suffering throughout the carving. This is an opposite treatment compared to Django Unchained and especially Drive, in which Candie and the mobs are killed in a “clean” way. Perhaps Tarantino chose this event to unfold as Nazis are considered more “evil”, hence the inevitable labelling usage in comparisons (Godwin’s Law), and it would feel more justifiable “punishing” them. However, Landa saved his life and acquired lifetime rewards and immunity, while all main Nazi’s politicians are killed and many German soldiers violently die from the Basterd’s actions. From this perspective, Landa, as a high-rank villain, remains untouched in comparison to other villains, which reinforces my main thesis.
What does that leave us with? Admittedly, the trope of the bad guy winning is not new at all, and has appeared numerous times across all media. We know that in reality the black and white morality is a lot less clear and that there exist across history many instances of failed justice delivery. But while this aspect is mirrored and acknowledged, I argue that there is also a subtle effect on the way the media portrays justice that also reflects how we view our current world. Remember that the villainous characters herewith described did eventually get punish, one way or another. However, the downgrade of violence received towards them, compared to others, and the visual framing used to show that retribution, is significant. From my point of view, this lenient treatment runs parallel with the trope conception of bad guys winning. Perhaps this could involuntary show what is our perception on the “evil” élites: a collective unconscious agreement in which they must not be crushed by the moral adjudicator, which in movies would probably be the protagonist. By contrast, no consideration is done for the people working for the “villains” leaders. Throughout the examples described, I found that those in the low-ranks, the ones executing the orders, receive in general brutal executions by the protagonists or even the people to whom work for. This apathy, almost insensitivity for the henchmen could be explained for two reasons: first, they are considered the hands of the main villains; just a tool for their purposes, and as such, they become dehumanised. Second, they could be used as tokens to show violence and confrontation, to raise the stakes of the plot.
I would argue, however, that this could also have a more symbolic interpretation. The “clean” death the main villains suffer in comparison to their henchmen could mirror the differential prosecution white-collar criminals face in real life. That is, a general impression they remain largely untouchable. Several authors (Black, 2013; Mayer et al, 2014; Ryder, 2014; Michel et al, 2016) on academia pointed out that upper-class criminality is often ignored and less prosecuted, even though it is considered to create a bigger impact on society than street crime. For instance, while a report estimated in 2011 that 14,000 people died in USA each year due to homicides, deaths related to corporative malpractice and unethical behaviour caused an estimated number of 300,000 annual deaths, including company’s willing negligence in work-safe security, toxic waste dumping, toxic chemical exposure-related illnesses, medical malpractice, faulty consumer products, and nefarious addictive substances (cited from Michel et al, 2016). It is theorized that the legislative branch of governments, who form a distinct group of officials, might be tempted to protect certain interests of corporations and states. Not only that, even warnings from prosecution agencies may be ignored (Mayer et al, 2014; Ryder, 2014). For instance, the FBI issued a statement in 2004 warning that the mortgage frauds in US would explode into a financial crisis. We know in retrospect that, years afterwards, the 2007-2008 mortgage and loan system collapsed and ensued the latest financial crisis that has shocked the world’s economy (Ryder, 2014). Despite the warning from the bureau, however, the declared war on Terrorism by the US after 9/11 made the US administration focus its resources in counter-terrorist operations (Black, 2013). That meant for the bureau to withdraw resources from the FBI departments that investigated mortgage and subprime loan frauds. This, in turn, lead to the impossibility of the agency to prosecute those crimes before the mortgage bubble exploded (Black, 2013; Ryder, 2014). For the common folk, there is even a misrepresentation of white-collar crime: while the public knowledge of upper-class criminality has increased, in general people still hold “myths” about crime. Those “myths” overrepresent the seriousness of street crime against white-collar crime. For instance, participants in an exploratory survey (Michel et al, 2016) had little and erratic knowledge of white-collar crimes and their consequences on society, even though they were aware that white-collar offenders faced almost no legal repercussions. This lack of knowledge could be derived by the focus of media on street crimes, which would keep alive the believe society is increasingly unsafe.
All of this might sound too extreme. Comparing the less “gory” deaths of movie villains with the stagnant problem of white-collar crime? While admittedly this last paragraph might imply a strong connection between them, I would reply an hypothetical sceptical reader as follows: As I stated before, this “lenient” death treatment fits nicely with the before mentioned trope of “bad guys winning”, which in itself reflects the perception that evil prevails without punishment. We could say that crime is a construct linked with the evil, especially when it is developed at the expense of what society considers morally acceptable or right. Therefore, a failure of the justice system towards white-collar crime behaviours is an instance where evil would prevail.
In all case, I would like to leave this point for discussion. While I tried reaching some conclusions on what interpretation -if any- this phenomenon may have, I’m quite open to the possible readings this may have by others. What do you think could all this mean? I’ll leave the question open for discussion to the reader.
References/ further readings
Black, William K. (2013) Why CEOs are able to loot with impunity- and why it matters. In Will, S; Handelman, Brotherton, D (Eds.), How they got away with it: white collar criminals and the financial meltdown (pp 171-177). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Fisher, J.Q.C. (2014) Risk, recklessness and policing the financial markets. In Fighting financial crime in the global economic crisis [Ryder N., Turksen,U., Hassler, S. (Eds.)] Retrieved from http://www.tandfebooks.com/isbn/9781315867663
Foundas, S. (2009) Is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds the war movie to end all war movies? Film Comment; Jul/Aug 2009; 45, 4; 28-33. ABI/INFORM Trade & Industry
Holtzman, L., Sharpe, L., Gardner, J.F. (2015). The connections: Life, Knowledge, and Media. In Media messages: what film, television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation (pp 3-56). New York, NY: Routledge.
Marques, M. J. B. (2016) The one who knocks: the hero as villain in contemporary televised narratives. Retrieved from Repositório Universidade Nova: FCSH: DLCLM – Dissertações de Mestrado (http://hdl.handle.net/10362/19738)
Mayer, D., Cava, A. Baird, C. (2014) Crime and Punishment (or the Lack Thereof) for Financial Fraud in the Subprime Mortgage Meltdown: Reasons and Remedies for Legal and Ethical Lapses. Am Bus Law J, 51: 515–597. doi:10.1111/ablj.12033
Michel, C., Cochran, J.K., Heide, K.M. (2016) Public knowledge about white-collar crime: an exploratory study. Crime Law Soc Change, 65, 67-91. Doi: 10.1007/s10611-015-9598-y
Miles, T. (2015) Sympathy for the devil: Walter White and a case for the villain’s journey. (Master thesis) Retrieved from Truman State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015. 1591979.
Morales, X. (2003) Kill Bill: beauty and violence. The Harvard Law Record. Retrieved from http://hlrecord.org/2003/10/kill-bill-beauty-and-violence/
Ryder, N. (2014) The financial crisis and white collar crime -The perfect storm? [Edgaronline] Retrieved from https://www.elgaronline.com/view/9781781000991.00002.xml
TV Tropes (n.d.) The bad guy wins. Retrieved on May 2017 from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheBadGuyWins