I recently watched The Nice Guys at the cinema, and, seeing as how I work on the 70s, noir, masculinity and crime representations it was enjoyable on several levels at once to me. [Spoilers ahead! Academics love ruining everything!]
One fairly small thing that particularly stood out to me, as someone fascinated by performances of villainy, was Matt Bomer’s character John-Boy.
John-Boy is an assassin, so known because of the mole on his face (which seems to reference Austin Powers’ mole on his face/being a mole bit). The scene in which we first discover him pleasingly nods towards intertext, actors’ star personas, casting choices etc: Holly’s friend Jessica, on the phone, having previously heard the threat is called John-Boy, is asking “What’s the name of the guy on The Waltons who plays John-Boy? With the hockey puck on his face? It’s driving me crazy”: whereupon, of course, we cut to the face of wholesome, unassuming ‘Dr Malik’, with its ‘hockey puck’ of a mole.
His apparent wholesomeness being connected to that of the original character John Boy and The Waltons as a show is also the point: as well as allowing a tense reveal, it is there to provide an ironic set of expectations that will immediately be broken.
John-Boy’s black leather gloves are immediate clues as to his real role. I think they fit into TV Tropes‘ category Conspicuous Gloves, but also, there really should be a subcategory called Nazi Gloves or The Bad Guys Wear Gloves or something like that. Does a character have black leather gloves? Well strap on your torture trousers because someone is losing a limb. Without further research, just off the top of my head, I would also imagine this trope emerges not only out of the visual conventions of Nazi (and Nazi-inspired fictional bad-guy) uniforms but also of the leather clad toughs and teenage delinquents of 60s tv and film and pulp fiction. Another famous example is Dr Strangelove, the cold war mad scientist villain of the 1964 film of that name, who wears one black leather glove on his uncontrollable dead hand. Likewise, if a character has latex gloves, or surgical gloves, or any shiny waterproof variety of gloves on, and they’re not in a hospital, a tattoo parlour, or a fetish club? Just run.
This, to use another Troper loanword, is part of the construction of Wicked Cultured: a cliché in which the serial killer or psychopath or sadist is more highbrow that other characters around them. Hannibal Lecter is a classic example. Real life serial killers are themselves party to this stereotype, drawing on it to shape their public image, borrowing from the devices of fiction; Ian Brady has boasted of his sophisticated tastes in music, reading and clothes, for example (something representations of him were playing up even before he himself began making claims about it). This trope (and Brady is a good example of this) also overlaps with a subset of this tendency that I think of as more ‘Wicked Fastidious’ (to coin a trope): i.e. characters who undertake violent activities but are at pains to distance themselves from ‘mindless’ violence or ‘thuggishness’. This may not involve consuming highbrow cultural products per se but will entail a painstaking, neat, standoffish interaction with the world around them, exhibiting attention to detail about clothes and perhaps cleanliness, and even somewhat dainty or feminised body language – a sort of elegant cat-like dislike of getting dirty or messy).
In Bomer’s performance of John-Boy I am reminded very strongly of Kevin Trainor’s portrayal of Mr Omida, from the sci fi thriller Utopia, in both his politeness and fastidious appearance, his apparent bland hyper-polite courteousness, and his interaction with – and willingness to dispassionately torture – young girls.
According to the actor’s wikipedia page,
Trainor earned critical accolades for his appearance in the special flash-back episode that launched the 2014 second series of Channel 4’sUtopia. His performance as Mr Omida, an immaculate and punctillious torturer, was described by Metro as “the most chilling torturer committed to screen in a long time” and by Geeks Unleashed as “the very neat, precise and sinister Mr Omida, who wins the creepiest man alive award”.
A particular element of similarity between the two is their arriving, neatly and with their carry case of implements, in their light grey three piece suits, and brown ties. Omida introduces himself in the manner of a kindly family doctor:
‘Pleased to meet you, my name is Mr Omida. Should the time come, I am to be your daughter’s torturer. I’ve been asked to explain my process to you. Now Jessica’s only four, and, always the difficulty with such an age is maintaining life for the maximum amount of time. So, I will need to monitor vital signs throughout. But, this is just a matter of being attentive.’
