It starts with the voice. It feels lower than it should be, perhaps digitally altered to pitch shift it down. And then there’s the articulation, or lack thereof, as if he’s half-swallowing the words, or as if he doesn’t really care whether you can make them out. The voice is almost never raised—you’ll never see him screaming in the rain—but it can take on a sternness, a sharpness. Even then, it won’t go up in pitch. Brad Pitt has a middle-C, and he won’t climb above it.
Then there’s the face. Etched with a few more lines than when he took Gina Davis’s virginity and money in Thelma and Louise. It's a bit hangdog too. If he weren’t a movie star with a movie star’s body, he’d likely have jowls by now. His face is made out of circles, the wide ones of his eyes, the sockets of his jaw, the perfect one that surrounds his mouth.
The face is also a wall. There are things going on beneath it, but you’ll never be completely sure you know what they are I used to think he was a bad actor, untalented. Capable of grandiose gestures, yes, capable of deliberately unnatural character work in 12 Monkeys, but seriously, a dramatic actor? Really?
I was wrong. It isn’t that he’s a bad actor, it’s that he’s an opaque one. Whether by choice or by specificity of talents, Brad Pitt is not going to reveal himself to you onscreen, ever. The movies of his that succeed are the ones that know this and use it to their advantage.
Opacity in performance—an acting style in which the subtext of a character is present but kept secret—is made possible by film. Without the close-up, the reaction shot, the bit of closely observed business, keeping secrets from the audience is difficult. I know of only two actors who regularly pulled this off on stage (James Urbaniak and T. Ryder Smith). Film enables it, but our preference as audiences is always for revelation, to be embraced (or at least charmed) by a performance rather than held at a distance by a man presenting an unsolvable mystery.
Pitt’s mode of performance is a stark contrast from most of his contemporaries. Michael Fassbender, for example, is a largely transparent beast. Watching Shame or A Dangerous Method, you know precisely what’s going on with him at all times. This transparency is not always for the good of the project. Shame would not work without it, but as soulful as Fassbender is in A Dangerous Method, the script is so subtext-free and on the nose that the project could’ve benefited from some holding back.
Ryan Gosling, the other major actor of the year, attempted to vacillate between the two modes with less success. Testing out his opaque chops in Drive, he simply appeared to have no subtext whatsoever, a blank that rendered the film’s soundtracked assertion that his character is “a real human being/ and a real hero” absurd. He was neither. Drive was at its best when it treated The Kid as a slasher movie monster thrust into the role of a B-movie action hero. In its final moments it mistook him for Christ, and the love interest plot line never felt more than a comment on de rigeur genre mechanics.
One of the few actors who can successfully move between transparency and opacity is Gary Oldman. He seems as comfortable reveling in the campy extremity of his 1990’s work as he does in the arch super-restraint of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film in which his ice-coldness as a metaphor for the dehumanization of the cold war, contrasted against a more traditional—and failed—romantic hero played by Tom Hardy.
Pitt is not as versatile a performer as Gosling or Fassbender, but when he is used well, there’s an undeniable power to his work. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in The Tree of Life, which casts Pitt against type as an overbearing, abusive, broken father in mid-20th Century Texas. Even before we know this about his character, however, Pitt’s performance is terrifying precisely because it is inscruitable. We see that lurking beneath the surface is something waiting to get out, but cannot tell what it is. He won’t show it to us. He looms as an actor in the way many fathers loom in the lives of their children, as unknown and unknowable forces, frightening because they are a secret.
Moneyball-- which Pitt produced-- does not use him as well. The screenplay and director Bennett Miller do a good job of deploying flashback sequences (with a different actor) to reveal the shades of desperation and bitterness, allowing Pitt to invest fully in the gruff, no-nonsense exterior that serves as a cover-up. The film stumbles, however, in its attempts to show Pitt’s home life. He’s never going to be convincing as a loving father; in today’s world, doing so requires a level of openness and intimacy that he will not show on screen.
Pitt best performances—in The Tree of Life and Fight Club—are in roles where his character is enacting someone else’s subjectivity. In those cases, his mysteries are the film’s mysteries, his lacunae the gaps in the protagonist’s own understanding of the world. Our ideas of what good acting is and what acting is for—the revealing of a character’s inner mysteries to the audience without over-indication—arose at the same time as the flourishing of psychotherapy, a practice that promised similar revelation to the client. I write this not to denigrate either—conventionally good acting and therapy are both marvelous things—but simply to note that there is an understanding of the world (if not a kind of ideology) embedded within our preference for transparent acting.
Given that, I’m grateful there are a few performers out there demonstrating a different truth. That we, at times, are unknowable to each other and to ourselves. That humans are a complex mystery. That sometimes solving that mystery is impossible. That behind a wall can be another wall.