Brad Pitt is in two movies this year. Both roles seem to speak to the contrasting paths of his career. In one story, he’s the hottest guy you’ve ever seen. A washboard-abbed cowboy giving Thelma a night of sex she’ll never forget. He is not the paper set aflame, but just the beginnings of fire tickling its edges. In another story, he’s just shot a serial killer who cut off his wife’s head, put it in a box, and sent it to him as a special delivery. He’s the guy put into the back of a police car, whose eyes tell a tale of someone who has lost all hope.
Brad Pitt’s vulnerability on screen is the thing that links the two stories of his long and versatile acting career. Both are on display this year with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and James Grey’s Ad Astra. In one, Pitt plays Cliff Booth, an aged stunt man who outshines the actor he covers for in every way. Yet, he doesn’t really exist to Hollywood except as a shadowy legend – a guy who might have killed his wife once, and a guy who can win just about any fight. The secret he keeps with the audience, though, is that he’s a guy who loves his dog. And he’s a guy who loves his friend.
This is the Brad Pitt Robert Redford used as a stand-in for himself – the tragic golden boy in A River Runs Through It. Be still all the beating hearts with one look at Pitt in that movie. Flinging his fucking fly fishing pole into a river in Montana bathed in glittery sunlight. Alas, that Pitt wasn’t meant to last, because beautiful things like that never do.
That Brad Pitt is also the way David Fincher uses him in Fight Club: as an imaginary, testosterone-infused apparition for the weaker half of men. Pitt the icon, Pitt the living dream, Pitt the something to eat with a knife and fork but also something dangerous, with an evacuated soul. That movie, Fight Club, shows you what Pitt can really do.
But Fincher uses Pitt again to subvert that image in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We do get another look at Pitt the Adonis on a motorcycle – that hair, that jawline, that slouch, that straddle. But again, this beauty is not permanent. It’s an ephemeral drive-by, like all people hitting their prime. Fincher plays with it because he knows it’s something none of us can hold onto. How we wish we could stay forever in that magic hour.
In Ad Astra, where an astronaut seeks out what’s left of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has gone all out Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now and bailed on the world of the civilized, Pitt continues on the trajectory of the more vulnerable, wounded, even obtuse characters he’s played. A far cry from the fading golden boy on display in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Pitt in Ad Astra is a continuation of the detective who got in the back of the police car, the one whose world view has just been completely shattered. In Se7en, Pitt is in peak form navigating a character who stumbles accidentally into a job he is unprepared for. As Morgan Freeman says, “He’s not ready.” Freeman’s Somerset tries hard to shield Pitt’s Mills from the inevitable truth that this is not a world to believe in, but a world to be afraid of. In the masterpiece that is Se7en, within a few minutes of tense filmmaking, Pitt goes from full-blown cocky confidence to Kevin Spacey (“You’re no messiah. You’re a movie of the week. You’re a fucking T-shirt”) to a man who breaks in an instant (“All because I envied your simple life. And so, it seems envy is my sin.”).
Pitt’s face now in both of these films shows wear and tear of a life lived, but he’s never really lost the thing about his face that the camera loves. It isn’t just how he looks but the way he looks, what he reveals about himself in closeup. In Ad Astra, Pitt is confronting a father who abandoned him. A cruel and probably abusive man who has either gone insane or just had enough with the planet Earth and all of the people on it. Pitt might be Mills again from Se7en after a lifetime of asking the same existential questions about this life we all ask: is it even worth it? Are humans worth saving?
These questions are asked to Pitt as Mills in the middle of Se7en. His initial, defiant answer: “The point is that I don’t think you’re quitting because you believe these things you say. I don’t. I think you wanna believe them because you’re quitting. You want me to agree with you, and you want me to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. It’s all fucked up. It’s a fucking mess. We should all go live in a fucking log cabin.” But I won’t. I won’t say that. I don’t agree with you. I do not. I can’t.”
By the end of Se7en, though, his face (and because Fincher is such a good director and Pitt is such a good actor) tells us everything we need to know about that. So much of what Pitt does as an actor asks and answers those questions in Ad Astra and, to an extent, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both characters have crested the peaks of their lives and are now on the way down the other side.
Pitt is an actor who might have a lot of reasons to give up on everything by now. But all he’s really done is shed one layer of skin to reveal something raw enough to look almost new. Pitt’s performances in both of these films are among the best of the year.