The uber cool, utterly charming Brad Pitt has dazzled us with diverse roles across genres. Pitt began his acting career at the age of 24, his early roles in films and TVs were mostly uncredited parts. The actor’s breakthrough role came in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) where he played an attractive small-time criminal. The role defined him as a sex symbol. Throughout the 1990s, Pitt’s career oscillated between hits and misses. His first great nuanced performance was in Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992). Pitt later played a menacing serial-killer in Kalifornia (1993). There were also quite a few duds like Meet Joe Black, The Devil’s Own, and The Mexican.
Gradually, Pitt cut down his screen appearances, and chose to play idiosyncratic characters like the scene-stealing turn in Snatch or as the foolish gym rat in Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt is also an award-winning producer. His Plan B Entertainment production company bankrolled Oscar-winning projects like 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight. Here’s a look at some of the best Brad Pitt movies:
15. Babel (2006)
In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious hyperlink drama, Brad Pitt plays a role that exists outside the scope of his stardom. Pitt’s Richard Jones tries to save his failing marriage by taking a vacation to Morocco with his wife. However, tragedy strikes in their journey through the Moroccan desert. Pitt genuinely conveys the emotional turmoil and terror a common man goes through while stuck in unusually grave circumstances.
Babel’s central theme emphasizes human disconnection due to grim social realities. In fact, the hyper-link narrative’s central tragedy unfolds due to the frustrated actions of alienated individuals. Hence Pitt’s Richard Jones only faces uncertainties, unlike the viewers who’re aware of the events unfolding. And this inability of Pitt’s character to process the sheer randomness of the tragedy is devastating to watch. Though Brad Pitt received a Golden Globe nomination, his performance was overshadowed by other strong performers, including Cate Blanchett and Rinko Kikuchi.
14. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire was based on Anne Rice’s best-selling novel of the same name. Brad Pitt plays Louis, a pensive vampire. The narrative largely unfolds in flashback as Pitt’s Louis shares his life story with a writer (played by Christian Slater). Pitt also shared screen space with Tom Cruise. The film was a box-office hit and Pitt’s performance was lauded by critics and audiences alike. Yet, Pitt has mentioned that he didn’t enjoy working in the film, primarily because of night-time shoots and heavy make-up. Besides, he found the studio shooting environment very depressing.
This was a considerably nuanced vampire feature, and Pitt as the conflicted Louis offers a quietly devastating performance. The rapport he shares with 12-year old Kirsten Dunst’s character forms the emotional crux of the narrative.
13. Killing Them Softly (2012)
Killing Them Softly was based on top-notch crime novelist George Higgins’ 1974 novel Coogan’s Trade. Brad Pitt re-teamed with Jesse James director Andrew Dominik for the project. Unfortunately, the film was extremely polarising among critics and a commercial failure. Pitt plays Jackie Coogan, a perceptive and ruthless mob enforcer. He is hired to clean-up a mess made by a couple of robbers in the under-world card games.
Director Dominik cleverly updates the original 1974 narrative of the novel and sets it around the grim financial crisis of 2008, which thwarted the promises of the Obama era. In fact, Killing Them Softly is not a conventional crime drama. It’s full of relentless social commentary on Capitalism’s decline. Pitt’s intense screen presence alongside his quick-silver dialogue delivery perfectly drives home the narrative’s themes. The ending monologue is one of the finest moments in Pitt’s performance.
12. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a remake of the 1960 Lewis Milestone film of same title. Though a muddled heist film, the original was known for its star-cast which included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Soderbergh’s remake not only has a better star cast, but also constructed one of the most funniest and tense heist films. The titular character Danny Ocean was played by the charming George Clooney. Brad Pitt plays the second big character in the film, Rusty Ryan, the all-knowing right-hand man of Ocean.
Clooney’s Ocean has a personal agenda in planning to rob a shrewd casino owner. But Pitt’s Rusty keeps things level-headed and the actor’s trademark unflappable presence is the key to the narrative. I know Pitt is often seen having a snack or looming in the background. However, it’s his cool precision and nonchalance that makes the heist and the film a success.
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading, Coen brothers’ follow-up to their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), is an under-appreciated black comedy. The dark and strangely transfixing narrative revolves around a CIA analyst’s secret memoir. What’s memorable about the film is that Brad Pitt plays an uncharacteristically uncool character. Pitt’s Chad is a gym employee who is full of energy and absurdities. Actors playing sombre roles shifting to comedic characters are rare. But Brad Pitt excels at comedy here, and completely disappears into the role.
