In the midst of writing my novel, Protecting the Girls, I needed to find out more about what makes a good antagonist because I was coming to the point when he would be introduced. I have since realized in another novel I am working on, when I introduced the antagonist, I stalled out and sought another writing venture. Just something for me to think about.
After conducting polls among family, friends, colleagues, Facebook, and writing forums, I found the three most well done antagonists are Nurse Ratched, from One Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Joker, played by Heath Ledger, in The Dark Knight, and Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction,
Last month, I attended a fundraiser for Maine Center for Creativity where they honored Glenn Close and her husband, David Shaw. During Glenn Close’s speech she said she never really felt like she played a villain, even as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. I can see why she felt this way, but my poll group does not see the difference between villain and antagonist. Protecting the Girls has more than one antagonist, but I would not consider all of them villains. The Joker is a villain and an antagonist. Alex Forrest and Nurse Ratched are antagonists but not villains.
The Joker is meant to be frightening. His character not only gets under the skin of film watchers but also the actors playing The Joker. Jack Nicholson, a former Joker, warned Heath Ledger about the role. In interviews, Ledger admitted he was suffering form anxiety, depression, and insomnia, for a time never sleeping more than two hours a night, while acting in The Dark Night. Before the conclusion of filming, Ledger overdosed on antidepressants, anxiety medication, and sleeping pills, and ultimately died while playing The Joker. I have to ask myself how is it possible for The Joker’s character to dive so deeply into a person’s psyche.
The effective traits of The Joker start with his make up. Years before, when Jack Nicolson played The Joker, his make up was nowhere near as frightening. The Joker’s clothes, hair, and his entire costume are deranged. During the film, The Joker explains to different characters how he got his scars. His scars and make up are supposed to make it look like he is always smiling, which adds to the creepiness of his character. He looks evil. He looks deranged. The Joker laughs in nearly every scene, which again adds to the creepiness.
Some of The Jokers lines are very poignant and explain why he is so creepy and different from the norm. He’s not just a bad guy. He doesn’t just live a regular day life and go out and kill at night. We never see The Joker when he’s not interacting with people because he has to be at the height of derangement and evil when he is with others.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker doesn’t hesitate to kill. He doesn’t show any remorse. He explains, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It is difficult to imagine that some men in the real world actually feel like this. But it is something that does not leave you after watching the movie. A person wonders if there really are men in the world who feel like that. It is certainly something that is not talked about outside a psychiatrist’s office. If we look at the mass killings, torture, the most evil acts in our world, we have to wonder if the people committing these crimes “Just want to watch the world burn,” or if they go home to families and consider this just a day job.
“The Joker has no rules. The hero has rules.” In The Joker’s mind, he can do whatever he wants. We never find out why he kills, why he steals; we just know he is amused when doing it. In the film, he burns a mountain of money because he can. The Joker wants to bring Batman to his knees. He kills the woman Batman loves, and he gets inside Batman’s head by telling him, “You complete me, to them you’re a freak like me.” Batman knows this is true. He cannot be a part of society just as The Joker cannot. The difference is The Joker does not have another life. We only see him as evil.
Towards the end of the film, The Joker tells Batman, “Madness is like gravity, all it needs is a little push.” This seems to be what happened to Heath Ledger; he appeared to be on the edge of madness and didn’t want to fall in. He used prescriptions to help keep himself from falling off the edge, but lost control and gravity made him fall.
The Joker’s madness is not the same as Alex Forrest’s in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest appeared normal. She was driven by her loneliness and desire to have what and whom she could not, a life with Dan Gallagher who was a married man. Alex is as much a victim in this movie as the accepted victim. Because we know the story about her fall from the world of sanity, we have compassion for her. As moral beings, we still know she is wrong and crazy, but we understand why she went crazy, even if in the same situation we do not feel we would not handle it the same way. Dan is intimate with Alex over and over again, filling the emptiness inside her. Right after, he rejects her, which creates the highs and lows her mind cannot handle. She stalks him, and her behavior becomes increasingly more frightening. It starts with phone calls, then escalates to throwing acid on his car, then visiting his wife, then abducting (but not harming) his child, to eventually breaking into their house, killing the beloved family pet, and trying to kill his wife and then him. In the end, it is Dan’s wife who kills Alex. She takes back the power, but seems to forgive her husband for having an affair and bringing this crazy woman into their life.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched works in a mental institution. Like the other films, the great antagonist is crazy in her own way. From the outside Nurse Ratched does not appear to be crazy. She is in complete control of her patients often using fear as a tool for submission. When her authority is challenged, she takes away privileges, including food and television. She drugs her patients to a point where they do not have the physical facilities to object. When this does not work with one patient in particular, she subjects him to shock therapy. When he still acts out, she gives him a lobotomy. She is able to enact this cruelty because her administrators see she has everything under control, something important in a facility.
Nurse Ratched’s most evil moment is not the lobotomy. She has a patient who is deathly afraid of her. He went against the rules, and she tells him she is going to tell his mother. The stuttering patient is even more afraid of his mother than the nurse and is presumably the reason he ended up in the institution. Nurse Ratched controls this character, Billy, through fear. Ultimately, he is so afraid, she drives him to suicide. Randle McMurphy, the patient bucking the system, tries to kill her after he discovers Billy is dead. His action is what leads her to order his lobotomy. In the end, she is still in control and has wiped out any threat. In the process of wiping out the threat, she has created more fear, which gives her more control. In all three titles, chaos creates fear and the one not afraid is able to create that chaos.