Brad Pitt: A Viewer's Guide

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Brad Pitt’s back this week in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, a crime drama based on the book Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins, so we thought it was time to profile the actor’s best work to date. As ever with these guides, we’ve chosen three essential films, two recommended outings, one for fans only and one to avoid. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Read on, and offer your alternatives in the comments…

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Fight Club (1999)

Brad Pitt’s one-two punch of 1990s David Fincher collaborations established both on the A-list. Seven, their first film together, started off looking like a buddy cop movie. Then it took a hard left, shocked audiences by descending into the seven circles of Hell and destroyed Pitt’s decent but volatile young cop. But Fight Club, wherein Pitt’s the unrestrained id to Edward Norton’s ego, is the real stand-out. Pitt is free-wheeling and impossibly charismatic as he starts a movement powerful enough to bring down society - and this despite wearing a fluffy pink bathrobe covered in appliqued tea-cups. Even Hollywood sometimes has difficulty finding a credible way to deal with Pitt’s good looks; here, as the guy every other guy secretly wants to be, they finally make sense. Fincher and Pitt were clearly on to something: even their less universally adored third team-up, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, sees the actor stretched to give a different kind of performance from any before.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Pitt takes Peter Lawford’s role in the original film as the brother from another mother to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. The pair are so well matched that Danny and Rusty form one of the greatest understated double-acts we’ve ever seen. The two share a wordlessly close bond (asks Clooney, “You think we need one more?” only to follow Pitt's utter silence with a resigned “We need one more”) and the same taste in excellent suits. But Rusty’s forever trying to go straight and forever frustrated by his own inability to make it work alone (or at least frustrated by Topher Grace). This is also notable for the indulgence of a Pitt acting tic that would inform his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball: the guy sure eats a lot on film.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The previous of Pitt’s collaborations with Andrew Dominik, The Movie With The Really Long Title is slow, elegantly sparse and elegiac in tone, but a better look at the slow disintegration of a previously-close group it would be hard to imagine. Gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins (his shot of a train rounding a corner in thick, dark woods is worth the admission price alone), Pitt provides the mercurial centre around which his gang revolves – chief among them, of course, Casey Affleck’s increasingly twitchy Robert Ford, who goes from fawning to murderous as the pressure mounts. Affleck’s the protagonist rather than Pitt, but it’s the older actor who keeps stealing scenes. And, for that matter, any valuables he comes across.

RECOMMENDED: True Romance (1993)

Like an extended smoke break, Pitt’s lovably loopy turn as Floyd the pothead offered moviegoers a first glimpse at his comic skills. A man almost surgically attached to his sofa, Floyd’s chilled demeanour disguises a temper he’s far too stoned to express (“Don’t con-din-sen me, man!”). In fact, every time we meet him he’s shrouded in clouds of smoke, his face emerging like the Cheshire cat to deliver Quentin Tarantino dialogue at about 12RPM. It’s one of Pitt’s transitional roles from heartthrob to serious talent, showing along with Twelve Monkeys that he was capable of pushing the boat out, and it’s still a doozy.

RECOMMENDED: Tree Of Life (2011)

While Sean Penn was railing against his brutally snipped part, Brad Pitt, you’d imagine, was proud as punch to have remained front and centre in Terrence Malick’s ‘50s-domestic-drama-stroke-creation-story. Him, and the dinosaurs. The actor is one in a long line of big stars to have given themselves up (for little financial reward) to the great man’s artwork and shines in a Malick appearance that’s as meaty as any this side of Christian Bale (The New World), Richard Gere (Days Of Heaven) and Martin Sheen (Badlands). He’s superb as the disciplinarian dad with a blistering temper who deep-down loves his sons but doesn’t quite know how to show it.

FOR THE FAN: Legends Of The Fall (1994)
Ed Zwick’s historical melodrama is the kind of movie that has critics dusting off phrases like ‘sweeping epic’ and ‘giant canvas’. Thanks to Brad Pitt’s appearance alongside as brother of the also-fairly-handsome Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas, that canvas was prettier than anything this side of Botticelli. Although we didn’t go see it because it was full of shots of a generously-maned, bear-wrestling Pitt silhouetted ruggedly against the Montana skyline – as if! – or getting all angry at the Germans who killed his brother, those things didn’t hurt. They complemented an earnestly presented tale of family strife which barnstorms into the Great War trenches and out again. The well-coiffed Pitt (did we mention the hair?) steals the entire film. This was a one-two punch with Interview With The Vampire that solidified the mega-heartthrob status Pitt began to acquire with his breakthrough, Thelma & Louise.

ONE TO AVOID: The Mexican (2001)

Tonally jarring and more top-heavy than an A-list flavoured muffin, Gore Verbinski’s genre mash was billed as a romance but kept its two stars apart for most of the runtime. Pitt and Julia Roberts, a much snappier combo in the Oceans movies, cede the screen to troubled hit man James Gandolfini in a caper flick that pitches for Out Of Sight, but ends up more like The Tourist. Pitt, for his part, rolls out a prototype of the goofball he’d perfect in Burn After Reading. He’s Jerry Welbach, a crime syndicate man who heads across the border in pursuit of an antique gun and discovered that he should have stayed home. Audiences knew the feeling.