“Passengers, eternal order flows from the sacred engine. We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail. Know your place! Keep your place!”
Tilda Swinton has earned a reputation as one of the most adventurous and versatile actors working today, capable of twisting and contorting herself into the most unbelievable shapes. Just last year she was ethereally beautiful as a vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, and nearly unrecognisable as an octogenarian dowager in The Grand Budapest Hotel. But nothing comes close to her work in Bong Joon-Ho’s dystopian sci-fi Snowpiercer. Minister Mason, a twisted bureaucrat who looks like “a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Gollum“, may be Swinton’s best role to date. No small feat, considering she wasn’t even a woman in the original screenplay.
In an attempt to reverse the effects of global warming, scientists accidentally trigger a new ice age that wipes out almost all of humanity. The only survivors are confined to the Snowpiercer, a massive train that constantly circumnavigates the globe. The train is constantly referred to as the “Sacred Engine”, its inventor Wilford elevated to the status of a benevolent god. But of course, like in most dictatorships, the most evil individual is found not at the top of the ladder but a few rungs down.
Mason was originally written as “a mild-mannered man in a suit“, but the desire to work with Swinton convinced Bong to give her a chance to do something interesting with the role – a challenge she evidently took to with relish. The end result looks so ridiculous it’s funny: a middle-aged crone with buck teeth, thick glasses and the thickest Yorkshire accent seen on screen since The Full Monty. And yet, Swinton never gives in to the temptation to simply tie a napkin around her neck and start chewing on the scenery. She may look clownish under all that makeup, but she carefully measures every word and gesture to make us loathe Mason with a hatred very few actors would be able to evoke.
Exactly how cruel Mason was before the apocalypse is never established, but power has given her a taste for violence that borders on psychopathic. Having coldly given them the assurance that “precisely 74 per cent of you shall die” she proceeds to watch a group of revolting tail-sectioners get massacred by her armed guards, grinning with unbridled glee from behind a pair of opera glasses. To her, the people in cattle class are precisely that – dumb beasts to be slaughtered without a moment’s hesitation or the slightest shred of guilt for the greater good.
Consider, too, the twisting hand motion which crops up over and over, when reminding everybody of the importance of staying in their preordained position. It’s a tiny detail, but Swinton cranks it up to eleven, creating an elaborate gesture somewhere between the sign of the cross and a Nazi salute.
Like all people granted a position of power, however, Mason’s loyalty to the Benevolent Wilford only lasts as long as she’s in a relatively safe position. In the hands of the revolutionaries, she turns on him in seconds, but even that is not enough to protect her. Like the subject of Martin Niemöller’s poem, she has spent her whole life dooming others, and now, when her time comes, there is nobody left to speak for her. And as she whimpers her very last line of dialogue before she meets her end at the barrel of a gun, Swinton does the unthinkable. She makes us feel sympathy for this twisted creature.
What makes Mason so affecting is that Tilda Swinton truly understands what it is to be evil. So many actors playing the part of a villain – especially a political one – descend into cackling caricatures, flat and uninteresting despite their theatricality. But underneath an even more theatrical costume than most, Swinton is running an acting decathlon to create an unbelievably nuanced character. She is ruthless, yes, but beneath that outward appearance of conviction she is flawed. She is human. She is like us. Or, to put it another way, given the chance and enough power, we could be her.
And that makes her terrifying.