The actor has played high-strung and eccentric characters in films like Twelve Monkey and True Romance. But Pitt is magnificently thick-skulled as Chad. Moreover, it’s interesting to learn that the Coen brothers wrote the role with the actor in mind.
10. Snatch (2000)
In Guy Ritchie’s fast-paced crime comedy, Brad Pitt played an Irish boxing gypsy. Though it’s more of a supporting role, Pitt steals every scene he’s in. He also surprised us with his lightning-quick and extremely difficult Irish accent. Snatch revolves around a boxing promoter and a ruthless gangster. Their scrupulous match-fixing plans are ruined by Pitt’s Mickey. However, Mickey himself gets embroiled in the gangster’s plan which involves a diamond heist.
So, the story goes that Pitt was looking to do something commercial as well as something outside his comfort zone after Fight Club. He watched Ritchie’s riveting debut feature Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). An intrigued Pitt immediately asked Ritchie if he had a role for him. Eventually, Pitt’s Mickey O’Neil turned out to be one of his most fun roles.
9. The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s hugely ambitious and divisive feature offers a singular cinematic experience. The film received mixed reviews at the Cannes screening. While the film was known for its emotionally resonant imagery and profound themes, it’s also remembered for Brad Pitt’s performance as a disciplinarian father. The Tree of Life revolves around Sean Penn’s Jack. The adult Jack attempts to reconcile with his complicated father. The tale unfolds from Jack’s innocent childhood to his disillusioned adulthood.
Jack’s childhood is defined by the uneasy relationship with his father. There’s nothing larger-than-life about Pitt’s O’Brien who plays Jack’s father. The man is a 1950s archetypal American patriarch. He struggles with expressing love for his kids. At the same time, he wants to prepare them for the harsh realities of the world. Such conflicting feelings are beautifully portrayed through Pitt’s low-key performance.
8. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Brad Pitt earned his first Oscar nom (supporting role) in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian time-travel film. He was cast against type to play a mentally unstable young man, committed to a crowded mental asylum. Pitt appears for only 20-25 minutes. Despite the limited screen presence, his character’s goofy, loquacious nature is undoubtedly captivating. Bruce WIllis plays the protagonist, who is sent from the future to stop the man-made apocalypse. Unfortunately, he is sent to a wrong time period, and ends up in an asylum with Pitt’s Jeffery Goines. In the later-half of the movie, Goines becomes a significant red-herring in the web of mystery.
Gilliam shot the mental asylum scenes with slanted angles and bright lights. In the early scene-stealing turn at the asylum, Pitt’s character offers an interesting take on pop-culture and media. The unbridled energy with which he delivers his philosophy adds to the narrative’s flamboyance. Furthermore, a lot of mannerisms Brad Pitt displayed while playing the manic, fast-talking Goines became a part of the actor’s signature style.
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Loosely based on Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story, David Fincher’s romantic fantasy is centred around Brad Pitt’s phenomenal performance. The film’s implausible story follows a man who ages in reverse. Born as an arthritic, wrinkled infant, Benjamin Button grows younger every year. The technical wizardry included a novel motion-capture process. This smoothed out certain challenges there were involved in capturing the actor’s performance and transferring it to their digital counterparts. Brad Pitt’s old man look in the first 50 minutes was not make-up, but CGI. And this seamless performance capture process was crucial to the immersive experience. Regardless of the technical brilliance, the way Brad Pitt inhabits the character is also nothing short of a marvel.
Apart from the physical challenges involved with the performance, Pitt perfectly embodies the character’s demeanour. From capturing childlike wonder to melancholic yearning, Pitt brilliantly emotes despite the layers of makeup. Though Benjamin’s life-cycle is reversed, Pitt conveys the feeling of having watched a life lived full.
6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
After playing comic roles in Burn After Reading and True Romance, Pitt elegantly oscillates between outlandish comedy and cool-headedness in Tarantino’s pulpy historical fiction. His Lt. Aldo Raine is an unapologetic squad leader of Nazi hunters, who speaks in a thick southern US accent. It’s well-known that Christoph Waltz’s thunderous performance overshadowed Pitt’s Raine. Nevertheless, the actor is wickedly funny throughout the narrative.
A slight loss of control might have turned the character caricature-ish. Brad Pitt, despite playing a character with violent impulses never turns the swastika-carving Raine into an annoying figure. Pitt more or less played a similar role in the satirical War Machine (2017). However, besides the muddled writing, even Pitt’s performance was unconvincing and ineffective.
