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11th Sep 2019

2019 is the year Brad Pitt started making great movies again

Wil Jones

After nearly a decade of flops, two new movies herald the return of true movie star

By the late 2000s and early 2010s, Brad Pitt had truly shed his pretty-boy persona to become a fascinating actor, giving movies like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Moneyball and Inglourious Basterds. But it’s been quite a while since we had a really great Brad Pitt film.

Over the last decade or so he’s been busy with his production company Plan B, bringing the likes of Moonlight, Selma and Kick-Ass to the screen. He’s cameoed in 12 Years A Slave, and Deadpool 2 and had a supporting role in The Big Short, but his star vehicles have largely flopped – World War Z  had a notoriously troubled production, and does anyone even remember Allied or Netflix’s War Machine?  And even when he made something more interesting, like Killing me Softly or Ridley Scott’s batshit insane The Counselor, they failed to connect with audiences.

But this (late) summer, all that is being rectified, with starring roles in two very different performances in two very big movies, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and epic space saga Ad Astra – both which cement his position of one of the last great movie stars.

There was always two sides to Pitt – the ridiculously handsome movie star, and the proper actor, and the duo of films represents this nicely. The casting of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is somewhat of a meta-joke – two of the most famous and successful actors of their generation playing a has-been TV star and a never-was stuntman.

There have been several valid criticisms of Pitt’s character in the film, stunt double-turned-gofer Cliff Booth, particularly over the fate of his wife, and the violence at the end of the film. But none of that makes Pitt himself any less likeable during the movie. He just exudes charisma and coolness.

The scene where he strips off his shirt while fixing the roof to reveal a perfectly chiseled dad bod is instantly iconic, and during his visit to the Mason ranch his veneer of calm, collected control never cracks. We all wish we were at least one per cent as cool as Cliff Booth.

All of which makes his performance in Ad Astra stand out for being so different. Director James Gray’s film is a slightly ponderous space epic – part Interstellar, part Apocalypse Now – that sets up a fascinating view on the future of space travel but ultimately ends up just being about daddy issues (it does include a murderous baboon in a rocket though). None of this matters though – despite all the IMAX-ready special effects, this is all about Brad Pitt’s performance.

Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride is the inversion of Cliff Both – a successful, decorated Major wracked by a crisis of confidence. He is quiet, he is seemingly calm, but as he ventures to the other side of the galaxy in search of his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), he slowly begins to crack.

A significant part of the film’s runtime is dedicated to Pitt silently floating in space, dealing with his emotions. Honestly, the film’s central ‘parents screw you up’ theme is slightly hokey, but Pitt’s raw emotions completely draws you in.

This is far from a new observation, but we don’t live in an era of movie stars anymore. Apart from the outlier like a Dwayne Johnson or a Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible, movie stars don’t get people to go to the cinema. What motivates the general public to turn off Netflix and actually go to the cinema is a Marvel movie or Star Wars or a live-action version of an animation they enjoyed as a child – not an actor they can follow on Instagram and is probably already starring in a prestige cable series anyway.

Which is why it is so great to see Brad Pitt back, making films like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Ad Astra – big-budget movies, that aren’t based on existing properties, that attempt to appeal with adults and doesn’t go straight to streaming. Hopefully, they continue to be made.

Ad Astra is in UK cinemas September 18th.