Oscar Watch: The Year of the Bad Boys
Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem are odds-on favorites to win Academy Awards for playing bad guys without a backstory in ''There Will Be Blood'' and ''No Country for Old Men'' -- and ringing in a new era of movie villainy
''The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted,'' D.H. Lawrence once declared. He shoulda been a movie critic.
Mr. Lady Chatterley's Lover was writing in the 1920s, but let's face it, he might have just emerged fresh from a visit to today's multiplex, his fingers still buttery from a double feature of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. And he might have been left shaken, as so many of us have, after encountering two of the hardest, most morally isolated and stoic killer-dillers in contemporary movies — Javier Bardem's implacable, Beatle-cut annihilator Anton Chigurh and Daniel Day-Lewis' misanthropic oilman/bowling aficionado Daniel Plainview.
At the conclusion of this year's Oscars, Day-Lewis may well take home the award for Best Actor, and Bardem a matching statuette for Best Supporting Actor. By any measure, it was an awfully good year for awfully-behaved characters. Whether we're talking about Johnny Depp's demon barber in Sweeney Todd, the up-by-his-bootstraps hoodlum Denzel Washington portrayed in American Gangster, Russell Crowe's sketch-pad-wielding Western baddie in 3:10 to Yuma, or the serial killer in David Fincher's Zodiac, evil is artful in some of the best recent American movies.
Audiences embrace the unembraceable, queasy qualities of the villains in No Country and There Will Be Blood. These men stand out from this nefarious pack in three distinctive ways: their soul-quaking ferocity; the never fully explained motivations for their cruel behavior; and the daring extremes to which their creators go to portray that behavior. We can try and pin motives onto these guys, of course. In No Country, Chigurh is after the bag full of drug money that wily hayseed Josh Brolin stumbled upon and made off with. In There Will Be Blood, Plainview wants to dominate the turn-of-the-century California oil fields that big oil companies are about to monopolize.
But here is where these two films really lift off into uncharted artistic territory: In neither case do the filmmakers attempt to give us the reason, the ''psychological'' explanation, or, thank heaven and hell, the ''backstory'' of how Chigurh and Plainview came to be the way they are. Or as Chigurh puts it in No Country: ''What business is it of yours where I'm from, friend-o?'' At first, Bardem says, he thought that imagining Chigurh's personal history might help him connect with the character. But then he realized that such extrapolation wasn't just pointless — it was detrimental. ''Maybe the character's mother didn't feed him when he was 5 years old, or something like that,'' he tells EW. ''I started to do that, but then I realized...in this case, it would be much more helpful if I didn't know where he was coming from. The challenge was to embrace a symbolic idea and give it human behavior. It wasn't about how his mother didn't feed him.'' Bardem believes Chigurh represents ''the logical violent reaction to a violent world. And I think my character symbolizes that violence.''
Chigurh seems to offer his victims (and, by extension, us) a choice; his deceptively cavalier challenge to call heads or tails on a coin toss reduces life to chance. Choose wrong, and you lose in the biggest way imaginable. Bardem says of his character, ''I am your horrible fate because you called for it.''
Brrrrr — it's even creepier when he puts it that way, isn't it? Chigurh and Plainview have literary origins, but very different cinematic fathers. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is faithful-up-to-a-point in presenting a villain who on the page is barely described physically, while Paul Thomas Anderson used Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! as a mere jumping-off point for what is ultimately the writer-director's own highly idiosyncratic take on capitalism and religion.
Certainly, it's easier to guess at the source of Plainview's behavior: an admirable American rags-to-riches ambition, stunted and gnarled by his desire for power and control. ''I look at people and I see nothing worth liking'' is the telling line here. With an attitude like that, what are a few smeared bodies along the road to success (and perdition)? Day-Lewis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said he views Plainview's tale as ''an entirely honest examination of a life [with] an outrageous trajectory.'' Anderson, however, has always looked at Blood ''as a horror film.'' Really? ''What I mean by that is that we were telling a story that was only going to be a downward spiral,'' he says. ''You don't have to make any apologies along the way. You go to see a horror film to see bad things happen.''
Anderson gazes over at what the Coen brothers have done and sees a similarity to his own work: ''No Country is a horror movie to me. It's sort of a horror Western.'' Ethan Coen agrees: ''In some respects, [McCarthy's] novel is a horror story about getting old and how you contend with the world.'' Indeed, after seeing these often overpowering films, many of us are left feeling like Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell in No Country, who sits a bit stunned in a Texas diner and cannot for the gosh-darned life of him figure out why such evil is set loose upon this modern world. Yet the bristlingly smart producer Scott Rudin, who worked on both movies, sees differences: ''No Country is tapping into a feeling that our lives are fragile...and a lot of the country is responding to that. But I think There Will Be Blood has a whole different kind of relevance, which has to do with the relationship between [the power of] oil and religion.''
