Thursday, May 25, 2017

Theory Thursday: Javier Bardem is the Best Villain Actor Working Today

Scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Pirates of the Caribbean:: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Javier Bardem is the best villain actor currently working.

Scene from Skyfall
It is likely that you looked at the upcoming release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and had a deep and purposeful groan. Why did there have to be another one of these movies? It is likely in part because many people's good will towards Johnny Depp continues to fade with each passing year as he inserts himself into various franchise, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Dark Universe. But to a smaller group, there is definitely one thing that is exciting for the new movie: Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar. He is a villain on par with the supernatural element of the franchise. However, it isn't specifically the character that is interesting so much as the actor, who I argue is among the best working today.

I have no interest in seeing any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They all seem silly and helped to launch a dumb part of movie culture: taking inanimate objects such as rides and turning them into movie properties (yes, it can be blamed for The Emoji Movie's demise). I get that there's an audience out there who like swashbuckler stories, so I won't fault anyone who does go to them for the fun. After all, Gore Verbinski can be an entertaining director, and Depp used to be a passionate character actor. There's a lot at its core that makes the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise more thrilling than, say, the Country Bears or the Haunted Mansion. Even then, I'm not exactly interested in them, especially since none of them quite capture the essence of the Errol Flynn movies that they're probably updating.

So why then does Bardem make me excited? To be honest, part of it is basically that he's the best part of an uninteresting project. However, I do think that history will prove me right in at least agreeing that he is one of the best villain actors currently working. His basic involvement raises my interest tenfold, and that's why I was vaguely tempted to give the new Pirates a chance. I know that the movie will be hokey and probably lacking a logical core, but at least it will have Bardem playing a menacing ghost that is travelling the seas to capture Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. It may wind up being unfulfilling, as he is oddly computer generated and looks unnerving by accident. Still, there is something about his demeanor that is attractive.

It is probably most notable in the film for which he won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor: No Country for Old Men. Anton Chigurh is one of cinema's greatest villains, largely because he has his own nihilistic path, leaving life to chance. His deadpan voice and ineffectual reactions make it hard to penetrate how he really feels. When he does have intimate conversations, it's some of the most brutal moments in a film full of gunshots and murder. He has a code of ethics that is admirable in its perversity. How he survives is a miracle, and his ability to quietly move through a scene of chaos is cinematic. Bardem's earnest dedication to this role embodies his gifts as an actor, but more specifically explains why he's so good at playing evil.

The important thing about playing a villain is that you have to be memorable. Most of the time, that tends to be more flamboyant. Other 2007 acting winner Daniel-Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood) added more of a flair to his performance. While there was room for some deep and complicated drama, everyone remembers the "I drink your milkshake" scene, largely because it's a commitment to insanity. Bardem has moments of insanity, but they're all quiet, in part by design as there's no actual score and little diagetic sound. You have no choice but to be in the moment, and you remember him better because of that. It can be seen in how he quietly murders a man early in the film. The man is struggling, but Bardem is relaxed, sure of what he will be doing. It's a miracle that a film so nihilistic even won Best Picture, given that the following year's winner was the upbeat Slumdog Millionaire. That is, of course, until you see Bardem's career-defining performance.

I admit that beyond this, there is slim pickings on iconic villain roles. He does manage to shift between characters with ease. Still, he is arguably some of the best parts of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, To the Wonder, and even The Counselor. Still, if there had to be a runner up for performances that will solidify Bardem's reputation in decades to come, it is probably Skyfall as Silva. He plays into the same level of menace, but adds a higher class level to the performance. He has chaotic set-ups throughout England that throw citizens into peril. He can hack computers and even operates from an island. To some extent, he is a cartoon character and lacks the nuance of Anton. However, his dedication to being unapologetic in his drive is brilliant. He is at times winking, but other times all too human. You want to stop him because James Bond wants to stop him. Even then, you kind of revel in his eccentricities. He is the middle ground between Anton Chigurh and Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. It does help also that director Sam Mendes did turn in a powerhouse film for every other performer in the movie as well as Bardem.

What it all boils down to is charisma. Bardem is able to play manic as well as quiet. It helps that he has a face that can be trustworthy or devious with a simple flicker of an eye. I admit that this seems like a fairly anemic column compared to most, but I do believe that in time Bardem will be recognized for his ability to intimidate good guys. He is one of the best actors working that can play into familiar dramatic acting and find a new way to get under everyone's skin. While it may in part be the project that he is assigned to, it also helps that he is committed to bringing the role to life in a serious and professional manner. I can hope that he brings that to the new Pirates movie and becomes one of the series' best attributes. If not, I eagerly look forward to his work in the Dark Universe, where he is scheduled to be in the Frankenstein wing of things. He may not be able to top Colin Clive or Boris Karloff, but who knows. He's already proven that he's more than capable of such impressive feats.

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