© Francois Duhamel

Film

Ad Astra is one of the greatest performances of Brad Pitt's career

Long seen more as a pretty face than a talented thespian, Brad Pitt has begun a slow metamorphosis into an august man of the screen who can tackle meaty roles without taking his top off. Never has this been clearer than in Ad Astra: a movie in which Pitt manages to play an inconspicuous man named Roy. What a world!

It feels odd to say that a hugely popular multimillionaire entertainer is having a fine moment, after decades of unparalleled success, but, in 2019, it does rather seem that people have finally noticed Brad Pitt can act. Yes, he was iconic in Fight Club, haunted in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, fun in Ocean’s Eleven, riotous in Burn After Reading and buff in Troy, but with both Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood and the forthcoming Ad Astra, the star has delivered the two greatest performances of his career.

At the age of 55, Pitt is not exactly news. He is Hollywood’s most famous actor, a superstar since 1991 and his topless breakthrough in Thelma & Louise. Since then, the heartthrob has hunked his way through films as varied as Seven and Mr & Mrs Smith, via various tabloids, relationships and hairstyles. He has always been everywhere and, more than even George Clooney, thought of as much as a celebrity as actor, more pin-up than performer, as the world focused on his marriage to Angelina Jolie, rather than, for example, his 2011 baseball tactics drama Moneyball.

Madness. Moneyball is great. An exemplary display of non-showy acting by a man who helps tell the complicated, possibly dull, story in the most inviting and interesting way. He did the same in Killing Them Softly a year later and with a cameo in The Big Short in 2015, but these were small films, unnoticed by the mainstream. As such, to the attention of seemingly nobody, one of the most recognisable people on the planet was undergoing a professional revolution. One that made his work so vastly superior to the twitching eccentricities of his nadirs in Twelve Monkeys and Snatch that he had become an entirely different actor.

This refined talent is never more obvious than in his turns as Cliff in Once Upon A Time... and Roy in Ad Astra. Yes, Roy. I don’t think the Pitt of the Nineties or noughties could have got away playing someone called Roy, but now, recently, the actor lets the film come to him, rather than bringing himself to the film. The difference is key. Credit to directors Quentin Tarantino and James Gray, who both produce fine, very different source material, but never has Pitt’s celebrity been so hidden on screen. He makes the roles look easy, but by being relaxed in Once Upon A Time... and fretting in Ad Astra, the effort behind both is clear. I can’t remember a time I have watched him and felt less burdened by the fact that I was watching, as might be said in the new Tarantino, “Brad Fucking Pitt”.

Put it this way – nobody expected the overacting star of Meet Joe Black to become a possible new Cary Grant, but as he soars into the fourth decade of his long career, that option is ahead of him. There are many great scenes in Ad Astra, but two in particular show how far Pitt has come.

First, towards the end, he has to cope with Tommy Lee Jones in his fully emotional, fully pained mode. No easy feat. Jones is one of the most acclaimed anguished actors of the past 30 years, but Pitt goes toe-to-toe with him easily. Secondly, while on a commercial flight to the moon, he has to act as a nobody. Roy is meant to be incognito, but of all the stars in Hollywood, none are less incognito than Pitt. That has been an issue before, but here, it isn’t. He just slips easily into the background, which is some achievement, some acting.

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