Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.
Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.
Tilda Swinton is a chameleon. Altering her appearance is part of her process, and she does not care if she looks unattractive, odd or even bizarre.
The size of a role is also of no importance to Swinton. What matters is how interesting she can make the character.
Judged by screen time, Swinton’s contribution is limited in Snowpiercer — Bong Joon-ho’s dark science-fiction feature from 2013. (In the film, the survivors of an icy apocalypse zoom endlessly around the planet on the titular train, in which each car serves as social stratification.) However, Swinton’s character of Mason is the movie’s most memorable.
Mason is the second-in-command to Wilford (Ed Harris), the creator of the Snowpiercer. He is worshipped as a god by those in first class and despised by those in the back of the train, which Bong has described as being reminiscent of Auschwitz.
Swinton is involved in a trio of sequences. The first involves a couple of children taken from their parents, which causes a protest in which a thrown shoe hits Mason.
With her buck teeth and thick glasses, Mason looks like a cross between a mad scientist and a numbers cruncher. But when Swinton speaks, using a Yorkshire accent, her voice sounds like a strict schoolteacher who brooks no nonsense from her students; she scolds the passengers in the rear of the train, labeling them as freeloaders and ingrates.
Her words land like daggers: Everyone is “pre-ordained to a particular position,” she tells the masses. She places the shoe, thrown by Ewen Bremner’s Andrew on his head, while his arm is forced into a portal to the freezing cold outside. The fur coat she has draped over her back slips off one shoulder, but she continues speaking. As Andrew’s arm freezes and is later knocked off with a large mallet, Mason tells the passengers that, “I belong on your head, you belong on my foot.”
“Keep your place. Be a shoe,” she chides them.
When she finishes, she replaces the coat and imperiously spins around, making a grand and regal exit like a tyrant queen who successfully has quelled a rebellion. In that sequence, she mesmerizes you while also begins to make you hate her.
Swinton portrays Mason as a duplicitous toady who, after the tables are turned and she is taken prisoner by the rebels (led by Chris Evans’ Curtis), pulls an Albert Speer — whining that she was merely following Wilford’s orders and that she sympathizes with those from the back of the train.
Mason’s true nature comes forth, though, when the rebels enter a car manned by a contingent of masked axe men. A bloody battle ensues, with Mason gloating with glee at the deadly mayhem around her — which is amplified when the Snowpiercer enters a tunnel and the axe men utilize night-vision headgear that gives them the advantage. As rebels are slaughtered, Mason jumps around with joy watching the carnage.
But when the rebels again gain the upper hand, she resorts to her cringing and wheedling — begging Curtis for her life and assuring him of her help. She even offers to trade her life for the divine and merciful Wilford’s.
Later, the group makes its way to a food car where the rebels, used to eating some disgusting-looking protein bars, savor some sushi. Mason, conniving as always, treats them like honored guests. But when she is served a portion of sushi, Curtis takes it from her and forces her to eat a protein bar. Swinton’s reaction is priceless, as if Mason is eating a bar of cow dung. But Mason gamely carries on, knowing what we do not know, that the tide will again turn in her favor. It’s another convincing moment for Swinton that increases your disgust and distrust of Mason.
Swinton’s final sequence is when the rebels enter a schoolhouse car and watch as children are indoctrinated into the cult of Wilford. Up to this point, the rebels were convinced their guards had no bullets in their weapons. That proves fatally false when they open fire in the school, killing many more of the have-nots.
Again, the fortitude of the rebels prevails. And again, Mason switches from antagonist to ally of Curtis — again promising him support in the overthrow of Wilford. But Curtis has had enough. Too many of his friends and allies have been killed, including his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis finally puts a bullet in Mason’s head, thus putting a final stamp on Swinton’s small but potent performance.
Swinton has said she created Mason after studying many clowning and monstrous politicians such as Hitler, Gaddafi, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and that Mason is a mashup of all of them. The actress described the character as a nightmare, a “freak of the worst-case scenario leader” and both “terrifying and cute.” She also wanted to work with Bong, who changed Mason from a middle-aged man — he had wanted John C. Reilly for the part — to accommodate Swinton for the role.
It was a decision that neither Bong — nor anyone who has seen the movie — regrets. That’s because Swinton creates an individual who is the epitome of evil. Snowpiercer is better for it, and we can relish Swinton’s performance as one of the most unforgettable villains to grace the screen.