His characters have always represented a version of retrograde masculinity in the shadows. Only now, it’s leading the show.
Hitting theaters on the sly last week was the broad, hanging canvas of Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave, a landscape piece of the still somewhat unsettled American west, populated by small towns and large cars and a cultural connection to the greater and more populous world is blasted, thirty years too late, from the dusty playlists of classic rock radio. Kosinski’s idea of a hero in these parts is what is called a hotshot crew, a version of a firefighter who, per Ray Bradbury’s timeless advice, occupy themselves setting fires instead of putting them out. This, more urbane viewers will be educated, is part of the elaborate world of suppressing forest wildfires: setting up small, controlled, blazes to the effect of knocking out the bigger ones. Kosinski’s style of exploring this world (ditto screenwriters Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer; scribes behind Black Hawk Down and The International, respectively) feels heavy too: familiar tropes of redemption, loyalty and (duh) heroism are spooned in the cough-medicine doses of a war movie, check out the gear, check out the homosocial fun times. A lifted-from-the-headlines story, based on the kind of GQ journalism that leads with lines like “The fire crawls,” there can only be so many surprises.
But Only The Brave is also something else, something well-worth the two hours, the overly written shoptalk waiting around for some chin-scratching upstart named Brendan, nicknamed “Donut” (Miles Teller) to choose to start a family over not doing that. The movie’s emotional landscape, hewn like the wood in a sauna, is perfect ground for a grave, commanding figure of an almost fifty-year-old Josh Brolin who looms over every scene like a lumberjack on a cleared brush. He appears now, if such a thing were ever possible, even more Brolin than ever: gray forest of facial hair abutting the carefully worn chisel of jawline, with an accent pushed as far into the trenches of gruntspeak as cinematic comprehension permits and, like pink glowing icing frost on the cake, the tiniest Leon Trotsky-glasses spend much of the film resting on his nose. A poet-warrior embossed in bronze.
It’s no surprise that Kosinski had to set his picture in the boondocks of America in order to bring out the heroic chisel. The conventional image of leading man in American cinema has adjusted in all kinds of slight ways that the readers of a magazine like Esquire might care about. He is ordinary and befuddled by small things. (think Jason Bateman). He wears his family on his sleeve (think Will Smith). He is cute (think Paul Rudd). Whatever. But Brolin, since reemerging a decade ago in No Country For Old Men from the mist of mediocrity that followed The Goonies, has persisted is a continued, and ceaseless performance of the old heroes, the Humphrey Bogart types, regulated by their intelligent scripts to the nefarious shadows, clucking their worn hands at the icons of a history triumphed over.
Even in the Cohen Brothers’ version of Western, he was but a hero who could be battered and ultimately defeated in center stage. The starring role that followed, in Oliver Stone’s biopic of the then-in-office President Bush, took that image to its ultimate conclusion. Still playing a kind of cowboy, and a vastly disliked U.S. President because of it, Brolin easily slipped into the role of symbolizing the obsolete America that Stone was lodging protest. Run by his supposed sycophants (Condi Rice and Dick Cheney, cartoons embodied Madame Tussauds-style by Thandie Newton and Richard Dreyfuss respectively), run by his absent, pitying father (James Cromwell), he is, in the movie’s most accomplished scene, awaiting a baseball pitch that will never come.
Elsewhere in the past decade, Brolin continued to play retrograde figures. A failed, plagiarizing novelist in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger who leers at a younger woman across the street. Another villain in another Oliver Stone film (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). In Gus Van Sant’s Milk, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, he dutifully personified the old evil of the homophobic millennium that Oscar audiences were celebrating as past. He does this as Dan White, a city official who assassinates the titular Milk, Harvey (Sean Penn). As White, Brolin is the family man haircut in a suit that looks a size too big, the existential wrestling is replaced with a sort of uncomfortable itch that he can’t seem to scratch. But, notably, we never see this family and his White, like his W. Bush, is a loner cast out from civilized society.
The sole romantic lead of Brolin’s career so far, in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, did not defy this archetype but coat it in glass. In it, he plays Frank, a convict who escapes jail to hold a divorcée named Adele (Kate Winslet) hostage. Reitman, ever the new sincerity romantic with the diminishing returns such style demands, plays the Stockholm syndrome plot as a dead serious take on Buffalo 66: Brolin’s Frank not only makes stallion-like love with his captive but bakes her an apple pie the morning after. (Consequently, the National Pie Council really got behind the project.) It’s Winslet’s by-the-numbers anguish that makes the movie watchable but Brolin’s embodiment of hazily retro-American values (in addition to the aforementioned pie, he plays catch with her boy and fixes the oil on her car, etc.) doesn’t estrange them as a satire would but, instead, lauds them in the golden haze of a museum display. It’s a warm-up for the more palpable Brawny Man he plays in Only the Brave and brings to mind the John Wayne figure famously elicited by Joan Didion once: embodying the permanent promise to purchase a house “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” The house never appears the family must remain a fiction but that’s why Wayne was in Westerns and Brolin, most often, sits on the sidelines.
It is a fine jawline, perfect even, but arguably P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice was a better venue for appreciating it. Regulated back to plot’s shadows, as the banana man to Joaquin Phoenix’s gumshoe hipster, Brolin cannily slipped into the keenest role of his career: in a po-mo version of the ‘70s (scored by Can and not David Bowie), Brolin is a cartoon because he is square and Phoenix is the one sane man in the sanitarium. He embodies knowledge,  and most pertinently plot but distills those elements to a nonsensical cant that Anderson’s movie makes a moral stand of opposing. It stands out because it is neither a fantasy nor odiously villainous but, instead, strangely real. He’s a brutal policeman who makes no bones about it which is pretty much what a significant amount of the population think of policemen.
His turn in Only the Brave is, ostensibly, his most sincere. Firemen mean a great deal to Brolin, he would ride along with a VFD in Arizona for some time in between his Young Riders days and his bit role in a ‘90s Guillermo del Toro movie. Its also one his first roles in the past decade where he plays the definitive good guy, the hero with a past that that has been triumphed over (addiction, etc.) and a father figure that can be beloved and believed in. It’s no wonder it gets devoured in flames.