It may be hard to believe for anyone who’s been keeping track of Ben Mendelsohn’s career only since his international breakthrough with 2010’s Animal Kingdom, but the man who now rivals Mark Strong as Hollywood’s hired bad guy du jour rose to fame in his native Australia as the star of much lighter fare. Teen movies and rom-coms like The Year My Voice Broke were once the order of the day, but thanks to his terrifying performance in David Michôd’s ferocious crime drama, the actor has since carved out a niche as one of cinema’s premier bastards.
To celebrate the release of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, in which Mendelsohn plays an antagonistic King George VI to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, we’ve ranked Mendelsohn’s roles in order of menace, from a more general scumbagginess to straight-up homicidal sociopathy.
One of few non-threatening characters Mendelsohn has played since recalibrating his career with Animal Kingdom, Mississippi Grind’s Gerry is still no hero. He may be the focus of Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden’s gambling drama, but Gerry’s an antagonist; it’s just that his compulsion to bet away every last penny makes him a danger to himself more than anyone else. Otherwise Gerry is rather endearing, a dorky, superstitious sad sack who forms an easy bond with happy-go-lucky fellow gambler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), as they together tour casinos and gambling dens along the Mississippi river looking to make their fortune.
Most villainous moment: Having made a stopover at his ex-wife’s place in Little Rock, Gerry is caught trying to sneak a fistful of bills from the sock drawer. There’s no fear on her part, just pity and relief that she got out of that marriage when she did.
Darkest Hour—King George VI
Mendelsohn’s catalogue of low-rent scumbags makes him seem like a strange choice for a monarch, but considering that George VI, who only took the throne after his brother abdicated, wrote that he “broke down and sobbed” the day before his coronation, the fact that Mendelsohn doesn’t quite fit makes him strangely perfect for the role. His George isn’t a foe to Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill so much as an X factor, one who could throw the balance of power to Churchill’s Parliamentary enemies who want to appease Hitler rather than waging war. When Colin Firth played George VI in The King’s Speech, he leaked vulnerability all over the screen, but Mendelsohn’s quiet deliberateness lends the king just the slightest menace.
Most villainous moment: During a tense lunch, their first as monarch and Prime Minister, George marvels at Churchill’s prodigious appetites, and especially his ability to drink alcohol during daylight hours. He’s tweaking the insecurities of an inferior, or would be if Churchill weren’t so cannily deaf to social norms.
The Place Beyond the Pines—Robin Van Der Hook
Playing the twitchy, nicotine-stained getaway driver who convinces Ryan Gosling’s pretty-boy bank robber to break bad in the first place, Mendelsohn surprisingly emerges as one of the more likeable figures in Derek Cianfrance’s lush familial saga. Sure, Robin is an unapologetic criminal, but he’s also warmly paternal towards Gosling’s self-consciously iconic “Handsome” Luke Glanton, providing the drifter rebel with the kind of warped father figure you suspect he never had.
Most villainous moment: Worried his buddy is going to attempt a recklessly dangerous heist on his own, Robin has a brain wave, and breaks out the power tools to cut Luke’s favorite bank-robbin’ bike into useless scrap.
Killing Them Softly—Russell
Andrew Dominik’s nihilistic anti-thriller, set in a Boston crime scene that’s so far from organized, is packed to the rafters with lousy bad guys, but Mendelsohn’s verbose junkie thief Russell is quite probably the lousiest criminal of the bunch. A small time crook in the game primarily to fund his smack habit, Russell is a character to be repulsed by rather than afraid of, boastful of unhinged sexual encounters and perpetually glazed in an opioid sweat. Less a functioning adult than an overgrown adolescent, Russell like partner-in-crime Frankie (Scoot McNairy) might be capable of really doing bad if only he wasn’t constantly fucking up.
Most villainous moment: Wielding a shotgun with the barrels sawn off so low the shells are visible, Russell holds up an underground card game that will get poor low-level mobster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) whacked for his suspected involvement.
