Ask any actor what roles are the most fun, and they’ll inevitably tell you they like to play the villain. As someone who once portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West in our high school production of The Wizard of Oz, I admit that I auditioned for that role specifically. I had my reasons. Among them was the fact that the part of Dorothy was almost guaranteed to the girl who reminded us all of a young Judy Garland (big voice, sweet face and all). I also wanted a chance to be intimidating, volatile and powerful. In other words, a whole lot of things that I’m not on a daily basis.
So imagine what happens when an agent tells their actor, “Hey, the Wachowski brothers want you to play the Devil!” It’s the artist’s ka-ching, is what.
Since writing has replaced acting for me, I get my kicks watching how these cinematic Satans are characterized. There are so many different interpretations out there. There’s the malevolent, sociopathic, purely evil Lucifer. There’s the Miltonian rebel. And then there’s the Devil that’s a composite of all these moving mythologies.
For your entertainment, I’ve narrowed it down to my top 3, if for no other reason than a good Devil is hard to find. Before I go on, I want to apologize to those who expected to see Al Pacino on the list. I like The Devil’s Advocate as much as the next guy, but if I’m honest, Pacino’s John Milton (real subtle) is too…conventional. He’s exactly the Devil you’ve always heard about. And I’ll be the first to agree that it works in the context of the movie. But me, I’m looking for compelling characterization. So here’s the countdown.
#3. Bedazzled – Peter Cook as “George Spiggott/The Devil”
What’s not to like about old George? He’s cool-headed, not judgemental in the least, and gives you exactly what you want, exactly how you asked for it. He’s handsome, has a great sense of humour, and enjoys long walks along London streets doling out generous quantities of daily mischief. He may be a fallen angel, but he has a good reason: he got tired of his glorification duties. As punishment, he’s now the world’s greatest trickster. But don’t blame him. As he judiciously points out, he’s just doing his job; aka, God’s will.
#2. Angel Heart – Robert De Niro as “Louis Cyphre/Lucifer”
I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t pick up on the name clue at first. I guess I got distracted by the detective story and the voodoo subplot. What I like most about Louis Cyphre is best summed up by my friend, who said, “I love a Devil who plays by the rules.” And how does he do that? For one, he never actually tells Harry Angel that he’s the one they’re looking for. Instead, Louis leads the private investigator down a path that will make him draw that conclusion himself. Kind of passive-aggressive, you’ll say, but them’s the rules in the Job story, right? You can’t beat him up directly, but you can destroy everything that has meaning in his life. In Angel Heart, Louis Cyphre strips Harry Angel of his perceived identity, and helps him remember that he’s actually Johnny Favorite, a ruthless murderer who made a deal with the Devil. And now the Devil’s collecting. Interestingly enough, this Devil doesn’t do any evil. None, in fact. The best part, though, is how deliciously creepy Robert De Niro is in this role.
#1. Faraway, So Close! – Willem Dafoe as “Emit Flesti/Time Itself”
There’s some debate about whether or not this guy is actually the Devil. But in the trailer, that’s how they ID him. So I’m going to go with that simply because he is the best, most complex representation of this character that I’ve seen. Besides the fact that Willem Dafoe was most righteously cast in this role, there’s also everything that the character is about. His name, spelled backwards, is “Time Itself.” And that’s what he does: he controls time. What’s evil about that? Nothing, except that it’s just another one of those pesky, limiting human inventions. And like all devils, Emit Flesti uses human weakness – an ingredient found in the silly things we dream up – to mix his brew. Does he do any evil? You might say so. He tempts the angel-turned-human Cassiel with gambling and alcohol, but only because these are things the latter was so drawn to anyhow. If anything, Emit seems to lead Cassiel straight to his destiny, which is to sacrifice himself for those he loves. Without Emit’s intervention, these things can’t happen. And because Emit is time, it’s his job to get you to your destination. Perhaps what’s most devil-like about him is the reign he seems to have over all things not-heaven, or rather, all things earth. But none of this makes him a bad guy, just a little liminal. Right at the edge of heaven, since he doesn’t like to hang out with the other angels. And just on the periphery of human existence, where he mostly goes unnoticed. But really, isn’t limbo just another word for “hell?”
Honourable mention: Beat the Devil – Gary Oldman as “The Devil”
Most people remember the short BMW movie directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Madonna. Beat the Devil was another instalment in that series. Also starring Clive Owen as the driver, the story follows James Brown as he tries to renegotiate his contract with the Devil, who gave him fame and fortune in exchange for his soul. Gary Oldman’s turn as the Prince of Darkness is part Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, part Ziggy Stardust, and pure Oldman. The movie’s a bit jerky but the style is flawless.