Back in 2007, acclaimed actor Javier Bardem brought to life the vibrant and vicious villain Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. He brought to life a man who was both cold yet oddly charming, ensuring the role would forever hold a place in our memory. In the sly satire The Good Boss, it feels as though this character has returned to the screen once more. Sure, he now wears nice clothes and has used his business as a cover for his underlying cruelty. However, when the mask begins to slip and his true self is revealed, an unsettlingly familiar feeling takes hold. While he isn’t an unstoppable hitman, the cold capitalist Julio Blanco rivals the most ruthless and calculating characters Bardem has ever portrayed. Even when the film can’t match his strong performance, he still elevates everything with overwhelming ease.
If anything, the character is more terrifying because of how normal he seems. If you were to look upon him from the outside, Blanco would initially appear like a friendly fellow. This is by design, as he has meticulously constructed an image of himself as a man who is deserving of all his success. The story is built around him working through day-to-day problems at the factory, often of his own creation, so that he can keep up this illusion. Underneath this, with a single look or a curt command, he can make your skin crawl. He is a man who will stab you in the back while staring you dead in the eyes as he does so. The film is most clearly a showcase for this performance, playing out as a study of just how despicable his character can get. We are introduced to how the factory Blanco owns has won multiple awards and seems to be a well-oiled machine with him at the forefront of it all. Everything is built to place him above others in status, ensuring that everyone knows their place will always be beneath him.
This is felt in his introductory scene where he gives a speech to inspire his employees that shows he knows how to use his charisma to his advantage, which, in this case, is his pursuit of yet another award. It marks one of many times he will speak of how the workers are like his “family,” a pernicious statement that seems like it is all about building a deeper connection that actually allows him to manipulate those underneath him under the guise of faux compassion. No matter how much he says it, there is no denying the leverage and control he routinely exercises over each of them. It gives him an excuse to overstep boundaries, all in service of his company and the personal wealth he has accumulated. Blanco is a sociopath in a suit, committed to doing whatever it takes to keep in complete control. He is essentially the ruler of a corporate kingdom that he oversees from up in his office, sipping wine and expensive coffee without much of a care about the people below him. They are all disposable
Bardem excels in capturing the smooth yet slimy sensibility of his character. Without him, the balance between the comedic beats and more grim ones towards the end would not have nearly as much of an impact. While his past collaboration with writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa on 2017’s Loving Pablo was constrained by the trappings of a biopic, Bardem is given vastly more freedom here. This ensures the conversations feel infinitely more engaging and revealing as Blanco buries himself deeper in the affairs of others. The way he goes from being more reserved to ruthless at a moment’s notice keeps the audience, as well as the other characters, on our toes. Over a dinner with one of his employees, the struggling manager Miralles (Manolo Solo), you can’t help but be suspicious of his angle. While he is outwardly nice in pretending to be supportive, Bardem makes the character feel like a snake who is just about to strike. That Miralles seems all the more unaware of how he is being played reveals how good Blanco is at this. Beneath the charm is a callousness that is at his very core and could explode forth at any moment to consume any who gets in the way of his capital.
Of course, this makes the moments where the tables are turned and Blanco is made to sweat all the more delicious. Central to this is two characters. There is the new intern Liliana (Almudena Amor) who Blanco takes an inappropriate interest in, something we see he has done before with other women under his employment. She is still more than just a conquest and delightfully upends the story. The other is Jose (Óscar de la Fuente) who sets up a one-man protest after he gets fired from the factory. He does so across the street from its entrance so that Blanco must pass by him every day and hear him shout humorous slogans at him. The way the two characters challenge their boss and where they end up feels rather pointed as it reveals the nature of how, as individuals, they are still outmatched by Blanco’s control. It is a reminder that, absent collective action, structural forces will keep him on top.
The experience is defined initially by a macabre sense of humor where even the most somber of situations can be skewered. Much of this comes back to an almost whimsical score that is used sparingly yet effectively to instill each scene with a bit of dark playfulness. There are moments where it can all feel a little too explicit in how it spells everything out. Many scenes unfold in a manner that is aggressively straightforward with the subtlety of Bardem’s performance often getting sold short. What makes it all work is when the film takes a gruesome turn that is surprising in the moment, though ultimately fitting in retrospect. The inevitability of the finale is baked in from the very opening scene yet no less devastating to see. As this then gets juxtaposed with the sickening subterfuge Blanco carries on with, Bardem continues to be outstanding as he sinks deeper into the depths of depravity. Observing how his character continues to cover up his quiet brutality with a bright smile and his cruelty with charisma, it makes clear that he will always ensure that the scales are tipped in his favor. His winning is a foregone conclusion and, subsequently, so too is our loss.