The James Clayton Column: Searching for mystery missing villains

Feature James Clayton 25 Jan 2013 - 08:54

With Zero Dark Thirty in UK cinemas, James thinks back to cinema's other great mysteries and manhunts...

Zero Dark Thirty is a film about the real life hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it dramatises the CIA’s efforts to track down and then take down the infamous al-Qaeda leader responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks. Put really simplistically, it was a bit like an especially grave intercontinental game of hide-and-seek with religious extremists and a military industrial complex.

If this is all getting a little too serious for your tastes, you can peg it as a fresh thriller film from the woman who made Point Break - except now she’s more interested in waterboarding than surfboarding. Think of it as Where’s Wally? The Movie for the War on Terror era with extra torture scenes. Take the kids and all of you may inadvertently learn something about current affairs and recent history as a bonus.

There’s a lot of buzz around Zero Dark Thirty, partly because it’s gathered award nominations and is Bigelow’s first film since the tremendous success of The Hurt Locker. The movie’s also in the spotlight because it’s generating controversy, which isn’t surprising considering the subject matter. Does it push a particular partisan agenda and operate as insidious propaganda? Did the Obama administration improperly allow the moviemakers access to classified information? Is Zero Dark Thirty a pro-torture film that endorses extreme and inhumane interrogation methods as an effective way to combat terrorism?

I’ll leave the political debates to one side, and will instead focus on other features that combine to make Zero Dark Thirty a proposition that piques my interest. For a start, I’m excited about seeing another Kathryn Bigelow film with ‘Dark’ in the title - because 80s vampire western Near Dark is brilliant, and deserves to be commended for turning the cast of Aliens into bloodsucker outlaws (Bill Paxton exceptional as the ultimate undead badass). The main reason I’m drawn to Zero Dark Thirty, however, is its core premise which ranks as one of the most compelling story set-ups - the pursuit of a missing villain.

Bearing the tagline “The story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man”, Zero Dark Thirty has its cards on the table from the very start, and identifies itself as a film that’s all about a search. People like searches, which accounts for the eternal popularity of Where’s Wally? books.

There’s a clear purpose and an idealised end goal to reach and that’s why the notion of a journey to find something is so prominent in film, literature, videogaming and so on. Add an element of mystery to the tale - make the objective enigmatic - and you’re more likely to have the public hooked.

Done well, this sort of narrative centre makes for riveting pageturners and possessive thriller films which audiences eat up eagerly, desperately chasing answers to the questions, the solution to the mysteries and the unveiling of obscured truths. Even if the texts aren’t very good, people will stick with the stories just to find out ‘whodunit’ or get to the bottom of the puzzle.

I can’t stand the idea of starting a film about a search and not following it through to the end. I could never put down a Where’s Wally? book and, likewise, can’t be satisfied stopping a film once I’m engaged in its investigation and all its concurrent conundrums.

Presented with a question or a mystery we find our minds ensnared and that’s the joy of experiencing the unfolding of a great thriller. Even if the mystery is merely a MacGuffin, it still drives the narrative on and acts as bait to bring the viewer into the world of the protagonists.

There’s wisdom in the words of The Matrix’s Trinity when she says, “It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here.” You find that she’s right when you’re watching a film and realise that you’re compelled to keep on watching because you want to know who Jason Bourne really is, or where Jodie Foster’s daughter has been hidden - if she was ever even on the plane in the first place.

What are The 39 Steps? The Lady Vanishes, but where to, how and why? Not called the ‘Master of Suspense’ for nought, Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed making movies built around a beguiling question (even if it was a MacGuffin) and specialised in producing great movies in which the central mystery was an inexplicable person.

I put it to you, dear reader (ambiguous unknown figure existing outside of my immediate vision, if you exist at all), that the most tantalising mystery is an unknown, invisible living being. Briefly running my memory through film history I find that the most fascinating thrillers or ‘search’ movies are always characterised by a character who isn’t there on screen. They’re even more captivating when the elusive entities are dark and villainous which gives the ambiguity an added edge of unpleasantness.

For examples, see the manhunts of The Third Man and Apocalypse Now and then return to Hitchcock to consider the incognito killers of The Lodger and Frenzy. Likewise, ‘Mother’ in Psycho operates as a compelling antagonist as does the eponymous first Mrs de Winter in Rebecca. We don’t get to see these people but they dominate the entire movie as ominous, disembodied presences.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with in-your-face extrovert baddies who chew the scenery and hog the screen but, in my view, they’re inferior to esoteric villains who are conspicuous by their inconspicuousness.

Everybody in films such as Rebecca and Psycho are in the thrall to a phantom menace. Our leads are locked in a battle of wits and will against a nebulous nonentity that exerts control even though they’re not immediate and immanent. These psychological encounters make for highly cinematic material and also make the malevolent protagonist more unnerving.

We fear the unknown and the unfamiliar so when we’re not presented with a clear picture of ‘evil’ we get slightly disturbed. If we can’t rationalise the villain and reduce them to our own experiential understanding - get a sense of their shape and character - we’re confounded, confused and crippled by uncertainty.

A case study to illustrate this theory - Voldemort is scarier when he’s an abomination in absentia alluded to only in anxious whispers as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. Once you’ve seen him, spent time in his company and acclimatised to his corporeal form - hairless, noseless Ralph Fiennes - the Dark Lord’s power is diluted.

I think I prefer it when the evildoers are out of sight and operating in the shadows as untouchable overlords, yet to be made manifest in mundane terms. I enjoy the suspenseful build-up of The Third Man, Apocalypse Now and early 007 films as they create larger-than-life villains and make the pay-off of the eventual encounter between heroic searcher and target so much more rewarding.

The all-time horror classics - Jaws, Alien, Predator - share this sensibility and limit the visibility of their monster to achieve maximum effective impact upon the spectator’s nerves. Intrigue and the fear factor are at a premium when you can’t put a finger on the threat and are left waiting for a vague elusive enemy to strike.

It’s not a monster movie, but in its own way Zero Dark Thirty is touching upon these timeless tropes with its missing villain. By virtue of the fact that he can’t be found and necessitates a great search, Bin Laden takes on more power as an evil figure and pervades everything in a movie without ever having to be on screen. He’s a hyped entity - “the world’s most dangerous man” - and the whole point of the picture but he’s not even in it.

Even though we know they found Osama (though it may have been Marlon Brando with a fake beard?), Zero Dark Thirty is still offering up a premise with the potential to completely grip cinemagoers. As a fan of thrillers and missing villains, I’m eager to join in on the manhunt.

You can read James's previous column here.

James Clayton is frustrated that, even though he found the vanishing lady and Osama Bin Laden, he still has no idea where Wally is. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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