''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.''
NEXT PAGE: ''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.''