There’s a moment in the new Robin Hood film where the plot stops to give time to the backstory of the Sheriff of Nottingham. As played by Ben Mendelsohn, the Australian actor who came to American prominence through his performance in Animal Kingdom, the Sheriff is very much in line with the role as defined by Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: A snivelling power-hungry bully who clings to the dregs of his power with fervent desperation and hides his insecurities in scathing one-liners. As we have come to expect from Mendelsohn, it’s a performance of admirable gusto, a shot of life in a film that desperately needs it. The film, unfortunately, doesn’t bend enough to accommodate his particular brand of villainy. In this back-story moment, Mendelsohn has to tread a ridiculously fine line between malicious camp and bleak threat, as the Sheriff’s backstory takes a staggering U-turn into unexpected misery. Fortunately, this isn’t Mendelsohn’s first ride at the bad guy rodeo.
Like many non-American actors who get noticed by Hollywood and are quickly snapped up for high-profile projects, Ben Mendelsohn has found a strong niche for himself as a villain. It happened to Mads Mikkelsen, it happened to Javier Bardem, and it happened to basically every posh English actor with a RADA trained accent. There’s a lot to dissect when it comes to Hollywood’s shorthand of ‘non-American accent equals baddie’, from archaic notions of class to deep-seated socio-political assumptions to good old fashioned xenophobia. If you want a villain who is refined, oily, well-dressed and positioned as the antithesis of the man-of-the-earth hero, then go international. Yet for Mendelsohn, this isn’t entirely accurate since we seldom see him keep his Australian accent when he goes villainous. He either adopts a generic American accent or goes English, borrowing from the likes of Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons in his affectations. Really, he has more in common with a classy English baddie than any Australian ones we’ve seen (which, admittedly, isn’t a lot, perhaps because Hollywood doesn’t read that accent as sinister). But whatever accent he has and whoever he is invoking with his performance, Mendelsohn has found a fascinating niche in his work of on-screen villainy: Middle-manager smarm.
Mendelsohn’s been playing baddies for a long time. During his mandatory sentence in Neighbours (he’s an Australian actor, he has to be in Neighbours, it’s part of the licencing exam), he broke up golden couple Scott and Charlene. David Michôd’s crime drama Animal Kingdom became a surprise indie hit in America and brought many more eyes to Mendelsohn (as well as his co-star Jacki Weaver, who landed an Oscar nomination for her work). In that film, he plays the eldest son of an infamous criminal dynasty whose regular Joe appearance hides a deeply sinister psyche. His character is a monstrous figure but he’s still subservient to the true power in the family, his mother. He cannot function without those structures in place, even if he craves the freedom that comes with being on top. It’s not as cartoonish or plainly drawn evil as his Hollywood villains would become but a lot of what makes Mendelsohn so compelling in that niche is right there in Animal Kingdom.
While he had done plenty of American films over the years, it’s easy to categorize his increased presence in Hollywood during the 2010s as part of the post-Animal Kingdom ‘discovery’ of Mendelsohn. The start of his middle management evil phase came with The Dark Knight Rises, where Mendelsohn played John Daggett, a corporate rival to Bruce Wayne who makes the questionable decision to employ Bane in his efforts to take over Wayne Enterprises. As a corporate bully who thinks throwing money at a problem will solve anything, Mendelsohn gets to indulge in his most slimy villainy. Daggett is threatening to most people. How can he not be when he’s rich, well connected and has plenty of hired goons to surround him? He struts around a room with unearned confidence, but the moment he is challenged by Bane, he squirms. Daggett shouts in Bane’s face - several inches above his own - but all Bane has to do is raise his hand and the vermin is dealt with.
It’s not as if Mendelsohn’s filmography is sparse. Since becoming a more dominant force in Hollywood, he’s won an Emmy for Netflix’s Bloodline, been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and appeared in films by celebrated directors like David Mackenzie, Ridley Scott, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Joe Wright, and Nicole Holofcener. But his image over the past two years has been defined by two villainous roles: Director Orson Krennic in Rogue One and Nolan Sorrento in Ready Player One. Combined with the Sheriff of Nottingham, this is the trifecta of Mendelsohn at his most broadly appealing, and in the roles Hollywood likes the most.
Orson Krennic is the prime example of Mendelsohn’s middle manager malice. He is firmly in the centre of the empire’s ladder of power but believes himself to be only a rung or two from the top. With a clipped accent, serial killer black leather gloves and cape that screams over-compensation (a Mendelsohn villain is always aware of the need for a strong aesthetic), Mendelsohn glides into every room with petulant force, demanding awe and respect. He looks like a leader but he doesn’t have the vocabulary for one beyond yelling dramatically and giving out someone else’s orders. He can make himself seem much taller than he is - he’s 5 foot 11, according to IMDb - then curl up like a frightened animal when challenged. Krennic is charmless but he’s also aware of what it means to be in his position, so he must maintain that air of menace. With many of these Mendelsohn villains, you get the sense that they read guidebooks on how to be bad guys.
Crucially, Mendelsohn makes these villains fun. Not necessarily people to root for - he is always on the clearly bad side of the equation - but these performances are clearly the work of a guy who is enjoying himself. These aren’t flamboyant performances but they keep that edge of camp. Krennic is a regional manager of the Empire who cloaks himself in the villain of performativity, so of course he goes big. In Ready Player One, as Nolan Sorrento, the CEO who wishes to take control over the VR paradise OASIS, he sticks to that bigness but makes it more notably pathetic. Sorrento is a caricature of middle management, the Silicon Valley nerd who got big and let it immediately go to his head. At one point, he tells our intrepid nostalgia loving hero, ‘You think I’m just as corporate asshole’, but he is. His smile’s a little too big, his speeches buzzword laden as if he learned speech through TED Talks. He may be the one in charge for a change, but this is still a man whose main objective is to bully teenagers into doing his bidding.
Of his trio of middle manager smarmy villains, the Sheriff of Nottingham is probably the most conventionally drawn. He’s broad, he’s just hammy enough, he’s cut from a very familiar cloth. Mendelsohn knows what the people want from a baddie like this and he offers it with aplomb. He chokes on his rage as he offers inventive punishments for the trodden down citizens of Nottingham, he makes his jacket swish as much as possible, he keeps his hair neatly combed down, as tightly controlled as he keeps the people. He’s all about that icy control, maintaining impeccable career politician decorum in public speeches that spew all too familiar rhetoric. Yet he is still only the Sheriff. He is not the King or the Cardinal and he is aware of how utterly expendable someone like him is. His bluster cannot help him nor will his ring-kissing obedience. It doesn’t take much for that bombast to reveal itself as desperation.
Next, Mendelsohn will be seen in Captain Marvel as Talos, a shape-shifting Skrull leader working undercover at S.H.I.E.L.D. Mendelsohn has already compared the character to Donald Rumsfeld, so rest assured his niche has not been abandoned. For his part, Mendelsohn seems happy to be the baddie for hire in Hollywood, although it would be a great diminishing of his talents if that was all he was ever used for. Being villainous is a lot of fun, but as Ben Mendelsohn proves, the true intrigue lies in the middle.
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