Of course, it's the intentionally inexplicable nature of these bad guys, when placed within the context of grand, classy filmmaking (as opposed to the kill 'em all and let Quentin Tarantino sort' em out aesthetic of exploitation flicks like the Hostel and Saw franchises), that breaks with class-A horror conventions. For example, if anything dates a touchstone of the genre like Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho nowadays, it's the tacked-on, jargon-riddled scene near the end, in which a psychiatrist explains the Oedipal-with-a-dollop-of-nuts motivation of Anthony Perkins' cross-dressing, female-fearing killer. More recently, the purred musings of Jodie Foster's radio-chatterbox character in 2007's The Brave One only served to mire the action in a thriller marketed as a feminist remake of Charles Bronson's Death Wish.
It used to be pretty rare that exceedingly bad characters won Academy Awards. Robert De Niro's Supporting Actor Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather Part II almost doesn't count in this context, so sensitive and identifiable a tortured soul was his deadly mobster. But his win briefly defied the Oscar tradition of bestowing a prize on the person who most colorfully plays The Buddy (say, Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire), The Wise Guy (Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie), or The Graying Eminence (John Houseman in The Paper Chase or John Gielgud in Arthur).
Pre-De Niro, you have to reach back and stretch the definition of ''bad guy'' to find another of D.H. Lawrence's isolate, stoic souls nabbing the Oscar — and I'm only half-joking when I suggest that George Sanders' 1951 win for All About Eve fits the bill. Sanders' Addison De Witt wasn't a mass murderer, but he certainly shriveled many on-screen souls with his acid reviews as a dastardly drama critic.
In any case, the real bad-boy breakthrough was Anthony Hopkins' Best Actor victory for his role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. Once the Academy gave an Oscar to a remorseless snuffer-of-life like that, the way was paved for Denzel's dirty cop in Training Day (2001), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), and Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) — as well as for Bardem in No Country and Day-Lewis in Blood.
Both of these intense movies inspire a different kind of laughter among many viewers: a mingling of surprise, shock, disbelief (if you don't buy into the films) and/or elation (if you do). Ditto their makers. Ethan Coen meant it as a compliment when he told us he finds Blood ''really funny.'' In the case of No Country, there reaches a point when the still, blank face of Javier Bardem — and the way the Coens frequently place him in the center of the frame as he strides through a scene with havoc all around him — reminded me of Buster Keaton, the silent-movie genius whose visual wit depended on his maintaining a calm, serious mien when everything around him was going kerflooey. I even heard chortles of surprised pleasure during No Country's trailer, when a car explodes on a street as Bardem's Chigurh walks serenely into a drugstore, oblivious to the effect his mischief has elicited, hell-bent on his mission while all those around him yelp and scamper.
The laughter provoked by There Will Be Blood comes in sharper barks; it's more pop-culturally complex. For all the rave reviews the movie has attracted, there's been some skepticism, especially about the movie's final moments, when Day-Lewis' Plainview has seemingly achieved everything he could want, yet remains a man near-crazy with years of accumulated grudges against the world. Without swerving into Spoiler-ville, let me quote Plainview's howled phrase in the final scene — ''I drink your milk shake!'' — and note his final act of violence against his nemesis, the young preacher played by Paul Dano.
These are the key moments when we, as viewers, are challenged either to stay the course on Mr. Anderson's wild ride or to hop off, shaking our heads in hooting disbelief. One way to defuse the discomfort Anderson and Day-Lewis clearly intended here is to snicker at it — to mock it in a hip/ironic way that the movie itself, to its great credit, assiduously avoids. As a matter of fact, countless jokes and videos have already sprouted up around Plainview's bellowed line ''Drainnnnaaggge!'' and that bizarre, out-of-nowhere milk-shake metaphor.
All joking aside, it's fascinating to note that No Country and There Will Be Blood share physical as well as psychic space. Big chunks of the movies were shot against the same flat, parched backdrop, the real Roadrunner-and-Coyote, West Texas landscape outside the town of Marfa. ''We ran into Paul [Thomas Anderson] once while we were shooting,'' says Ethan Coen. ''When we were shooting a scene with Josh Brolin tracking a blood trail, we had one very wide shot of Josh in the frame. He was just walking in this most remote place in the United States, and then behind Josh [arose] this big plume of black smoke over the ridge. We thought, Son of a bitch, the scene is ruined. We sent a grip over to see what was happening. It turned out it was Paul, testing an oil-well fire. We had to wait for the smoke to dissipate.''
Kinda makes you think the films had crossover potential, doesn't it?
Plainview: ''I...driiiiink...your...MILK shake!!!''
Chigurh: ''Drink this, friend-o.''
That face-off will never happen, of course. Nor will any sequels, no matter how popular Anderson's and the Coens' movies become. There will be no Chigurh Rising. No There Will Be Blood II: Oil Be Back! Their creators are artistes for whom such commercial allure is nil (and Javier Bardem is no Robert Englund, running his Freddy down so many nightmares on Elm Street). Some viewers have been left outraged, puzzled, or downright derisive about the abrupt, dangling notes upon which No Country and Blood conclude. But, despite their open-endedness, these tales of very bad behavior possess a slamming-door finality. Once the screen goes black and their spells are broken, you're glad to be rid of these villains...even as you also know they're all you'll want to think and talk about for days.
I still haven't seen these movies. Fucking distribution companies in my country that don't release Oscar movies in theatres until the very last week.