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Seven, Fight Club, and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Screenshots/YouTube)

David Fincher helped Brad Pitt rehearse for a middle-aged renaissance

Seven, Fight Club, and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Screenshots/YouTube)
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

In Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, stunt double, driver, and all-purpose best-friend-for-hire for fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). As he cruises through 1969 Los Angeles, running errands for his buddy, Booth manages to stay laconic and laidback as Dalton sweats and stammers over his growing irrelevance. The basic details of Cliff’s life should not necessarily inspire awe over his cool; he lives in a trailer, appears to subsist on beer and boxed mac ’n’ cheese, and doesn’t have much chance of a future in his profession (to say nothing of the ambiguity over whether he’s a murderer). But Cliff does scan as cool, at least superficially—in part because he’s played by Pitt, who has remained supernaturally handsome even as age has finally crept into his fiftysomething face.

Pitt’s performance in Hollywood is not exactly minimalist, but it’s even-keeled and quietly charismatic in a way that’s become common in his later-period work. This wasn’t always his signature move in his younger years. Pitt came up around the same time as Tarantino (one of his early-career highlights is a supporting role in the Tarantino-penned True Romance), but they wouldn’t work together until 15 years after their mutual banner year of 1994. During his pre-Tarantino period, the one filmmaker Pitt periodically returned to remains his most frequent behind-the-camera collaborator: David Fincher.

Given their extensive history, it’s strange to realize that none of Pitt’s very best performances are in Fincher’s movies. Fincher rarely taps into the deepest reservoirs of Pitt’s charm or unforced gravitas, the combination of which makes his recent Tarantino performance a career highlight. Instead, the pair creates Pitt archetypes—the kind of literal and metaphorical image-making that has given Pitt a history to draw upon in his better work. A list of Pitt’s best and fullest performances would make a poor argument that Fincher noticeably improves Pitt’s acting. But he’s had a hand in the multiple versions of Pitt that both preceded and informed his current incarnation as an effortlessly compelling (and deceptively skillful) actor-star in the vein of Paul Newman or Robert Redford.

Relaxed effortlessness does not seem particularly compatible with Fincher’s reputation as an exacting taskmaster. The director’s movies are often infused with monomaniacal obsession; he’s made no less than three serial-killer pictures. Pitt, meanwhile, is an engaged performer, and more than able to summon fire as needed, but his best moments tend not to be his showiest. That’s what makes him so expertly cast as a stunt double for Leonardo DiCaprio who specifically lacks his sweaty, actorly intensity.

That’s also why he feels somewhat (and perhaps productively) at odds with the tone of Seven, his first film with Fincher, and Fincher’s first foray into the serial killer subgenre. Pitt’s Detective Mills is a crucial character in the movie, more demonstrative than either his quiet, world-weary partner, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), or the fanatically confident John Doe (Kevin Spacey), the serial killer they catch but don’t exactly defeat. Mills is the easy audience surrogate. He’s the guy who asks dumb questions, gets frustrated easily, and has a lovely, worried wife waiting for him at home. He’s a glimmer of normcore within the impressively oppressive gloom of Fincher’s atmospheric creep-out, and he plays into Pitt’s early-career vibe (fair or not) as something of a dullard.

Mills is the type of sexy if hotheaded good-guy cop who normally heroes up in this type of movie, and an early-30s Pitt certainly looks the part. At the time, it felt like a more active, less bucolic role for the actor who sulked through Interview With A Vampire and brooded through Legends Of The Fall. Accordingly, his Seven performance is amped up—not with Fincherian obsession, but with a twitchy, restless frustration. When Mills and Somerset go over the case at Mills’ apartment, Fincher cuts back and forth between Pitt and Freeman, and Pitt’s frequent movements—they can’t be contained only in static shots, the camera “forced” to track with him as he paces, gesticulates, touches his head—form a contrast with the stiller, more contemplative Freeman.

The contrast is not always so subtle. Faced with the killer’s very cinematic literary allusions and a stack of library books for research, Mills calls Dante a homophobic slur in a fit of rage before tearing into a stack of CliffsNotes. He’s a natural candidate to be turned into the living embodiment of wrath at the movie’s climax—nearly a parody of the hot-headed good guy. Given Fincher’s reputation, it’s fair to assume that he encouraged this sometimes-awkward push beyond normal hero-cop parameters. Although it’s hard to picture Fincher identifying with Mills, the actor and the director are both appropriate for a movie that’s intense but not especially thoughtful, the first of several Fincher pictures that are essentially well-wrought airport-novel trash. Seven isn’t really a great movie, but it’s well-crafted and memorable; similarly, it doesn’t feature a great Pitt performance, but it’s his most memorable leading role up to that point. By torturing Pitt’s character, it draws extra attention to the actor, even from audience members who might have slept on Legends Of The Fall (figuratively or perhaps literally; it is a very boring movie).

