Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Lawless: A Truly Villainous Villain, Part II

The psychology of an effective villain

An Associative Map of Disgust

There’s a separate point to be made about Rakes’ mask of civility as it ties into his villainous nature. It has to do with cleanliness and disgust. Bear with me for a moment. Yes, Rakes is a fastidious fellow who prefers to dress to the nines. But it’s more than that. There’s something pathological about his manicured appearance and proclivity for cleanliness. We start to get a sense of his compulsiveness when we observe that it’s summertime in the Deep South and he never takes off his gloves. As it turns out, the rather straight-forward Obsessive-Compulsive symptomology is actually embedded in some disturbing anti-social tendencies for violence and power. The gloves become symbolic of his ‘covering up’ or ‘holding in’ a sense of disgust for humanity and intolerance for both literal messiness and “soft” feelings like compassion and empathy. The gloves come out (as opposed to off) when Rakes first encounters the youngest Bondurant Brother, Jack, and he decides to send a message to the rest of the gang by brutally and unnecessarily beating Jack to a bloody pulp of unconsciousness (as I said before, this movie is unblinkingly brutal). In this initial encounter Rakes holds Jack at gunpoint and, in an alarming methodical manner, beats Jack in the face with the body of his rifle. As Jack cries and squeals like the startled, (relatively) innocent adolescent that he is, Rakes’ grows disgusted. His Anti-Social-OCD dynamics cause the sights and sounds that would incite compassion/empathy in the rest of us to trigger disgust in him, and we see it surface and explode across his face when Jack reaches out with trembling hands to beg for mercy. In so doing Jack inadvertently touches Rakes’ pant legs, which immediately stain with blood. Rakes gives that gut-shot hyena yelp of his and becomes so overwhelmed with disgust that he instantly kicks Jack between the eyes with the butt of his boot - knocking him unconscious instantly.  Hence, while Rakes is becoming disgusted with his dirty pant legs we as viewers are becoming disgusted by the target of his disgust. Rakes is significantly more perturbed by the stains on his clothes than the subtext of human suffering and innocence lost unfolding in poor Jack’s world. How disgusting!

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A Web is Weaved of Homosexuality

Thus far I’ve discussed the subtle associations between Rakes and a false sense of civility as well as an interaction between some anti-social and obsessive-compulsive traits. As a clinical psychologist I’m a bit saddened and irked to see the very painful and sympathetic process of Obsessions-Compulsions linked with the far more frightening elements of Rakes’ personality. There isn’t anything remotely disturbing about OCD and I can only hope that viewers don’t conflate those symptoms with the other elements of Rakes’ inner world, namely the false presentation and sadism. And if OCD is negatively portrayed in its inherent association to the villainous Rakes, then homosexuality is as well.

Now, I’d like to be as clear as I possibly can here. I’m not saying Rakes is gay. Indeed, there’s nothing overtly, directly or explicitly mentioned in the narrative about Rakes’ sexuality.

But it’s inferred.

And although I’m certain it’s not the film’s intention to relay homophobic messages like, “Let’s make the character of Rakes gay because then he’ll be even easier to hate,” I do think that - intentionally or not - there are homosexual overtones to Rakes that, in turn, enhance his sense of “other-ness,” that deepens our sense of alienation and dislike for him.  In fact, I’d argue that the subtle, subconscious level on which this association to homosexuality operates is more effective in making Rakes unlikeable. If it was a conscious thing most of us would say to ourselves, “Ok, Rakes is gay and that has nothing to do with his villainy so let’s just separate that out.” Instead we’re more likely to say to ourselves “Ok, there’s something else about Rakes that makes him different than everyone else in this story. I’m not quite sure what it is but I’ll just assume it’s bad because everything else about him is bad.”

So allow me to lay out the evidence of the film’s Rakes-as-homosexual inferences and inneundos and then you can decide if I’m reaching or if I’m on to something. First, Rakes possesses perhaps the most common and stereotyped signal of homosexuality in cinema - flamboyant body language. There’s the way in which he tilts his head, and flicks his wrists and sips his tea that initially cued me into the possibility of him being gay. But since the way one carries one’s body is hardly an indication of sexuality I’ll quickly continue to more substantial ground. Recall the previously mentioned scene in which Rakes beats Jack - as Rakes first encounters Jack I could swear that sexual attraction and desire briefly flittered behind his eyes. Now this was merely an instance, a brief flash of fleeting emotion so I could easily be wrong…but if I’m right and Rakes was indeed experiencing gay yearnings in that moment then it makes perfect sense that he would immediately suppress the self-rejected desires, and that such a mental maneuver would exacerbate unfounded feelings of rage (and, believe me, this scene exhibited a ton of unfounded rage).  

