Brad Pitt is as pure a movie star as they come, but if anything he remains an underrated actor. With Allied opening this week, Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman looks at the 12 best roles of Pitt’s career.
12. World War Z (2013)
A global zombie apocalypse that looks even more timely now than it did three years ago (it’s all about a society in which rage has taken over and the bottom has fallen out), Marc Forster’s teeming mass-panic horror film is not the sort of movie that tends to come up when you’re talking about inspired acting. Yet just watch the way Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former U.N investigator who’s jetting around the world, searching for the origins of – and possible cure for – the zombie virus. Pitt energises the movie. He’s a live wire of grace under pressure, whether he’s fighting to save his family, or casually chopping off the hand of a soldier to keep her from going zombie. The last act, set inside a World Health Organization facility, was famously tacked on to save a troubled production, yet it’s the best thing in the movie – a nearly Hitchcockian sequence in which Pitt, a presence of pure alertness, dodges the death around him.
11. Se7en (1995)
One sign of a born star is that he can command the screen in the sort of no-frills utilitarian-cop role that other actors disappear in. David Fincher’s baroquely atmospheric but somewhat overly diagrammed psycho-killer mystery has much to recommend it, but most of what’s gripping about the film comes from the dark side: the lavishly staged crime scenes (each teaches a tidy lesson), Kevin Spacey’s calculatedly unhinged performance, the gee-what’s-in-the-box climax. Pitt and Morgan Freeman, as the detectives investigating the madness, are minimalist noir gumshoes, but this is the most forceful and stylish of Pitt’s lawman-knight performances.
10. Twelve Monkeys (1996)
In the middle of Terry Gilliam’s squalid dystopian time-travel head-spinner, Pitt shows up as a motormouth psychotic whose itchy reaction time and convulsive, too-much-electroshock personality may be a sign of how far gone he is, or possibly an elaborate put-on (or both). The manic pleasure of Pitt’s performance is that he keeps you guessing. Pitt had tried to play a feral scuzzbucket once before, in the serial-killer drama Kalifornia, but he couldn’t keep his glamour from shining through. Here, for the first time, he shaves away his golden-boy persona right along with his hair, proving that a fugly Brad can be as magnetic as a studly one.
9. Thelma and Louise (1991)
Standing apart from all the rapists, harassers, abusers, and other louts who surround Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon), those righteous feministas on the road to nowhere, there is one man chivalrous and innocent – and sexy – enough to get on their good side, and that’s J.D., a rawhide slab of good-ol’-boy beefcake played by Pitt, in the movie that made him a movie star. Twenty-five years later, you can still see why: Showing off his dimples, miming a bank robbery with a hair dryer, he’s a dreamboat hunk, but instead of coming on like the usual Beautiful Dim Working-Class Sex Object, he acts like a guy who knows from the inside out why he’s the center of attention. Pitt’s J.D. is so convinced he’s a charmer that he makes that very conviction charming – turning this, in effect, into the audition for fame that Pitt aced in front of the whole world.
8. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Beneath its entertainingly dizzy convolutions, Steven Soderbergh’s so-clever-it’s-delectable heist caper is really a love story – and not just because George Clooney’s Danny Ocean lines up 11 accomplices to rob three Vegas casinos all as an elaborate ruse to woo his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from the casino owner. This may also be the slyest comedy of male bonding ever made: The whole joke is that Danny and his key partner-in-crime, played by Pitt, just want to hang, but they need to come up with an excuse THIS elaborate to maintain their too-cool-for-school unflappability. And no one onscreen has a shaggier nonchalance than Pitt, whose throwaway ‘tude – never more knowing than when it seems oblivious – makes him the quintessential operator in this new millennium Rat Pack.
7. Burn After Reading (2008)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s underappreciated gem is a bumptious comedy about CIA secrets and the invasion of privacy, with Pitt cast as the most stupido character of his career: a thick-witted personal trainer named Chad, who stumbles onto a CD of what he thinks is highly classified information. At the time, people made cheap jokes about how Pitt played a nitwit stud with striking conviction, but really, he does it with hilarious and knowing style, standing in for a nation of get-rich-quick scroungers.
