The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as an authority on the topic.
Welcome to Wild-Card Wednesday, the day you come here on good faith because you don’t know what you’ll get. Today, I’m going to talk about the use of foils in storytelling.
We’ll use Lord of War as our example. Don’t know it? Click here to watch the preview.
[Warning: There will be lots of spoilers in this post. This is your only warning.]
Lord of War is a 2005 film directed by Andrew Niccol and starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, and Ethan Hawke.
My good friend Natalie Hartford would call this movie a d*ck flick because it has lots of action, stuff blowing up, and testosterone. The surprising thing is that Lord of War is also an interesting study in characterization.
The literary device used to define character in Lord of War is called a foil. A foil is a secondary character whose contradictory personality highlights the personality of the main character. A foil can sometimes make clear the protagonist’s flaws.
To understand how this worked in Lord of War, let’s start with a look at the main character (AKA protagonist).
Uri Orlov is a Ukranian born American who aspires to do more than work in his family’s restaurant in Brighton Beach.
After seeing a Russian mafioso win a shoot out with two would-be assassins, Uri has an epiphany. All good businesses fulfill a need. For instance, a restaurant or a grocery store fills a need for food.
There are conflicts in the world. People need weapons to fight over these conflicts. An arms dealer fills a need for weapons; therefore, Uri will sell weapons.
Yuri Orlov becomes a rich, rich man selling guns to people who need them. Any people. He will sell weapons to both sides of a conflict. He will sell weapons to be used on his own countrymen. As long as the cash is there, Yuri is ready to do business.
Now, I’ll move on to the secondary characters and explain how they are used as foils.
Jack Valentine (played by gorgeous Ethan Hawke) is an interpol agent who is after Uri Orlov.
Jack is an idealistic and righteous character. At times when he could bend the law to get Uri, he won’t do it. When he has a chance to kill Uri, he again resorts to following the law.
At one point in the movie, Jack Valentine explains why he does what he does:
“Do you know why I do what I do? I mean, there are more prestigeous assignments. Keeping track of nuclear arsenels – you’d thing that more critical to world security. But it’s not. No, nine out of ten war victims today are killed with assault rifles and small arms – like yours. Those nuclear weapons sit in their silos. Your AK-47, that’s the real weapon of mass destruction.” ~ Jack Valentine, Lord of War
Jack Valentine is not trying to get rich or famous. He is taking a stand against what he perceives as evil in the world. In contrast, Uri takes no stands. He exists simply to do his job and get rich.
Ava Fontaine is a model who becomes Uri’s wife.
It is interesting to note that the focused and disciplined Uri pursues Ava with the same ruthlessness in which he deals arms.
He spends an obscene amount of money hiring her for a phony photo shoot in a picturesque beach paradise. He buys out the hotel so they’ll be the only guests and hires a private plane—which he passes off as his own—to wisk Ava back to civilization. Ava, of course, marries him.
Ava passively tolerates Uri’s gun running because he’s a good provider and she lives in luxury. She doesn’t quite know what he does and does’t want to know.
When Jack Valentine confronts Ava with what Uri does for a living, she is appalled. She begs Uri to quit. This quote was probably the best thing her character said the entire movie:
“I feel like all I’ve done my whole life is be pretty. I mean, all I’ve done is be born! I’m a failed actress, a failed artist… I’m not much good as a mother. Come to think of it, I’m not even that pretty anymore. I have failed at everything, Yuri… but I won’t fail as a human being.” ~Ava Fontaine, Lord of War
Again, we’re back to the idea of taking a stand. Ava wants Uri to quit running guns because it is not only illegal but also hurts people. Uri, to his credit, does stop selling guns; however, he is only doing it for his wife. The first time he has a chance to get back in the game, he does it.
Simon Weisz (played by Ian Holm) is a rival arms dealer. At the beginning of Uri’s career, Uri approaches Weisz to suggest a partnership. Weisz promptly shoots down Uri, telling him that he—Weisz—chooses sides, which makes him more than just a nasty old gun runner.
Throughout the movie, Weisz and Uri cross paths. The ending of the Cold War allows Uri—through his Uncle—to access a great deal of weapons. Weisz tries to assassinate Uri with a car bomb and ends up killing Uri’s uncle. Later, another secondary character sets it up so Uri can murder Weisz. Uri is not even enthusiastic about that.
Weisz spells out what other characters only hint at. Uri needs to choose a side. It would make what he does mean something.
Andre Batiste, Sr.
André Batiste, Sr.–partially based on Charles Taylor, former leader of Liberia–is a client of Uri’s. He is a foil in a different way than the other characters. The other characters—even the rival gun runner—have a higher minded purpose.
Not Batiste. He’s an out of control psychopath. In one of his early meetings with Uri, Batiste kills one of his guards for looking at a woman. And it doesn’t end there. Batiste is always doing something violent, cruel, or crazy.
However, like other characters in the movie, he wants Uri to be less controlled and detached. He wants Uri to take a side. Only Batiste wants Uri to cross the line from passive evil into agressive evil. Batiste is the client who sets up Uri’s revenge against Simon Weisz.
Yuri’s brother Vitaly is played by the impossibly pretty Jared Leto.
Uri enlists Vitaly almost immediately after starting his gun running business. At first, Vitaly seems like a good partner. As the gun running business gets intense, however, it becomes obvious Vitaly is not made of the same ice as Uri.
Early in the movie, Uri and Vitaly witness children being executed by a firing squad. Vitaly wants to do something, but Uri tells him its not their fight. The two sneak away, and it is obvious Vitaly has mixed emotions.
Soon after, Uri is paid for some weapons in cocaine–and shot by the customer. This marks the beginning of an odyssey of indulgence for Vitaly.
The formerly sane Vitaly becomes a sloppy, braying, intoxicated mess, which is in contrast to Uri’s control, discipline, and ability to compartmentalize his life.
Vitaly cleans up, goes back to work in his parents’ restaurant and meets the girl of his dreams. As soon as he does, Uri is there to pull him back into the gun running business.
The two journey to Liberia to sell guns. While the deal is being made Vitaly witnesses a woman and child being murdered. His conscience won’t let him stay silent. He calls Uri away from the business meeting and begs him to abandon the deal.
Uri, always the voice of reason, tells Vitaly that if they try to leave without selling the guns, they’ll be killed. He again reminds Vitaly this is not their fight. Vitaly agrees to keep his peace.
Uri goes back to the gun deal, and Vitaly takes matters into his own hands. He blows up one truck of weapons and tries to use a grenade to blow up a second but is shot down before he completes his mission.
What is Uri’s response to his brother being killed?
Uri, tears streaming down his face, goes to his dying brother and takes the grenade from his hand. Uri then gives the grenade to the man who shot Vitaly to death and finishes the business deal.
The death of Vitaly is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. It highlights Uri’s amoral nature by contrasting it with Vitaly’s passion to do the right thing. It also brings home the theme, which is “stand for something.”
At the end of the film, Uri has lost everything. His parents have disowned him. His wife has left him and taken their son with her. His brother is dead, killed during one of Uri’s gun deals. Jack Valentine has finally found a way to detain Uri for legitimate reasons.
In the face of danger, Uri is cool and collected. He warns Valentine that he–Uri–will not be arrested or convicted of anything. The men in charge need Uri to further whatever they stand for. Uri is given a briefcase full of money and set free.