Sometimes, even with the most beloved antagonists, we’re left with motivations that are little more than “spoil the protagonist’s goals,” or “destroy the world,” or even more generally, “be evil.” Remember the last movie villain who had a memorable motivation beyond simple revenge, conquest, insanity, or destruction? Too many of these bad guys exist as mere foils and, even though they offer up an explanation, there’s few enduring sequences that inform us of their rationale.
An overlooked but memorable villain is Cypher from The Matrix, played by Joe Pantoliano.
He’s the Judas who single-handedly almost takes out the entire crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. And why? Sure, he is dealing with being spurned romantically by Trinity, but what drives his betrayal is his disillusionment with the real world. He, like Neo and most of the rest of the crew, was woken from the Matrix where he lived some sort of normal 20th century life until he met Morpheus. Much to his later regret, he also took the red pill which ejected him from the virtual computer simulation into the bleak world of the future where humans live underground hiding from a world ruled by killer machines. Once out of the Matrix, Cypher discovers the food is bland, pleasures are few, and Morpheus’ promised messiah is a delusion. Perhaps Morpheus even thought Cypher at one time might be “The One.” There’s not enough moonshine to distract from the fact that he was happier in the virtual world of the Matrix, so he sets out to cut a deal with Agent Smith to deliver up Morpheus.
To Neo, Cypher says, “I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”
And Later to Agent Smith: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?” [Takes a bite of steak] “Ignorance is bliss.”
No simple motivation here. Cypher is willing to risk everything on the chance that Agent Smith will actually somehow honor this deal. His up to nine year of growing resentment towards Morpheus and Trinity comes to a murderous crescendo when he signals Agent Smith once the group is inside the Matrix visiting the Oracle, resulting in Morpheus’ capture. He then unplugs and instantly kills both Apoc and Switch, and would have continued on with Neo and Trinity but is himself killed by Tank. Cypher has become quite the evil character. Bitterness oozes from his every line as he speaks with Trinity during his final scene. His rationale for his actions is completely realized, and he is certain of his course, even though it may result in the machines accessing the last human stronghold. The only reason he doesn’t give Agent Smith the Zion mainframe codes is that he doesn’t know them. But without intervention, Smith would no doubt have extracted the codes from the captured Morpheus through interrogation.
Cypher is banking on the fantasy that he will be able to live on inside the Matrix, not even wanting to remember the post-red pill real world. He even has the desire to be someone important, “like an actor.” While Agent Smith is the main villain and has some of the film series’ best lines, Cypher remains the one with motives that, even if we can’t empathize, we can at least understand.
Rewatch the steak scene again if you don’t know what I mean.