Exodus: Gods and Kings—Viceroy Hegep
Enlivening Ridley Scott’s turgid biblical tale as an ingratiating viceroy to Joel Edgerton’s affected Ramses, Mendelsohn allows himself a rare moment to indulge. A sultan of camp lacquered in fake tan, Mendelsohn’s Hegep is dangerous only by birthright, in command of a fiefdom and personal militia but otherwise too cowardly and obsequious to be intimidating on his own terms. So spoiled he’s almost bored of his own villainy, Hegep would rather “thin the herd” of the thousands of Hebrew slaves he’s responsible for than have to spend another day watching over their increasing number.
Most villainous moment: Humiliated by Moses’ decision to inform Ramses that the Viceroy has been stealing from the public purse, Hegep takes revenge by ratting out Moses out as a Hebrew, thereby currying favour with Ramses and making Moses persona non grata in Egypt.
Always chewing on a fat cigar and draped in a comically gigantic bear-skin coat, Mendelsohn manages to exude ruthless authority with hardly a word in John Maclean’s patient pastiche western. As bounty hunter Payne, on the trail like our mismatched heroes Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender) of a fugitive father and daughter pair, Mendelsohn adopts an insouciance that suggests killing has become second nature. In this land of violence, that doesn’t make Payne unique; the reason he’s this story’s villain is he just happens to be better at it than most.
Most villainous moment: Payne watches as a rival bounty hunter kills his latest quarry, before emerging from hiding to casually shoot his competitor in the back, the hard work already done.
The Dark Knight Rises—John Daggett
In a trial run before later promotions to chief blockbuster antagonist, Mendelsohn in 2012 took the minor role of wealthy benefactor to colossal Bat-villain Bane. Mendelsohn is one of many performers jostling for space in Christopher Nolan’s unwieldy superhero epic, given only minimal screen time as the suit unleashing a supervillain on Gotham as part of his plan to take over Wayne Enterprises, even in a handful of scenes he still manages to paint a detestable picture of Daggett’s entitlement, sneering out over his turtleneck at a world he’s certain is beneath him.
Most villainous moment: Still under the impression he’s the film’s mastermind and not another disposable henchman, the odious industrialist chews Bane out for his lack of progress on securing him Bruce Wayne’s company. Suffice to say Daggett doesn’t leave this meeting alive, but points earned for standing up to 225 lbs. of sheer evil without breaking into a sweat.
In an Emmy-winning performance, Mendelsohn elevated Netflix’s trashy sunshine noir as Danny Rayburn, the black sheep of a wealthy Florida Keys family that would prefer to see the back of its most difficult son. It’s an anxiety that Danny is happy to exploit when he returns home after years away with murky intentions, and we understand why Danny’s father and siblings want him gone: Mendelsohn is disconcertingly inscrutable in the role, Danny at times apparently magnanimous but so self-destructive his initial good intentions sour, in other moments barely masking his smirking desire to just blow up the family he feels betrayed him as a young man.
Most villainous moment: Urged to leave town by his detective brother John, Danny takes John’s daughter out on a boat alone and gifts her a seahorse necklace, a hint at the Rayburns’ troubled past that John knows to be a serious threat.
Starred Up—Neville Love
When first we meet the long-incarcerated Neville Love, he’s squaring up to newbie jailbird Eric (Jack O’Connell) in the yard of Starred Up’s anonymous British prison with a foul-mouthed warning to avoid any “dramas” during his stay. Only later do we realize that these two are father and son, and what was intended as advice only sounded like a threat because, after years on the inside, dead-eyed Neville’s forgotten what diplomacy and sensitivity even sound like. The elder Love gets a redemption in the final act, relentlessly cutting down inmates and guards to rescue his boy from a forced suicide, but by the stage in life in which we meet him Neville has already almost had all trace of humanity extinguished.
Most villainous moment: Goaded into action by his son’s taunts about the close relationship he keeps with his cellmate, Neville lays into Eric with a few disciplinary slaps, kicking off a royal father-son melee that ultimately puts the prison on lockdown.
