In Praise of Good-Guy Actors Playing Horrible People

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Orlando Bloom's turn as an evil M.D. in The Good Doctor provides a nice reminder that typecast heroes should try to go really, really bad every now and then.

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Magnolia

Oh, Legolas. Look how far you've fallen.

As J.R.R. Tolkien's sharpshooting, golden-locked elf in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Orlando Bloom established a type that would carry him through much of the next decade of his career. With his elven good looks, lithe build, and stern yet confident gaze, he's often cast as the gallant hero type, whether as the swashbuckling Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, or the lead role in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Even in last year's Three Musketeers, in which he played the roguish villain Duke of Buckingham, he still got a chance to show off his magnetic charisma. This is a guy born to sweep romantically onto the screen with flowing locks and ornate costumes, sharp weapon of choice in hand.

Yet, here he is in director Lance Daly's chilling new indie The Good Doctor: meek, decked out in a white labcoat, and sporting the worst haircut seen on a leading baddie since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. There's nothing heroic about his Dr. Martin Blake, a young doctor who has come to California from England for his residency, who finds himself —due to a haughty nature and unhidden sense of entitlement—just as much an outcast here as there. When he feels affection for the first time, from a pretty young patient who looks at him adoringly for saving her life, he decides he can't do without it, and artificially keeps her sick so that she won't leave the hospital.

We like watching these actors as villains for the same reason the actors display obvious relish in playing them: It just looks fun.

He's no rake or rogue, and there's no mischievous twinkle in his eye. He's just a socially inept headcase with a truly frightening capacity for obsession and evil hiding behind his drab countenance. It's Bloom's unexpected turn to the dark side that helps the film—which is otherwise unremarkable and a little dull—maintain some interest. When usual good guys go bad at the movies, the incongruity often results in some of their most memorable performances.

Think of the electricity of Denzel Washington's turn as a crooked, violent narcotics officer in Training Day. There are other Washington performances that have more grace and nuance—that feel objectively better for their inherent artistry—but there are few as fun or as can't-tear-your-eyes-away watchable as when the normally noble-hearted Washington fully embraces the wide-eyed megalomania of Alonzo Harris.

Similarly, there's Tom Cruise, generally a reliable force of good in his films, who dipped his toe in darker waters with the antihero of Interview with the Vampire and the generally awful but ultimately redeemed womanizer of Magnolia. But in 2004's Collateral, he's fully the guy you want to see take a bullet by the end of the movie. It's one of his most riveting performances.

A couple of the biggest about-faces came from classic Hollywood good guys Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck. Fonda played some of the most sanctified characters ever to appear on film, but the man who was Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, and Tom Joad turns up in Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West as a hired killer who has no qualms about killing children to advance his own agenda. It's like watching Juror No. 8 suddenly decide to personally pull the hangman's lever on the unseen defendant in Twelve Angry Men. Meanwhile, Peck goes completely, insanely evil in a thoroughly scene-chomping turn as Dr. Joseph Mengele in The Boys From Brazil. Double feature that right before To Kill a Mockingbird, and you'll be afraid Atticus Finch is about to turn on Tom Robinson at any moment.

There's a certain bravery in stepping away from type that makes those performances admirable. But that's not really why they hold such appeal. We like watching these actors as villains for the same reason the actors display obvious relish in playing them: It just looks fun. As John Bender said in The Breakfast Club, being bad feels pretty good. Imagine for a moment that you're a performer and ask yourself honestly if you'd prefer to step into Batman's Kevlar-lined boots or the Joker's patchy greasepaint in The Dark Knight. If part of the fun of acting is getting to leave your own personality behind for a while to try on another, why not go as far from yourself as possible?

In the case of Bloom, he's able to ditch that look of steely determination that he dons in so many heroic roles—and which makes them all start to blend together—and mine completely new territory. Dr. Blake isn't the expansive villain that many of the previous examples are, but even in getting to play a much more hidden and progressively darker vision of evil, breaking out of that mold gives Bloom new life as an actor. It's a pleasure to watch him get to stretch his legs for once.

The movie itself is at its best as a character study of the slow blossoming of evil in a previously hapless individual. John Enbom's script is never too explicit about Blake's background, dropping hints here and there into his dialogue about a troubled past and his struggle to really make something of himself. When asked by his supervisor at the hospital (played with a pleasant raggedness by Rob Morrow) why he wanted to become a doctor, Blake relates the usual story about witnessing during childhood a doctor at work. The difference is that it wasn't the helping that attracted him, but rather the deference and respect everyone showed the doctor. When Blake fails to get that respect from his colleagues—respect he feels he's already earned by virtue of being there—it's easy to see that things are going to deteriorate quickly.

As a thriller, though, the film seems to want to be a twisty nail-biter, but never creates much suspense or surprise. Bloom himself is the surprise here, carrying the shaky movie on the back of his own apparent enjoyment of playing such a dark and awkward character. Maybe this signals a new direction for him, or maybe, like the actors mentioned earlier, this is simply an attempt to keep things exciting at the workplace. But the performance is a nice reminder that leading man types should embrace the opportunity to go really, really bad every now and then. George Clooney, your move.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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