Posted in Film, Writing

How to Find the Source of Evil in Your Antagonist

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Deliver Us from Evil (2006)

Once in awhile I put a Netflix movie into the DVD player and get completed floored by a movie I know next to nothing about. When I put this movie in, all I knew about it was that it was a well-reviewed documentary. Deliver Us From Evil, written and directed by Amy Berg, is an involving, emotionally devastating piece of work, and one that presents a weird sense of voyeurism into the life of a man who seems completely normal and typical on the outside but deeply disturbed on the inside.

The film is on a basic level the story of Father Oliver O’Grady, who served with the Catholic Church for upwards of thirty years, making sexual advances on young children for most of that time. There were allegations made toward him in the very beginning, but the church never wanted to really deal with the problem. They would just move him around to different cities, sometimes ones just forty miles away from the last. Instead of investigating the man’s irresponsible behavior, the church tried to keep his manner under wraps. The secrets couldn’t stay hidden for too long, however, as O’Grady was finally tried and convicted of sexual abuse toward children and served fourteen years in prison. Today he lives peacefully as a free man in Ireland. Is this sentence fair? Who’s to blame for the conspiracy? And who did O’Grady hurt in the process?

The film answers a lot of these questions and personalizes the story by featuring interviews with the children he abused, all grown up, ready to discuss what he did to them and how it affected their lives. The most fascinating account involves parents who thought of O’Grady as a close friend and took him in on many occasions for discussion and meals. It wasn’t until much longer down the road that they found out that he was abusing their little girl, and they are hurt and humiliated beyond all measure.

The film features interviews with all of these people, and their pain and anger are immediate up there on the screen. These people are shocked that he is living a calm free life in Ireland. The father at one point says that O’Grady is not a pedophile but rather a rapist, that he raped his child. There is a passion and frustration at work in these interviews, and it makes for difficult but compelling viewing.

The most astonishing thing about the movie is that the filmmakers actually convinced the pedophile O’Grady himself to be interviewed. They take him around the city and he talks to the filmmakers and the camera as if he’s on a casual lunch meeting with a close friend. He appears to be completely normal, someone you could feel comfortable smiling at in the street and helping out when in need.

It’s astonishing to think of the horrors this man committed, and then to years later confess to it all and treat it all like it’s just a rotten condition he has to live with, as if he didn’t have control over his sexually immoral tendencies. He is a scary man to encounter because he is so open about what he did and calm in discussing his life-long problem. He seems to be intelligent but appears to have no clue about the harm he caused to so many victims and families.

I really loved this film. It’s the kind of great documentary that makes you forget it’s a documentary. You simply get caught up in the story and forget the means in which it took to put it all together. Script, no script, crane shots, over-the-shoulder interview footage — none of it matters when you have a compelling story. This story is immensely watchable, and it’s put together in a flowing, easy-to-follow narrative that sparks instant controversy and debate from its viewers.

As I said before, on a basic level, this film is about a man who abuses children. But on a deeper level, it’s about what a group of rich, powerful people can do to hide a crime, and how a wrongdoing can culminate into a much larger problem that affects not just the victims but hundreds of people directly or indirectly involved. When the movie is over, the viewer, having learned a thing or two, is left with a lot to think about, and that’s all one can hope for from a documentary. This one’s well-worth seeing.

Watching Like a Writer

This documentary made me think about how to explore the nature of evil in my antagonists. I’ve been hard at work for 18 months now on a novel that features a truly evil young man who seems completely friendly and normal around most everyone who knows him. I always find that kind of person to be the scariest, the one who seems to be a genuinely decent man, who in reality is as sick and disturbed as they come. I never want to write a one-note villain, an antagonist who has no realistic motives or conflicting feelings. I always want to write characters who live and breathe and show both their light and their dark.

Exercise!

Look at the antagonist in your current work-in-progress. Where does the evil in that character come from? Why?

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