Javier Bardem was hardly a newcomer to the acting scene in 2007. The then-38-year-old had already racked up more than two dozen credits, many of them in his native Spain, plus a Best Lead Actor Oscar nomination in 2001 for his flawless portrayal of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. But that didn’t stop moviegoers around the world from feeling as if they’d personally “discovered” Hollywood’s next great talent after witnessing Bardem’s transformation into one of the most terrifying serial killers to ever grace the silver screen, the compressed air tank-toting sociopath Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
One really only needs to look at Anton’s hair to realize something’s not right with him.
All bowl cuts aside, Chigurh is a killing machine. Both because he’s paid to be and because, well, he kind of likes it. And that’s what his job is in the film: to recuperate a bag full of $2 million that got lost when a drug deal went astray. Chigurh’s task is simple; get back the cash, and kill anyone who gets in your way, cops and women included. Or the the unlucky sap who finds himself standing between Chigurh and something Chigurh wants—like that stash of cash—or on the wrong side of a flipped coin. There’s nothing but bitter coldness behind Chigurh’s eyes, which is reflected in the reaction of all those he encounters. On-screen, his presence reads like an extreme temperature drop.
Even as an actor, it would be easy to underestimate the craft involved in playing such a blank slate. Chigurh could easily be written (or written off) as nothing more than a robotic hit man. But Bardem manages to establish a strong character, even with zero back story and minimal dialogue. We know nothing about who Chigurh is or why he does what he does, but his presence is felt throughout every second of the film’s running time. Whether or not he’s on the screen really doesn’t matter; the thought that he could be lurking around any corner is enough to add a distinct level of tension to the film, that heightens even its most quiet moments. —Jennifer Wood