6. Killing Them Softly (2012)
The most unjustly overlooked film of Pitt’s career. Based on the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade,” it was director Andrew Dominik’s sizzling noir follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and it’s a highly suspenseful underworld saga full of hairpin turns and vivid sleaze, but Dominik gave it an added thematic layer – about America in the Age of Obama reduced to a trough of greed – that many found preachy and obvious (though its canny upshot it to link the criminal desperation onscreen with our own). Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a Mob hitman of awesome efficiency who prefers to kill his victims “softly” (i.e., from a distance, so they won’t know what hit them). Hunting down a pair of reckless idiots who were clueless enough to rip off a gangsters’ gambling den, he lords it over an underworld maze that’s like The Sopranos redrawn by Dashiell Hammett (the late James Gandolfini is even on hand, in his greatest non-Tony role). Killing Them Softly is a fable of sociopathic sympathy: You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of Pitt’s gun, but in his ice-cold impulse to sweep the streets, he’s so stylishly compelling he’s like an angel of death.
5. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Pitt has always had moments of being a great comedian (Burn After Reading, True Romance), and his performance as Lt. Aldo Raine, the s---kicking redneck squad leader of Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic, is a lowdown high-style comic turn. Aldo talks like a sawed-off shotgun, blasting off lines like “I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily, and jump out of a f--in’ air-o-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity.” The joke is that Pitt, with his mule-skinner drawl, makes you believe that Aldo is basically a transplanted woodland hillbilly who sees Nazi-killing as a form of hunting. At the same time, one reason he’s so good at slaughtering animals is that he knows how to think like one. He’s a savage in a uniform, but he’s on the right side of things, never more so than when he’s carving swastikas into foreheads and letting his decency loom as large as his brutality.
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Pitt had never played a villain before, and though that’s a simplistic word to use for the Jesse James of Andrew Dominik’s serpentine Western psychodrama – you could argue that Robert Ford, played as a weasel of weakness by Casey Affleck, is the film’s real villain – Pitt seizes upon the chance to play a legendary outlaw by making the screen vibrate with coiled menace. You can see him gaining in confidence – and skill – as an actor, because in more scenes than not, he appears to be doing almost nothing, yet you can’t take your eyes off him. What’s operating almost invisibly inside Pitt’s electric presence is Jesse’s promise of violence, a threat so pure that he never has to say it aloud.
3. The Tree of Life (2011)
In recent years, the actors who have worked with director Terrence Malick – Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell – have tended to come off little more than swarthy artifacts of visual décor. But The Tree of Life is the rare contempo Malick film that’s more than just lyrical floating camera, breathless bursts of classical music, and amber waves of grain. It’s the director’s greatest film since Badlands, a poetically authentic dream of American life in the sleepy pre-media ’50s, so steeped in memory that it’s like a Proustian scrapbook, and the most haunting thing about it is Pitt’s performance as the hero’s father, whom he portrays as a fusion of reverence and stern, at times monstrous discipline. He’s a man who acts out at home the frustration he feels at being a cog in the machine that he can’t reveal anywhere else. The result is Pitt’s most complicated character, because he doesn’t just show you the deep love and the dictatorial scariness. He shows you how they can’t be separated.
2. Moneyball (2011)
It would be hard to name an actor outside the B-movie action realm (Jason Statham, etc.) who radiates the sheer confidence of Pitt, and that’s why he hasn’t often played characters who possess an undercurrent of insecurity. But the beauty of his performance as Billy Beane, the real-life Oakland A’s general manager who devised a revolutionary new way to put together a champion baseball team, is that it’s fueled by that effortless and strutting Pittian bravura, but it’s also layered with convincing, grown-up glimmers of self-doubt. Billy, a former pro player whose career didn’t work out, is trying to prove himself by boldly going where no baseball club has gone before – into the realm of computer analysis, which results in assembling a team of quirky flawed misfits who excel at one thing (getting on base). His whole mission in sports is riding on that decision, and Pitt, chewing on the most stylish baseball dialogue since Bull Durham, creates a character of scruffy moxie and soul who would have been right at home in a downbeat classic of the ’70s.
1. Fight Club (1999)
Tyler Durden, the scuffed and imperious ringleader of a violent club for overgrown delinquents, is a dropout, a criminal, a truth-teller, an existential rebel, the ultimate badass, and the quintessential Brad Pitt character, because he wears his attitude of who-gives-a-f--- bravado like the tasty but unattainable fantasy it is. Tyler Durden is also, of course, a pure figment, and that’s the mystery at the heart of Pitt’s mesmerising performance. It’s Tyler, in this movie, who first uttered the phrase “How’s that workin’ out for ya?,” and Pitt’s priceless reading of that line is defining, because it throws down a generational gauntlet. It really means: How’s it workin’ out for you not being as killer as Brad Pitt? We’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.