Also, Rakes wears perfume. Obviously perfume doesn’t activate my ‘gaydar’ in and of itself but what follows from it does. He wears perfume and the citizens of Franklin County, Virginia notice, and they call him a “Nance (short for Nancy boy),” behind his back. “Nance” is a derogatory term for homosexuality. Rakes learns of this “Nance” rumor at the beginning of a scene in which he’s about to interrogate the recently-arrested Cricket - the lovable ‘brain’ behind the Bondurant gang’s moonshine operation. Within minutes of learning about this rumor Rakes is madly choking the life out of Cricket while muttering “I’m no Nancy Boy!” I’d say this moment provides further evidence of my “unfounded rage stemming from suppressed homosexuality” theory.

The “Nance” point suggests that the characters in the film are starting to tune into Rakes’ repressed-homosexuality. This awareness by the other characters, though very subtle, is perhaps supported by a later scene: throughout the film there’s an escalating tit-for-tat between Rakes and the Bondurant gang. At one point Rakes hired some local thugs who jumped Forrest (and slit his throat and in an endeavor that almost killed him) and raped Forrest’s romantic interest Maggie (played by a lovely Jessica Chastain). In response to this series of horrific events Forrest and Howard induce some horror of their own. They kill the two thugs but not before castrating both of them and sending the, ah, phallic materials to Rakes’ doorstep. Now, it could be coincidental that sending such items was simply their way of alerting Rakes to the retaliation (it certainly works as a vicious and startling alert), but it could also be a more meaningful message that ties into this ongoing, unspoken commentary in which the characters surrounding Rakes become increasingly aware of and mock his repressed homosexuality.

Additionally, there’s the scene between Rakes and a female prostitute. The scene begins with Rakes at the door of his hotel room responding to a knock, and the prostitute sitting alone, naked, on the edge of the bed. They’ve presumably finished their “business” together but the prostitute is acting very strange. She’s not acting like she’s just engaged in a standard-business act of consensual sex. She’s upset and shaken as if she’s been asked to do something demeaning or painful. This scene provides yet another inference that Rakes’ sexuality is not what it seems. And judging by the prostitute’s distressed demeanor it seems likely that the theme of “unfounded rage due to repressed homosexuality” has been continuing unchecked.

And, finally, there’s the imagery of Rakes’ death. In the end, after a climactic shootout between the bootleggers and the county police, the dust settles and we see a bloodied Rakes stumbling through a bridge-tunnel attempting to escape Jack who has already riddled Rakes’ body with multiple bullet holes. It’s a scene placed in shadows, and we see a dark outline of Howard’s body run up from behind Rakes and brutally stab a knife deep into his…nether-region (it could be a reach-around to his intestines - it’s a bit unclear and, frankly, I’m perfectly fine not knowing for sure). My point is that I suspect the imagery of homophobic penetration is more than coincidental.

The Mask of Civility (self-deceit, manipulation of society), the Associative Map of Disgust (OCD pathology and sadism) and the Web is Weaved of Homosexuality (uncontrollable rage, repressed emotions and sense of “other-ness”) are some of the less obvious but profound ways in which Rakes develops and enacts his villainy. It’s a disturbing portrait that starts with some interesting choices by the filmmaker and ends with a mesmerizing performance by Guy Pearce.

I’d like to end with a few words about Pearce’s performance. It’s a remarkable feat of acting that has incited praise from critics through such platitudes as, “Pearce clearly had fun with the role” and “Pearce truly becomes the character.” I’ve known exactly what’s been meant by this commonly-uttered comments. I’m not even sure the critics know what they mean. I think this sentiment approaches but falls short at arriving at the point that they are really trying to make. The point is this: Pearce firmly grasps a few fundamental and sophisticated concepts of psychology (in this case, that which offends and disgusts us) and he’s weaved these ideas into the mechanisms of his character with precision, athleticism and grace.

 

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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