I just watched the beginning of Fargo, the tv series.
The evil character in Fargo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is signalled as evil not so much by stabbing people or shooting them – no, his evil is established when it seems that the usual matrix of cause and effect fades when he is around. Normally, when a man goes into a basement with no other access than the stairs, that man will have to go out using the stairs. But, in a crucial scene in Fargo, the killer goes into the basement and disappears, reappearing in a getaway car later on.
I think there are roughly two forms of evil in film. The one is cosmological, and the sure sign of it is this fading of cause and effect. When Scorcese redid Cape Fear with Robert DeNiro playing the bad guy, the crucial moments in the film were all the result of this fading. This can, of course, create startling effects: evil is in the room and is about to slice somebody’s throat! The spectator’s visceral reaction is stimulated – hell, it is shot through with a thousand volts.
But the first Cape Fear did evil differently. Robert Mitchum played the evil man in terms of his slouch, his look, his accent – in terms, in other words, of signs. Evil here is semiotic, not cosmic. There’s no fading of cause and effect. When Mitchum lets his sleazy gaze travel over the daughter of the lawyer he has marked out as his enemy (played by Gregory Peck in all his iconic righteousness), that was the evil . If he murdered, raped, or terrorized, it was all on the earthly plane. There was no fading of cause and effect.
My preference is for semiotic evil – cosmic evil leaves me feeling a little ripped off. Of course, sometimes the payload of visceral jolts is nothing to sneeze at. But I am attached, like a peasant, to my cause and effect.