Javier Bardem, photo by George Pimentel

Javier Bardem’s sparkling career has been defined by two distinct personas. His newest film, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, brings them both contentiously to the surface.

By Yang-Yi Goh

There are two Javier Bardems. There’s the Javier Bardem you fall in love with—the suave Brazilian businessman who sweeps Julia Roberts off her feet in Eat Pray Love, for one, or the irresistible artist at the centre of Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s madcap romantic foibles. And then there’s the Javier Bardem you’re afraid of: the cattle-gun-wielding, pageboy-bearing psychopath in No Country for Old Men, the role that earned him his Oscar; or the homicidal, bleach-blonde former spy who antagonizes James Bond in Skyfall.

Neither side of the Spanish actor, now 48, is more correct or more valid than the other. Each is immediately captivating, strangely seductive, and enormously moving in its own right. That is Bardem’s gift: no matter how saccharine or sociopathic the role you place in front of him, he finds a way to unearth an enigmatic quality in the character—an off-kilter depth—that smacks you with all the urgency of a Lennox Lewis left jab.

In mother!, Bardem’s latest, both of his primary personas are brought out to play. A Darren Aronofsky-helmed psychological thriller—dripping with the kind of unsettling moments that only the Black Swan filmmaker could conjure—the movie follows Jennifer Lawrence as a young woman whose idyllic country life is sent spiralling when she uncovers a dark side to her husband, played by Bardem. The role is, in many respects, one Bardem has trained his entire career for. It hinges on his ability to make us trust him, feel comfortable around him, and, yes, fall for him, before pulling back the curtains and revealing the demons—both metaphorical, and, just maybe, literal—that lie within. Predictably, he pulls off the high-wire transition with seamless, hypnotizing grace.

As far as Bardem is concerned, mother!’s secrets are best left to the big screen. “We all know every f—ing thing all the time,” he recently told Entertainment Weekly about the film’s closely guarded plot. “That’s good for some things and bad for others. We have to keep this mystery going if we can.” One thing that should come as no surprise? That Bardem—both of him, in fact —will likely leave you stunned where you sit, breathless, gasping for air. You’ll love him, and then you’ll fear him, and then you’ll love him all the same.