HomeEntertainmentPerspective | Elvis has left the building. Austin Butler’s ‘Dune 2’ villain...

Perspective | Elvis has left the building. Austin Butler’s ‘Dune 2’ villain is terrifying.

It is Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen’s birthday, and his uncle has the perfect gift: three drugged prisoners to pummel to death, a fun, low-stakes ego boost for a sadistic boy. But as he begins to fight the men, it becomes clear one of them hasn’t actually been subdued. The task now requires some work, and he relishes in the savagery.

Who do you cast to play this sci-fi villain, heir to the menacing Harkonnen house in Frank Herbert’s intergalactic epic “Dune?” David Lynch took a big swing in his maligned 1984 film with Sting, the Police frontman who played Feyd with fiery red hair and those winged leather underpants. Denis Villeneuve, who on Friday released the second part of his adaptation, turned to Austin Butler.

Butler? The guy who couldn’t unstick his Elvis accent after playing the king of rock and roll in Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant 2022 biopic? Well, sure. If there were a prerequisite to taking on a character as relentless as Feyd — a singularly bloodthirsty villain in this universe of profit-seekers and prophets — it would be commitment to the bit. And Butler has shown he will give a role his all.

In “Dune: Part Two,” that involves appearing bald with gnarly black teeth and no eyebrows — the trademark Harkonnen look, and one Butler manages to imbue with an unsettling sexiness. He might not be as ruthless as his uncle — the lumpy baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), whose frequent baths do not seem to have relaxed him one bit — but Feyd is still a bad, bad man. Brutality earns him higher standing in the Harkonnen clan, and Feyd maintains a dead-eyed stare — except for when he nears his kill. He betrays little humanity while slaughtering his former lovers, to say nothing of those standing in the way of his family’s throne.

Butler earned an Oscar nomination for his breakout role in “Elvis” following a barrage of stories about the extreme measures he took to play the troubled singer. He said he didn’t see his family for three years — some of which overlapped with the pandemic — and “had months where I wouldn’t talk to anybody, and when I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis.” He told GQ he was rushed to the hospital after wrapping the project: “My body just started shutting down the day after I finished ‘Elvis,’” he recalled. “The next day I woke up at 4 in the morning with excruciating pain.”

As far as anyone knows, Butler did not contract a mysterious virus on “Dune: Part Two.” He noted in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times that he set a firmer boundary while playing Feyd, because allowing character to bleed into his life “would be unhealthy for my family and friends.”

“When the camera was off, you were still maybe 25 or 30 percent Feyd,” Villeneuve said in the same interview. “Just enough to still be present and focus[ed], but removed enough that you didn’t kill anybody on set.”

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According to the director, Butler was “possessed” when the camera was on. He found a new voice as Feyd, speaking in a low growl designed to mimic Skarsgard’s performance as his uncle Baron Vladimir Harkkonen. Butler plays an obvious foil to Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, the heir to a rival house, who spends much of “Dune: Part 2” gazing at the desert to maintain moral decency amid a holy war. The more interesting comparison might be to a fellow Harkonnen: Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban, the former favorite of Uncle Vladimir who murdered most of the Atreides clan. Feyd operates in a more calculated manner than his sloppy cousin, and therefore poses a greater threat.

Of all the cool kids who joined Chalamet and Zendaya for “Dune: Part Two” — new cast members also include Florence Pugh and Anya Taylor-Joy — Butler benefits most from his role. Just as playing Elvis dissuaded audiences from pigeonholing him as a former Disney Channel star, Feyd prevents him from falling into the biopic trap. Butler is poised to keep surprising as he charts a path through Hollywood, armed with leading-man looks and character-actor abilities. Let’s hope he leaves this voice behind.

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