Oscar voters have always had a soft spot for villains. In the 90-plus years since The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences starting handing out awards, its members have honored the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Javier Bardem for playing remorseless killers, Michael Douglas and Daniel Day-Lewis for playing pathologically greedy tycoons, and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix for playing Jokers. Just last year, the Academy gave its Best Picture Oscar to Parasite, a movie about a band of con artists manipulating a family of self-centered swells.
There are commonalities, though, between the kinds of bad guys and gals the Academy prefers. Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh are almost supernatural forces of pure evil. There’s a tragic dimension to the ruthlessness of Gordon Gekko and Daniel Plainview. The Joker is both evil and tragic. With Parasite, writer-director Bong Joon Ho set up a pointed contrast between his grifters and their targets, positioning both as cogs in a larger class system essentially designed to generate socioeconomic inequity. In other words, these movies have a point. Their lessons may be subtle or they may be written in neon red, but either way it’s unmistakable: Their antiheroes stand for something.
In last year’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, Claes Bang plays a different kind of antihero, more familiar to fans of tawdry paperbacks than devotees of highbrow literature. Bang’s James Figueras is a failed painter, eking out a living as an art critic, using his talents as a storyteller (or, more accurately, as a liar) to guide his audience’s opinions of fine artists and to burnish his own reputation as an expert. When the fabulously wealthy and plainly unscrupulous collector Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) asks James to interview the reclusive painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), the critic sees a rare opportunity to make a level-jump in fame and possibly fortune. He’ll do whatever it takes to cross that line.
James Figueras is a bit of a puzzle. He has a surface charm that barely conceals a deep cynicism. From the start, we see him through the eyes of Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), an American who joins his Debney adventure more or less on a lark, looking for a sexy, no-strings romp in a Northern Italian villa with a handsome European cad. But even the up-for-anything Berenice can tell pretty early on that something about James is a little off.
The Burnt Orange Heresy was adapted from a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford, a writer who developed a cult following toward the end of his life. (He died in 1988.) There have been three other movie versions of Willeford’s work, each a weird little wonder: 1974’s Cockfighter, 1990’s Miami Blues, and 1999’s The Woman Chaser. Willeford wrote about a lot of different subjects, and in a variety of genres, many of them pulpy. What a lot of his books had in common was their elusive protagonists, the most memorable of whom were edgy yet erudite—and capable of acts of shocking violence.
The big-screen Burnt Orange Heresy is a fine film for multiple reasons. Giuseppe Capotondi’s direction is clean and unfussy, letting the opulence of the setting and the stunning beauty of the cast carry a lot of the visual load. And that cast is phenomenal, skillfully bantering with each other, using witty dialogue and a facade of nonchalance as shields for characters probing each other’s weaknesses. (Debicki delivers what may be the best performance in a film full of magnetic and delightful turns.) But the real star here is Scott Smith’s screenplay, which converts a quirky novel into the blueprint for a gripping, beguiling movie, all while retaining the odd angles and dark shadows that make a Willeford story special.
Smith knows this kind of material well. He’s the author of two one-of-a-kind genre novels himself: the intense crime thriller A Simple Plan and the disturbing horror story The Ruins. His screenplay for the film version of A Simple Plan was nominated for an Oscar. It’d be great if The Burnt Orange Heresy were similarly honored, but that seems like a long shot at this point. What makes the film so good is also what the Academy tends to dislike: its willingness to maintain moral ambiguity, rather than issuing a definitive judgment on the desperate rogue that is James Figueras.
It’s not that the movie lacks a point of view on James. The character’s true nature is revealed slyly throughout the film. In an attention-grabbing opening sequence, we see him prepping for and then delivering an art lecture in which he brazenly lies about a painting—and then lies about the lie—to win over the attendees. Shortly after, we hear a voicemail message from a creditor, indicating something even the savvy Berenice doesn’t know: that her new lover is flat broke. During his meeting with Jagger’s amusingly devious Cassidy, the collector casually mentions he knows that Figueras incorrectly and somewhat clumsily authenticated a rare canvas for a museum recently. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that this guy is as lazy as he is desperate.
There are other, even more graceful ways that Willeford, Smith, Capotondi, and Bang define their antihero’s fundamental bankruptcy as a person. Scene by scene, we learn what a shallow, social-climbing, self-absorbed creep he is. But by the time he makes his most appalling moves, we’ve been following him—and have possibly been fascinated by him—for about an hour.
And what do we get out of that experience? Do we learn something important about human nature, or find out something essential about the social contract? Really only this: that James’ yearning to be accepted by the likes of Cassidy and Debney is as relatable as it is ugly. That’s the kind of insight likely to make The Burnt Orange Heresy unpalatable, both to Oscar voters and to those who need their movies to have a clear sense of the “acceptable” and the “problematic.” Typical of Willeford, this story asks us to identify with someone who’s bad not in a tragic way or in an instructive way but more in an uncomfortably familiar, “there but for the grace of God go I” way. James Figueras isn’t a dark mirror on the human condition. He’s a flatly reflective gray.
Kudos to Scott Smith and the whole Burnt Orange Heresy team, though, for being willing to illuminate that grayness. This movie, like the novel it’s adapting, is in the tradition of writers like Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Evan Hunter, Jim Thompson, Joe R. Lansdale, and David Mamet, who have cared primarily that their stories and characters be interesting, not that they leave their audience feeling uplifted or enlightened. These writers were bound to follow a plot where it led, even if—or sometimes especially if—it went somewhere twisted. That may not be the stuff that wins awards. But it’s entertaining and it’s honest. It’s great writing.