John-Boy, likewise, appears in the guise of the friendly and conscientious family doctor. He is actually referred to in these terms by another agent. And by coincidence, he also has a child named Jessica as a potential candidate for his ‘treatment’. In the novelisation of the film (yes, for some reason the official novelisation of The Nice Guys already exists, and is already on Google Books, if you fancy a look), John-Boy’s demeanour is described as that of a ‘too-friendly fake doctor’: Flicking a straight razor or a switchblade open is of course, as good as a Glove Snap in terms of focussing the other characters’ minds wonderfully, and akin to such a sound effect (and the old Audible Sharpness trope) in announcing to the audience Shit Just Got Real. John-Boy’s final riposte in this scene is excellent, not even breaking his stride (and drawing attention to his, now single, leather glove with his jaunty wave):
Mr Omida, however, is an inherently English kind of punctillious torturer, a fussy little man who exudes an aura of milky tea and Graham Greene novels; a sexless inhuman reboot of Charles Hawtrey in the Carry On films. John-Boy, by comparison, has a very American flavour of sexless quasi-camp fastidiousness (referencing The Waltons!): my immediate reaction was to describe him as “Ned Flanders possessed by the spirit of Crispin Glover”. Indeed, Glover’s camply creepy bit-part assassin in Charlie’s Angels (while not located in any Norman Rockwell American ironic faux-wholesomeness) is in some ways a very similar role, performing a similar function: a small but vital fulcrum in a spectrum of evilness within an ensemble of characters engaged in professional violence within a kitschy fun action period-piece crime comedy star vehicle.
The obvious reading list recommendation for screen media and creepiness as a trait of (certain types of) masculinity is Adam Kotsko’s Creepiness. But his book, generally speaking, focusses more on a range of psychosexual and gender presentational forms of creepiness, rather than those of the stylised villain figure per se (check out his Why We Love Sociopaths for more on that). The vibe I’m getting off John Boy is rather less ‘creepy uncle’ and much more ‘unsettling professional bringer of death’. Yet, Kotsko’s formulation of creepy is as excessive, over-friendly, over-desising, with illegible motives, and obscure implicit emotional demands: what do they want? And, furthermore, the incoherence and discomfort can be caused by the mismatch between their behaviour and the emotional freight they give it: the apparent disjunction of action and affect (which of course links up with the creepy character par excellence, Kotsko’s previous area of interest, the screen sociopath or psychopath).
Politeness evolved socially as a way of codifying the avoidance of violence, so, perhaps it makes sense that when we see examples of it dialled up to 11 we feel an unease: it suggests its own artificiality and fragility; that this stilted and brittle convention is the only thing between us and just so much blood. It also suggests a duplicity, a lack of honesty and openness, a containment that leads to outbursts of violence. The image of the buttoned-up person suddenly snapping, and particularly of the closed-off emotionally unavailable male who becomes a killer as a result, is both a commonplace in fiction and popular culture, and sadly in real life as well. The use of medical personas, and quasi-medical equipment (wipe clean gloves; razors) draws upon the uncanniness and unease of the trust and reliance we place in medical professionals, and how the radical manipulation and disruption of the body for either therapeutic or violent ends is a disturbingly intimate and frightening prospect. (This double edged element to medicine is a key element of Utopia, by the way: see this post.) I mentioned Kotsko’s discussion of the ‘creepy uncle’ stereotype; he theorises it thus: an uncle is too close to be not family but too distant to be properly family, “family but not really family”: it is the lack of definition of the role that renders it creepy, its motives and allegiances enigmatic and thus suspect, particularly in a society in which the adult male is not associated with a caregiving role. (Creepiness, p.12) The ‘family doctor’ is also in just such an unheimlich position.