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
After three unsuccessful nominations for an acting Oscar, Brad Pitt received the first Oscar for his role in Tarantino’s madcap dark comedy. Pitt’s Cliff Booth is a laid-back stunt double and fading TV star Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) best friend. Though Pitt has previously played such roles, Cliff comes across as a complicated individual with an air of mystery. This suspicion is only exacerbated in Cliff’s final rampage.
Moreover, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is more of an observation of 1960s Hollywoodland. Similar to Inglourious Basterds, the film promised an alternate take on real events. Yet unlike Basterds, Once Upon has a very laid-back tone that’s more interested in the characters than the events. And Pitt’s Cliff superbly personifies this laid-back tone without making it tedious. In fact, Pitt’s screen presence brings elegance and style to even the mundane situations and simple conversations.
4. Se7en (1995)
Brad Pitt’s first of the three career-defining collaborations with director David Fincher, Se7en revolves around two detectives who investigate the crimes of a twisted serial-killer. Pitt plays young Detective Mills who partners with a veteran detective, played by the superb Morgan Freeman. The actor chose to play the part because he found it a flawed character with good intentions. Pitt also wanted to shed the image of a cool leading man. Detective Mills is more of a hothead, and there’s nothing larger-than-life about the character.
Who can forget the distraught face of Mills in the chilling final scene? The ‘what’s in the box?’ is one of the most iconic sequences in Brad Pitt’s career. In fact, the actor has mentioned that even years after making the film, people still yell at him, ‘what’s in the box?’
3. Moneyball (2011)
Bennett Miller’s fascinating baseball drama is something even those with no clue about the sport can enjoy. Based on Michael Lewis’ book, the film looks at the complicated set of numbers and people that are at the heart of the game. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a former ballplayer who works as general manager for a low-revenue club. Beane doesn’t instantly turn around the team with exciting action, rather relies on groundbreaking statistical analysis.
Pitt’s Beane is a flawed character who is both a ruthless businessman as well as an unpredictable tactician. He exhibits a charm and maturity in his performance which is elevated by the wonderful chemistry Pitt shares with Jonah Hill’s character. Brad Pitt also does justice to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogues. He is terrific particularly when negotiating trades with other baseball clubs.
2. Fight Club (1999)
The instantly memorable thing about David Fincher’s culturally defining film are the iconic quotes coolly recited by Pitt’s Tyler Durden. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s satire on consumer capitalism found its perfect medium in Fincher’s great imagery and Pitt’s brilliant performance. Who’s Tyler Durden? A capricious soap salesman with an athletic physique? An agent of chaos and destruction who takes the fight against capitalist hegemony? Or is he the harbinger of violence who shows men a way out of modern lives’ repression and boredom? Tyler Durden is all of that, and more.
To prepare for the role, Brad Pitt underwent a rigorous workout pattern. He learned a bit of mixed martial arts and took soap-making classes. Actors undergoing physical transformation for a role isn’t new. But it’s awe-inspiring to see Brad Pitt bring to life his character’s unconventional, hyper-charismatic demeanour.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s brilliant drama deconstructs the myth surrounding the life and death of infamous outlaw Jesse James. As the blunt, self-explanatory title indicates, the narrative is an investigation of a historical past sans the glitz and glamour. Therefore, Brad Pitt playing the character of a lionized real-life outlaw adds double intrigue. Pitt’s Jesse James enters into the narrative with such grace and beauty, imparting a mythic feeling. Roger Deakins’ mesmerizing cinematography plays a great part in elevating the character’s powerful presence.
Nevertheless, director Dominik gradually dives deep beneath James’ outwardly chill demeanour. In fact, this is where Brad Pitt excels as his restrained performance hints at the turbulent emotions roiling beneath. Some of the best scenes in the film are when Pitt’s Jesse James is alone in the frame, sporting a contemplative faraway stare.
However, the fim was a big commercial failure. Pitt has stated that:
My favourite movie is the worst-performing film of anything I’ve done
Still, this is the most indelible performance among Brad Pitt’s rich body of work.
Like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt hasn’t gone through any extreme physical transformation. Or like Leonardo DiCaprio, Pitt doesn’t use the Meisner technique of acting. Yet there’s an undeniable power and coolness in Pitt’s screen-presence which is so unique to the actor. There’s an elegant precision to his performances that conveys a lot about masculinity. From star-making to unconventional character roles, Pitt is an iconoclast in contemporary Hollywood. What are your favourite Brad Pitt movies? And which of his performances do you think deserve more spotlight? Let’s talk in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’