If there’s one person who makes Ryan Gosling’s sub-Lynchian wotsit worth sitting through (other than alchemist cinematographer Benoit Debie), it’s Gosling’s Place Beyond the Pines co-star in another scuzzy supporting role. Like most everyone else involved, Mendelsohn doesn’t seem entirely sure what Gosling’s dim fable is aiming at, but as a crooning, dad-dancing nightclub owner who wants to manipulate Christina Hendricks’ struggling single mother into sexual subservience, he at least fully commits to the irredeemable slimeball persona.
Most villainous moment: With Hendricks’ Billy encased in a Perspex shell inside his freaky fetish club, Dave commences suggestively boogying in her general direction, and all she can do is watch him get down in frozen terror.
Black Sea — Fraser
Reunited with his Killing Them Softly co-star Scoot McNairy, Mendelsohn plays his role in submarine thriller Black Sea with considerably less skeezy charm. With Kevin Macdonald’s underwater Treasure of the Sierra Madre short on characterization, the uncertain motivation for Mendelsohn’s paranoid submariner to start picking off his fellow crew of treasure seekers makes his actions even more unsettling. Is it simple greed driving him, Fraser knowing fewer crewmembers means a larger share of sunken Nazi gold for him, or plain insanity?
Most villainous moment: In a fit of rage bolstered by his xenophobia, Fraser stabs a vital Russian crewmember to death, needlessly plunging an already perilous mission into further danger.
Ray is outwardly one of Mendelsohn’s more normal characters, a boring everyday bloke with a wife, decent job and cosy suburban life in leafy southern England. He’s also a convicted pedophile. Beyond that, there’s uncertainty over whether Ray is a sick man who once upon a time gave into baser urges, or a crafty predator who uses his apparent normalcy as a front to manipulate those around him. Was Una (Rooney Mara), the young woman who in Benedict Andrews’ film confronts him about the relationship he entered into with her when she was just 13, really an exception as he claims? A poker-faced Mendelsohn doesn’t tell, but Ray’s lack of remorse and ability to convince himself that a 13-year-old was so preternaturally mature as to be able to consent is chilling enough.
Most villainous moment: Ray assures the adult Una that the only underage girl he ever had designs on was her, calmly insisting that he feels nothing for the pre-pubescent daughter-in-law from his new marriage.
Rogue One—Orson Krennic
Something of an anomaly in the Star Wars universe, Mendelsohn’s Director Krennic, the Imperial architect of moon-shaped doomsday device the Death Star, isn’t one of the sci-fi franchise’s cackling, black-clad uber-villains. While his bosses—Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and an unseen Emperor—are more outwardly sinister, Krennic a bright, ambitious bureaucrat who just happens to be working for the Nazis, and more disturbing for it. A paid-up subscriber to the Empire’s twisted ideology, Krennic believes that his apocalyptic superweapon can bring peace to the galaxy, and that if committing planetary genocide is what it takes to end the ongoing war between his side and its Rebel enemies, so be it.
Most villainous moment: Testing the newly operational Death Star’s capabilities, Krennic wipes out the holy city of Jedha and its inhabitants with a single energy blast, pausing only to marvel at how “beautiful” he finds the destructive potential of his passion project.
Animal Kingdom—Pope Cody
In the barrel of bad apples that is Animal Kingdom’s crime family, eldest brother Andrew “Pope” Cody is the most rotten of the bunch. A textbook sociopath with a propensity for “funny how?”-style ribbing and an unhealthy interest in his tearaway nephew J’s school-age girlfriend, Pope is the reason why Mendelsohn now seems to be landing every high-profile villain gig going: the actor is nauseatingly unpredictable in his breakout role, as a hollow, awkward figure who superficially appears human but can barely seem to imitate one in between acts of animal violence.
Most villainous moment: Worried that J’s girlfriend Nicky will talk to the police about the family’s crimes, Pope injects Nicky with heroin and then suffocates her, before dumping her body out on the streets of Melbourne.