I have a thing for bad guys. A lot of us do. It’s why we like to write about vampires and homicidal faeries and demons.
In Pan’s Labyrinth I met one of my favorite bad guys EVER: Captain Vidal.
First of all, he’s evil. And I don’t mean on a massive-Sauron/Voldemort-ultimate-embodiment-of-evil-level, I mean it on a brutally intimate level. This man does not want to take over the world. He wants to do his duty by living only for one thing: the promotion of order. And he’ll do anything to achieve his goal.
On a mythic level, he is the enemy of chaos. He knows that the only way to rid himself of the chaos in the world is to die. He holds death as the ultimate order, and control over death is his goal (which parallels him nicely with the King of the Dead in Ofelia’s story arc). He manages to claim control over his father’s death by creating a specific story about how his father died and the exact moment he carries around with him in the form of a watch. He most wants to pass on his understanding of death and order to his son.
It is this desire that makes him so much more than a cookie-cutter evil. He isn’t a 2D fascist. He is not doing his duty only because it is his duty or promoting order at any cost because he likes it (though he does). As he says, “We are all here by choice.” He chooses to believe in what he does, in holding order superior to chaos.
Arguably the most intimate moment of the movie is near the beginning, when we first meet the Captain. He is preparing for his day in his office by shaving with a straigh-razor. He is looking in the mirror. He moves the razor away from his own skin and puts it against the glass. He stares at himself; loathing, fearing, proud, and then with a sharp, certain gesture he slices the razor across the throat of his reflection. He looks forward to his death, and wants to control the manner of it.
We learn that his father was a general who died in battle, and the anecdote is that he smashed his watch on a rock so that his son would know the exact time of his death. The Captain is consumed by this need to order his own death, to make it be as exact and honorable and perfect a death in battle as his father had.
Everything for the Captain becomes about this goal. He embodies the stark cruelty of war. He is unmerciful, unforgiving of disobedience and chaos. His will becomes that of War and Death. He cannot make choices that stray from his ideal form. He is not gratuitous, nor subtle.
But all around him chaos swirls. Unlike Ofelia, the Captain’s fantasy is not one of hope or life or promise. He creates the nightmare world of the mill and he is its King, as Ofelia is the princess of hers.
I admire him, as a distilled character, as the representative of evil and cruelty and anti-freedom/will/life. He’s awesome. And he gets what he wished. He dies, in battle, against the agent of chaos (Ofelia). (Because he is the Bad Guy, his death is marred from perfection, of course. And from a faerie tale perspective, that’s spot on.
It was through his evil, after all, that Ofelia’s portal was opened.