Brad Pitt plays the hero-as-outsider
In Legends of the Fall, a self-conscious, operatically scaled story that’s part he-man mythology and part boys’ adventure-magazine fiction, Brad Pitt plays Tristan, the wild-spirited middle son of a family right out of Bonanza. As such, he gets to howl, glower, brood, gallop, punch people, wrestle bears, race horses, and grow some really impressive facial hair — all aspects of the kind of hero Pitt loves to play best. I think of this hero business not just because Legends is so heavily influenced by myths and archetypes, but also because, more than many other movie stars of his generation, the 31-year-old Pitt has claimed the territory of hero-as-outsider as his own.
That’s smart thinking for a reasonably but by no means spectacularly talented actor with the sensual looks of a soap opera male ingenue. It sets him apart from, say, Tom Cruise, another pretty face, but one who specializes in heroes-as-insiders. The characters Cruise favors — pilot, bartender, lawyer, mentally competent brother — operate confidently within the system, even while they brood, and even if the system stinks. Pitt doesn’t go there. Instead he stands apart, contemplative, sucking on his bright white teeth with his erotic, swollen lips, squinting thoughtfully, and drawling slightly with his ”s” sounds fuzzed into ”zh” sounds. And he does all this, possibly, because he (or his agent) learned a lesson early: In his debut, Cutting Glass), a dingbat high school slasher comedy starring ”it” boy of the moment Donovan Leitch, the teen-dreamboat Pitt plays a popular jock. And he’s a bust. A nobody with nothing to rub up against. And with absolutely no hint of the flair and self-confidence he would display just two years later in Johnny Suede and Thelma & Louise. The first was a personal advance — a chance for Pitt to tease up a huge pompadour and fool around with the mannerisms of exaggerated retro coolness in a smugly hip movie about nothing much at all. Sort of a forerunner of Destiny Turns on the Radio, it’s rendered in a cartoon-colored palette that’s better suited to the TV screen than to the movie theater. The second, though — ah, the second was a triumph, a great story about outlaw women on the run. Watching again at home with the perspective of time, you can practically feel Pitt, as a bank-robbing drifter who seduces Thelma (Geena Davis), zoom into stardom as a sex object. Hoooo boy!
Thelma & Louise kicked Pitt into a new tax bracket, but it did something else, too: It gave him a good road map from which to navigate all future projects. Two worth noting: the finely made, Oscar-winning nostalgia piece A River Runs Through It and the violent, lurching crime drama Kalifornia. Inspired perhaps by his work with director Robert Redford (who is the perfect mentor for the younger man — the two share an aura of taciturn sensitivity), Pitt took the high road in River, playing the role of the younger, wilder brother with considerable modulation and Redford-like charm. Today River looks like a direct precursor to Legends. Both are stories spanning decades, set in Montana, about the relationship between a father and his sons. If River’s older brother hadn’t been played by Craig Sheffer, Tom Cruise would have fit right in.
In contrast, Pitt took the low dirt road in Kalifornia, reveling in the part of a serial killer who hooks up on a road trip with a journalist (David Duchovny) and photographer (Michelle Forbes) who are investigating the sites of serial killings. Now, the work looks almost quaint, like a sociological period-piece fantasy about American violence. Then, it was the I-gotta-stretch part that let Pitt belch, screech, try a trashy Southern accent, and work with his once equally famous then girlfriend, the distractingly undernourished Juliette Lewis. Oh, he stretches all right, with plenty of gusto. But if there’s not enough menace, it’s not entirely his fault; the story’s many episodes of ludicrousness derail what could have been a good, sick thriller.
In such a hero’s journey, then, Legends of the Fall (which also stars Anthony Hopkins as crusty paterfamilias, Aidan Quinn as sobersided older son, Henry Thomas as idealistic younger son, and Julia Ormond as the woman who is all things to all brothers) is an important milestone — a synthesis of all the characters Pitt has played before, and the ultimate exemplar of the Fire in the Belly school of manliness. And as such, you may want to mark this moment well. Especially now, as he roams the humid realms of celebrity and appears in photographs looking defiantly, unhandsomely lank and seedy, Legends is fascinating as a guide to where Pitt’s been. Don’t ask where I’m going, his performance says, this outsider leaves no clues.
Legends of the Fall: B-
Cutting Class: D+
Johnny Suede: C-
Thelma & Louise: A-
A River Runs Through It: B+