One of the best parts of doing a Their Best Role piece is the debate over what constitutes a specific actor's greatest performance. I go through it personally before I write one of these -- perusing IMDb pages and my own memories, weighing one part against another, one film against the next, and then I finally come to a conclusion and sit down to write -- knowing full well that I've merely completed the first of many debates to come. That's the beauty of writing about films, actors, and directors -- there's room for many different opinions and they're all essentially valid.
Take the subject of this entry -- Josh Brolin. At 42 years old, Brolin has had at least three roles that could qualify as his "best" (make it four if you want to get nostalgic for The Goonies ... ). I wrestled over the decision when it came to which one to choose. His portrayal of Dan White in Milk was a great performance, and if you argued in favor of it -- I'd probably not disagree too vehemently. Brolin's portrayal of the George W. Bush in W. was fantastic, too. However, when it came down to it, there was only one role that really made sense for me -- and that was Brolin's work as Llewelyn Moss in the Coens' No Country for Old Men.
What's funny, even to me, about this choice is that Brolin isn't the first or even the second guy you think of when this film is mentioned. Whenever No Country comes up, I invariably think of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh and then of Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. I think most people do. That's not meant to be a slight to Brolin's portrayal of the character, but instead a testament to just how finely acted this film is. When you've turned in your best work and you're the third person people think of when the film is mentioned, you either aren't very good at your job, or you appeared in a film that's damn near magical. In this case, it's the latter.
We have a tendency, when discussing film, to think of it as this singular enterprise -- we talk about a director like he controls everything, an actor's performance as if it comes solely from within himself, but that's not reality. Directors oversee numerous people who help them get their vision on film, and actors benefit from the synergy not only with the filmmaker, but their co-stars. This is particularly true in No Country -- where the three leads have this almost symbiotic relationship when it comes to their craft -- each making the other better even though they spend very little time onscreen with one another. Brolin's performance is made stronger by Bardem and vice versa -- and I'm still not sure that either actor's work in the film would have been as good without the other.
Brolin's Moss is an interesting character -- something of an everyman that we can all relate to even if we don't live in a trailer in West Texas. When he stumbles onto that drug deal gone bad, and snags the satchel with the two million dollars in it, he sees it as a way to change his life. It's not the best decision (which would be to turn around and walk away from the scene completely), but it's the one most of us would make if we had to make a one or the other call between taking the drugs or the cash in that situation. We relate to Moss because Brolin makes him easy to identify with. He's a guy living in a trailer -- we may even feel slightly superior to him. The way Brolin does this is very subtle, though -- he's still a proud man, and we know he's not a wimpy guy, but at the same time, we also know he's just stepped into a world he's not prepared to deal with.
Moss makes this clear to us time and time again as the film advances. His best laid plans aren't enough to throw Chigurh off his trail. As the noose tightens, we can see these little cracks in the character's facade -- but again, Brolin plays it so understated and with such a sense of grace (which seems like a very odd word to use when describing a rough-and-tumble guy like Llewelyn Moss) that we pick up on these things on an almost subliminal level. In a film filled with themes of nihilism and predestination, where fates can be determined by a coin toss, Moss is a character who seems almost resigned to his fate, but Brolin keeps us engaged and hoping that things might turn out differently.
That may be the most striking thing about the actor's turn as Moss -- the way he wins us over to his cause even though he's not right. It's not Moss' money, but Brolin makes us root for him to get away with it anyway. It's that common man thing again -- even if we don't relate to him on a personal level, Brolin makes us all think about how we'd react if we had to walk a mile in Moss' boots. If we'd made that choice to grab the cash and run -- and more than a few of us would -- we'd be hoping to get away with it too.
To be sure, Brolin's work is helped by Bardem -- who's like an unstoppable force of nature in the film. Bardem constantly keeps boxing Brolin into these corners, but it's in these dramatic moments that Brolin is given his greatest opportunity to shine. The near misses, the close calls -- all are opportunities for Brolin's Moss to show us something, and he does. It's never painted in the broad and obvious brush strokes of most action movies, but it's there -- a stubbornness, a will to keep going, and that subtle hint that he wouldn't do anything differently even if he could.
It's that feeling of destiny and the way Brolin plays it throughout that makes Llewelyn Moss so compelling for me. Like everyone else, I think of Bardem first and foremost when No Country for Old Men is discussed, but I think Brolin's work here is just as impressive -- if way more understated. Now, the debate begins anew -- head to comments section to discuss what you think constitutes Josh Brolin's finest hour.