Back in August, Riz Ahmed had a gigantic feature story in The New York Times Magazine, the kind of profile you bookmark and read more than once because it’s written excellently by Carvell Wallace, full of beautiful little details about Ahmed, and because you’re jealous as hell that someone got to spend so much time with Ahmed and that someone wasn’t you. Oh, ahem. AM I PROJECTING? Because I MEAN TO.
The general gist of the piece, which you should read, is summed up in the headline — “Riz Ahmed Acts His Way Out of Every Cultural Pigeonhole” — and elaborated with a discussion of Ahmed’s early life, views on politics, Islam, music, and art, and his current upswing, from roles in extremely mainstream fare like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Jason Bourne to indie stuff like The Sisters Brothers, which Kayleigh checked out at TIFF, to his Emmy win for The Night Of and his upcoming Hamlet project with Netflix (I have never been more excited for Shakespeare, and I say this as someone who seriously considered a tattoo inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for a weirdly long time).
Look, I stan hard for Ahmed, OK? You know this since I wrote about him for this year’s Pajiba 10 and did extensive research into photos and gifs that would do the man justice (insider tidbit: ALL OF THEM), and blessings upon you readers who let me know on Twitter when the man looks fine somewhere (another insider tidbit: “somewhere” is EVERYWHERE). But even I was unprepared for his villainous turn as Carlton Drake in Venom (which Tori liked! read her review!), in which he is gorgeously charming, psychotically manipulative, and utterly, sneeringly contemptuous of humanity. I was creeped out! I was enthralled! I was even torn away from wondering “What the hell accent is Tom Hardy doing this time?” which is a very impressive feat indeed!
As Carvell so insightfully noted of Ahmed’s ambitions in that profile:
The “right direction,” for him, is to expand the definitions of everything until the definitions are true. He does not want to do away with categories; he wants them to be big enough and veritable enough to include reality. He wants them to encompass No Man’s Land. For him, the choice is clear: Either you are in the middle alone or you are in the middle and therefore a part of everything. People don’t expect zombie jeeps to be driven by Orthodox Jews from France, but they are; people don’t expect to see a rave in old Persian art, but there it is. You don’t expect a South Asian actor to be in blockbusters, westerns, Shakespeare, hip-hop and TV about immigrant families, but there he is, because these are not separate strains of the culture — they are all one thing, and that thing is him.
And with his role as Drake in Venom [NOTE: SPOILERS FOR VENOM WILL FOLLOW IN THIS PIECE], Ahmed fits in so smoothly that you never think, “Oh hey, what’s that guy doing there?” Instead, he effectively encapsulates everything contradictory about the character, someone who claims to want to save humanity but who thinks its negative effect on the earth is unconscionable. A genius scientist who found a way to cure cancer as a teenager; who created his own pharmaceutical companies and a bioengineering corporation, the Life Foundation; and who believes that space exploration will lead to more medical advancements, Drake is kind of like Elon Musk and Ben Carson fused together — which, I’m sorry, is more terrifying than I initially thought — but there is nothing pained about Ahmed’s performance.
Drake is at first quite likable — he meets with a group of elementary school students, encourages them to think for themselves and be curious, and basically inspires their dreams of all being astronauts after only five minutes in a room together — and is then suddenly, undeniably treacherous.
He has the world’s leading research minds working at his company, and he insults them as being lesser than the alien symbiotes he is obsessed with developing. He convinces a young homeless man named Isaac that it is his destiny to be sacrificed for the greater good, that it is noble and honorable, but he doesn’t tell him that sacrifice involves being eaten from the inside out by an alien being. He gently questions a scientist who leaks information about his projects, assuring her that he trusts her insight and will change his methods because of her, and then he instructs an alien symbiote to feed off her body. “Have a nice life,” he says to Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock, and it’s a testament to Ahmed’s composure and precision as an actor that such an off-hand line of dialogue can transform into something insidious and sinister.
A lot of comic book villains end up having similar goals — baddies who wants to destroy the world or enslave humanity because they failed at protecting Earth are littered throughout various franchises, from Thanos in Infinity War to the mega-predators in, well, The Predator — but who I thought of most while watching Ahmed’s version of Carlton Drake was Matthew Goode as Ozymandias in Watchmen, the movie that divided fans of the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons but that I would say is actually Zack Snyder’s best film.
Think of the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley …
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
… and how clearly that exemplifies Ozymandias in Watchmen, the boy genius named Adrian Alexander Veidt, the heir who gave away his parents’ fortune so he could be his own man, the acolyte obsessed with Egyptian mythology, the vigilante whose superpower was, well, being the smartest guy in the room, the one who realizes that the actions of the Watchmen aren’t enough to save humanity or reverse the Doomsday Clock. So what Ozymandias chooses to do instead is threaten everyone on Earth, uniting them together against an imaginary invading alien force and framing superheroes so that humanity stops being reliant on others to save them.
World peace in exchange for a colossal lie about evil extraterrestrials seems in line with world peace in exchange for alien-bonding symbiosis, right? Those two aren’t that far off! And Veidt’s whole deal is quite similar to Drake’s — both are suave, very good-looking men who know that the world as it is now could be better and aren’t very concerned about the cost of human life to make it better. Drake says to a man he’s convinced to die for his cause, “I would argue that God has abandoned us. This time, I will not abandon us,” before having him killed; when Brock says to him later, “You’re insane,” his pouty “That hurts. Long journal entry about that tonight,” is an amusingly snarky response. And consider Ozymandias’s praise of his onetime idol Alexander the Great (“True, people died … perhaps unnecessarily, though who can judge such things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of a united world!”) and one of his final lines, “Everything’s all right,” at the end of Watchmen, after he has framed his friends and enacted his plan to save the world by threatening to destroy it.
Whatever problems you may have with Watchmen — and I can understand if you have many — Goode was an exceptional Adrian Alexander Veidt and Ozymandias, and Ahmed effortlessly reaches his level with his villainous turn as Carlton Drake, a man whose past is given only a sentence (“Born to British parents,” Brock notes) because his future is so much richer and weightier, defined by relentless ambition, by might and despair. Venom isn’t a perfect movie, but Ahmed is pretty perfect in it.
Oh, and here. You’re welcome.
Image sources (in order of posting): Sony Pictures/Epk.tv, Sony Pictures/Epk.tv