10 Unexpectedly Effective Movie Villains

One of the many pleasures of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s slick new art house/action hybrid (opening in select cities tomorrow — and as Letterman likes to say, we sure hope your city has been selected) is the masterful performance of the great Albert Brooks. The comedian/filmmaker/comic actor (and, most recently, novelist) plays the film’s villain, a hard-boiled gangster type; Brooks harnesses his groggy weariness (that raspy voice has seldom been so well-utilized) and that impatient anger that’s always percolating under his best work. He’s unexpectedly chilling and effective.

His top-shelf work got us thinking about other actors who took on villainous roles and, whether due to their good-guy personas or comedic backgrounds, took us by surprise with the ruthlessness of their darker turns. We’ve rounded up our picks after the jump.

Robin Williams, Insomnia/One Hour Photo

No one was more keenly aware than Robin Williams that his career had taken a disastrous turn after his 1998 Oscar win for Good Will Hunting; the four films that followed (What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man) were maudlin, syrupy, and borderline unwatchable. Williams wisely took stock of his situation, shook off the quartet from hell, and cleared the decks. He started by embarking on his first stand-up tour in well over a decade, culminating with a run on Broadway. Then the Julliard-trained actor took two 2002 film roles with a decidedly darker bent: Christopher Nolan’s Memento follow-up Insomnia, and acclaimed music video director Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. The former found Williams convincingly playing author and killer Walter Finch; in the latter, he was Sy Parrish, a lonely photo attendant whose attachment to a seemingly perfect suburban family takes a chilling turn. Williams was terrific in both roles, encompassing the flatness of everyday evil as Finch, the danger of a man perched on the edge of sanity as Sy.