Armin Mueller-Stahl (Eastern Promises, 2007) and David Thewlis (Fargo, 2017) bring the Vile Villainy.

Vile Villains of the Screen: Semyon and Varga

There is no denying it, most of us have wanted to be the villain of our favorite movies rather than the hero. Like moths to the flame, we dance towards hostilities and hazards with a shit-eating grin…but why? Simply put, it’s more fun to be bad than it is to be good. My dear proficient professionals, come join us as we explore hateful outlaws within the world of cinema who demand a second take.

First on the chopping block is a masterful performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl in the 2007 crime drama, Eastern Promises. Stahl plays Semyon, the head of a Russian criminal syndicate operating in London, England. His performance is nothing short of masterful. Coupled with David Cronenberg’s direction and Steven Knight’s screenplay, this hateful character comes to life through the words in a dead woman’s diary. In my humble opinion, the absolute best antagonist is one whose true nature is blurred and hard to unravel.

Semyon comes off as a gentle old man when Naomi Watt’s character, Anna, first meets him at his restaurant — a front for his criminal enterprise. Semyon’s notoriety is already established when he is introduced to the audience, but none of his vicious nature is present. His demeanor is cordial and reassuring to Anna, and never once are we privy to the clues and tells of a ruthless Russian mobster. It is only when Anna reads the diary of one of Semyon’s prostitutes do we get a clear picture of the kind of animalistic and hateful nature Semyon truly embodies.

Eastern Promises delivers one of the best villains in cinematic history, and it is because we, as an audience, are completely disarmed by Stahl’s performance thanks to Knight’s screenplay, which masterfully weaves the subtleties of Semyon’s duplicity into a complex character who is feared rather than revered. Vicarious evil is the best kind, and a character like Semyon possesses the necessary components that elevate your run-of-the-mill bad guy into a diabolical figure the audience fearfully reveres.

The polar opposite of Semyon would be V.M. Varga, the faceless businessman from Season three of Fargo, the series on FX. Played by David Thewlis, the role of V.M. Varga should frighten any hedge fund manager or corporate king. Writer and creator Noah Hawley managed to create a vile corporate and financial terrorist that Wall Street would have no problem calling one of its own. The way Toy “R” Us was bankrupted with crippling debt in a leveraged buyout is the modus operandi of V.M. Varga. He is a self-proclaimed, a “citizen of the world”, and his middle management appearance, a farce for his proclivity of using gullible businessmen to line his own pockets. Ewan McGregor plays Emmet Stussy, the unfortunate businessman that V.M. Varga has his sights set on for a hostile corporate takeover.

Semyon of Eastern Promises wields his power and notoriety from behind the scenes of a well-established criminal syndicate, but V.M. Varga is his own self-contained criminal enterprise, with enough surveillance equipment to put the CCP to shame, and he holds council over two henchmen, Yuri and Meemo, to do his dirty work. Thanks to Thewlis, the character of V.M. Varga oozes with a hypnotically repugnant aura that is charmingly deceiving and completely off putting all at once. Thewlis sustains a wonderfully duplicitous persona that grabs the viewer by the collar, jerking their head from side to side with a decadently macabre performance. I have watched Season Three of Fargo dozens of times over the pandemic. Yes, it is worrying, but that’s beside the point — true villains stick around the corners of your mind long after you watch them and more importantly, they make you want to watch the show even more than the hero does.

Semyon and V.M Varga are the faces of villainy that every big picture antagonist should embody — a mixture of orchestrated fury, carefully managed notoriety, and calculated retribution; film bliss.

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C.A. Ramirez

C.A. Ramirez

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Writer looking to explore movies and the world of video games. GameStop, crypto, and the metaverse is where my mind stays.