Malcolm McDowell is a glorious bastard

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Sometimes we are introduced to certain characters who stay with us long after their stories end. We invite them to partake in our sleepless nights and midsummer dreams. We talk to them, we listen to them and we share our lives with them. We connect to their lives. We accept them with the purity in which we accept the very worst in ourselves.

Character: Boad, the car dealer

Actor: Malcolm McDowell

Film: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003)


Malcolm McDowell’s first seminal role in 1971 saw him play Alex – the enigmatic sociopath – in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. His performance was such that we formed a meaningful connection with the character despite constant reminders that Alex was a miserable bastard. By the time Malcolm played the title character in 1979’s Caligula, he was already favored as an antagonist. The gratuitous period piece featured him as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, power hungry, incestuous and oedipal prince. An utterly unlikable person whom we emotionally invested, and rooted for in unfathomable ways, because of the actor’s brilliance. Unfortunately. apart from his grossly unappreciated performance as a sleazy half-leopard in Cat People during the early Eighties, he barely did anything else of repute for the next two decades.

In 2003, Mike Hodges cast him as Boad, a car dealer, in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – a moody thriller about a man seeking vengeance for his brother’s death. Malcolm brings in two decades worth of unrestrained magic and madness to mess with our heads. He plays Boad with bone-chilling ferocity. It isn’t a performance as much as it is an assault on the senses.

The character is a homophobic rapist. A vile bastard who deals with his own insecurities by projecting them violently on others. He is vastly different from the Malcolm’s roles in Caligula and Clockwork Orange because Boad is shaped by his own misgivings rather than those of societal structures. He represents our super egos that often lead us into dark corridors of self-loathing. A distinct lack of self-awareness and stubbornness that can make monsters out of mere mortals.

He doesn’t just inspire us to actively hate him but he handholds us to scummy places within nooks and corners of our minds where we can leisurely hate ourselves. The climax that has him confessing to the moody protagonist (Clive Owen) is glowing tribute to everything that is lovable about cinema. We can’t hate Boad despite every fiber in our bodies urging us to do so. It’s not that we empathize with him. In fact, Malcolm grimaces with such foulness that it is safe to assume that every chicken that crossed the road in 2003 did so to escape the sheer scorn of his facial expressions. It’s just that Boad, in a nutshell, is cinema. We can appreciate cinema for how messed up it sometimes can be. We can never hate it.

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