All Hail Austin Butler’s Weirdo Star Turn in ‘Dune: Part 2’

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Dune: Part Two entered theaters with wall-to-wall positive reviews and a massive box office weekend. Once thought to be the ultimate unadaptable book (sorry, David Lynch), Denis Villeneuve’s conclusion of Frank Herbert’s legendary space epic has staked its claim as one of the best films of 2024 so far. There is something admittedly thrilling about seeing a story so ambitious and unabashedly weird told on this grand a scale, and with some of the best actors in Hollywood committing to this feel-bad tale of sandworms and the evils of colonialism.

It’s impressive how almost everyone in this huge ensemble cast gets a moment to shine, whether it’s Zendaya’s balance of grit and weariness as Chani the Fremen or Rebecca Ferguson’s delicious manipulations as the calculating kingmaker Lady Jessica. But the breakout of Dune: Part Two is a newcomer to the pack, so fascinating and unnerving that he threatens to steal the entire movie from under everyone’s noses. Bless you, Austin Butler, for doing what needed to be done.

Butler plays Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the younger nephew and heir of the corpulent dictator Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård.) Where Feyd's brother Glossu (Dave Bautista) and his brutish violence make him a poor leader, Feyd is cunning and sharp, but no less bloodthirsty. Concerned that the Atreides clan might be a lost cause for their great plans, the Bene Gesserit consider Feyd as their back-up plan for universe-wide control. Yet he is not a man so easily manipulated.

His first major film role following his Oscar-nominated work in Elvis, Butler is avidly committed to playing Feyd as, to put it bluntly, a total space weirdo. Completely bald and with skin the color of old milk, his version of a character previously (and infamously) played by an orange-haired Sting in tiny underpants is perhaps the most potent example of the Dune universe’s uncanny qualities via Villeneuve’s lens. Like the other Harkonnens, he looks sickly, like something from a Tool music video. He is ostensibly human but you wouldn’t judge yourself for doubting it.

Photo still of Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two

Timothée Chalamet and Austin Butler

Warner Bros.

Feyd is intended to be a foil to Paul, the other side of the coin on the question of nature versus nurture. They received identical educations, are both noblemen, and were both part of the Bene Gesserit's centuries-long breeding program. But where Paul is a compassionate leader who is troubled by the power he accrues, Feyd is selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to be on top (in the book, he even tries to assassinate his uncle, so impatient is he to inherit the Baron's title.) So, it makes sense that Butler’s Feyd is a strange negative image of Timothée Chalamet’s Paul: where one is the very model of the handsome sci-fi hero, the other is alluring in a way that churns your stomach.

Butler got dinged a lot during his Elvis era for his weird inability to drop the Presley accent, to the point where many wondered if he would bring it to Dune 2. Sadly, that’s not the case, but what we get instead is a stellar impression of Stellan Skarsgård. His gruff Swedish accent, with which he spits a combination of pure venom and twisted nobility, is so spot-on that it might make Alexander and his siblings worried.

The Talking Fetus—and Wild Cameo—in ‘Dune 2,’ Explained

Butler’s Feyd is intended to be the Baron’s perfect heir, with all of his imperfections buffed out, but he’s also an object of fetish to his uncle. The book is pretty clear on the Baron’s leering gaze towards his nephew and his “full and pouting look” and there is some debate among Dune fans as to whether or not their relationship is incestuous. Butler played this up in one scene where he lays a kiss on the Baron’s lips, which was completely improvised. Villeneuve stripped away the Baron’s predatory queerness and predilection for young boys from the first film, but Butler fully embraced the perversity of the Harkonnen clan, and it works. Is Feyd’s desire for his blood relation, right down to replicating his voice, real or part of his power grab? It’s in the ambiguity where Butler offers a sour note amid the spice. Evil is far more effective when it looks good, and rest assured, Butler has no problem with making the disgusting maniac Feyd undeniably magnetic.

Dune works because the cast plays it completely straight. There are no winks or nods to the audience to deflate the pomposity of this very earnest political and family drama, and while it’s not entirely bereft of jokes, the focus is more on the magnitude of this narrative than making a novice audience comfortable (good luck watching this film if you haven’t seen the first one!) But by playing against this, by going weird in a totally serious manner, Butler brings that fantastical edge that stops the story from being Game of Thrones in space, as many skeptics declared. His Feyd is clearly off his rocker yet coolly compelling, a perverse creation of a rotten family who revels in his grotesqueries.

Photo still of Austin Butler in Dune: Part Two

Austin Butler

Warner Bros.

The way Butler snarls at a guard for not playing fair when he fights the surviving Atreides members as a birthday treat is a primal reminder of the stakes at play. He licks his knives then slices a concubine’s throat open as though swatting away a fly. It’s a fascinating display of pure vanity by an actor who has stripped himself bare to embody that unique flavor of spoiled psycho delusion.

And weirdly, as much as you root against him, Feyd is, if not sympathetic then certainly appealing. While he more eagerly embraces the path laid down for him by the Bene Gesserit, he’s still as much a puppet in their show as Paul. There’s a potential kinship there, which Butler emphasizes through a twisted smile of respect for his sworn enemy. If he were to become a God Emperor instead of Paul, would the results be any better or worse?

Austin Butler has already proven he’s got the chops to be a very big deal after embodying one of the most famous people of all-time and living to tell the tale, but it’s with Dune: Part Two that we get a greater sense of his capabilities. Sure, anyone can be a hot guy, but to be a bonkers pervert space prince who fucks and kills and does it all without eyebrows? That’s a movie-star right there.

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