In Avengers: Infinity War, Josh Brolin is big and purple. His Thanos is the film’s lynchpin and its main character almost by default. Although his quest — to halve the world’s population with a bunch of magical MacGuffins — is fairly conventional for superhero fare, Brolin’s performance is not. Thanos is quiet and focused. He’s not good, but he’s not diabolical or big. Despite his appearance, Brolin makes Thanos into something fairly subtle. He doesn’t take up all the air in the room, and, in a film with actors like Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth as well as a talking raccoon, that’s a very good thing.
Brolin has made a career out of these kinds of parts. He’s a charismatic actor who gives his co-stars plenty of room to show off. Brolin’s characters are often vivid and captivating, but they aren’t flashy or filled with tics. Even when he’s bright purple, Brolin is best when he’s playing people with clear, simple motivations. He’s not an actor who relishes the chance to go big. In fact, his presence is one that gives the other actors around him the chance to chew up scenery. Brolin is best at centering sprawling stories, often ones where he is not the focus.
Brolin perfected that role in the films of the Coen brothers, where he’s often at the center of stories that include characters far broader than the ones that Brolin is tasked with playing. In Hail, Caesar! (2016), Brolin’s most recent effort with the Coens, he plays Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood fixer who goes on a widespread mission that introduces him to cowboys, communists, and a vast array of movie stars. Brolin’s character has his quirks, but although he’s the film’s ostensible main character, he’s far from the most colorful. If the film belongs to anyone, it’s Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle. Although Mannix gets the climactic speech, Doyle has the most memorable lines, including a particularly wonderful scene with Ralph Fiennes.
Brolin’s performance is centered. He’s an able scene partner, willing to let his co-stars shine as he drives toward truths that always seem to elude him. He’s cast as the story’s hero not because he fills the screen with his presence, but because he’s able to manage the enormous personalities of the stars that he interacts with.
In his first collaboration with the Coens, 2007’s No Country for Old Men, Brolin plays a similar role. His character, Llewelyn Moss, sets the plot in motion when he steals a bag of money and goes on the run. Llewelyn is a simple man — he’s not stupid, but his decision to steal this money puts him in a world he’s ultimately incapable of surviving. Brolin’s performance is an admirable combination of interesting character work and standard action heroism, but the characters who really shine are those who chase Llewelyn. Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is a weary lawman, tired of a world that is governed by evil and chaos. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is even more elemental, a pure embodiment of evil that feels more like an unstoppable force than a specific character. The movie itself is a meditation on that evil, one in which Llewelyn Moss often feels like the only full-blooded human. Brolin’s performance holds the movie together, giving it stakes that feel personal.
In spite of Brolin’s lack of showiness as an actor, he’s often cast as a villainous or malicious figure. In the Coens’ True Grit (2010), he’s the film’s villain, an outlaw who nonetheless gives the movie its purpose, uniting the eccentric characters played by Matt Damon and Oscar nominees Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. In Sicario (2013), Brolin isn’t exactly a villain. He’s an amoral middleman, indoctrinating Emily Blunt’s naive FBI agent into their war against the cartel, even as he shepherds Benicio Del Toro’s vengeful assassin toward his confrontation with the leader of this band of Mexican drug runners. Blunt and Del Toro shine for wildly different reasons. Blunt is in way over her head, and plays that role marvelously, and Del Toro is cold and ruthless. The film wouldn’t work without Brolin, though, who works well with both actors, and is able to switch from menace to charm on a dime. It’s the kind of character only he could pull off, an agent who wears flip-flops to high-level meetings, but makes those flip-flops an indicator of competence instead of its opposite.
In Infinity War, Brolin once again takes on the mantle of the villain, playing a key role in pushing the films collection of heroes toward one another. Unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who are among the best villains the Marvel universe has delivered thus far, Thanos is not charismatic. Loki and Killmonger worked because it felt like they were fighting to be the lead in their movies — they’re both more villainous counterparts to the heroes they fight against. In Infinity War, Thanos is the protagonist. We meet him early on, and he’s the only one who’s driving toward a concrete goal. Brolin doesn’t play him like someone who’s fighting for space — he plays him like someone who has earned his place at the center of this story.
That may explain why Brolin’s presence in the film is so calm. He ends up with a fairly standard villain monologue, but he’s not as prone to grand explanations as many villains (even Loki and Killmonger fall into that trap), and he rarely raises his voice. He’s on a mission, and Brolin highlights the character’s determination to achieve his admittedly misguided end.
Although Thanos is big and purple (which is weird), he shares quite a bit in common with many of the roles that Brolin has taken on over the course of his career. Brolin is an ideal scene partner — he’s the kind of actor who seems to prefer roles that put him at the center of the film’s plot, even if that means he’s giving a more straightforward performance than the actors around him. That gives his scene partners the chance to go big, knowing that Brolin will be there anchoring things to reality. Brolin’s the kind of actor who carries the plot on his back so his co-stars don’t have to. They have all the fun while Brolin does the work.