A few months after the release of Seven, Pitt was back in theaters and amped even further up: mannered, manic, and wild-eyed in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. The sheer incongruence of someone once floated as a New Redford making an enthusiastic beeline for the center of Gilliam’s fish-eye lenses was enough for Academy voters to reward the gambit, and Pitt received his first Oscar nomination. It’s no wonder, then, that Pitt eventually revived that performance mode for Fight Club, his next Fincher picture. Tyler Durden, the charismatic philosopher-brute Pitt plays in the movie, is like an uber-Pitt: scruffy facial hair, spiky ’90s haircut, dressed with pop-grunge style, with the body of a movie star who has access to personal trainers. After a run of roles that were received as somnambulant, Pitt re-embraces his 12 Monkeys tics, adds a bunch of cigarette-based gestures, and makes them so seductive that a whole bunch of people misinterpreted a whole bunch of the movie.

Although Durden is vaguely insufferable as a spouter of militant self-help, Pitt makes him likable in the margins of his dialogue scenes with co-star Edward Norton, fooling around with nunchucks and blithely riding a mini-bike through his dilapidated anti-materialist hovel. At the time, it felt like a loosening up for both Pitt and Fincher; neither was particularly known for their mischievous comic spirit prior to Fight Club, which still wins the low-competition bout for the title of Fincher’s funniest film. But ultimately, a lot of this is shtick, decorated with some of his Twelve Monkeys crazy-man hand gestures. His performance is most indelible through Fincher’s images: that shot of him shirtless, battered, smoking a cigarette, and showing off his iliac furrow; or that scene where he splatters his own blood over a hapless goon who’s just beat him senseless.

Of course, with full knowledge of Fight Club’s plot twist, it makes sense that Tyler is a repository of tics. He’s not a fully formed character because the character isn’t really a person; he’s a gung-ho alternate personality of Norton’s unnamed narrator. It’s Norton who has to plumb actual depths in the movie, and more closely resembles a Fincher protagonist: nerdy, socially maladjusted, and consumed by his obsessions, whether it’s his IKEA furniture or his phony support-group attendance. Durden/Pitt, meanwhile, has Fincher’s skills and confidence, synthesized with comic timing and that ineffable movie-star charisma that makes people actually like him. He’s, quite pointedly, an icon instead of a real person—larger than life in a way that few of Pitt’s previous characters had been.

Pitt took some looser, funnier roles after Fight Club, and, like George Clooney before him, he seemed to emerge from a Steven Soderbergh collaboration (in this case the Ocean’s trilogy, in which he experiments with comic minimalism) with an enhanced pickiness in projects and collaborators. 2008’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is (so far) the only Fincher film from the 2007-and-onward golden period that resulted, and it earned him the first of his two (so far) Best Actor Oscar nominations. Characteristic of his work with Fincher, it’s less essential than, say, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, The Tree Of Life, Killing Them Softly, his Tarantino movies, or even his wild comic turn in Burn After Reading. Yet, like Seven and Fight Club, Button still feels important to the broader narrative of Pitt’s career, if not necessarily to his craft. The fact that he is at his quietest in it and still received his first Oscar nomination in years must have felt like a confirmation that this newfound restraint was working for him.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, about a man (Pitt) who is born as an elderly baby and ages in reverse as he drifts through events of the 20th century, has been especially knocked for its parallels to Forrest Gump, exacerbated by the fact that it shares with that film screenwriter Eric Roth. Years later, it feels like an intentional cracking and refraction of the Robert Zemeckis megahit, where Tom Hanks was digitally integrated into all manner of historical events, a performance surrounded by seamless special effects. Benjamin Button has a similarly wandering spirit, but he doesn’t interact with world leaders or accidentally become a war hero or win a ping-pong tournament, and he’s the special effect seamlessly blended into the world around him.

Because the movie follows Button for his entire life, Pitt is playing the part without substantial augmentation for only approximately 20 minutes of screen time. For the rest of the film, he’s performing with traditional and/or digital makeup, so quietly that it’s not always easy to read the performance beneath it. As Benjamin reverse-ages, Pitt slowly emerges from the effects. Then he retreats back into them as soon as he must morph into the only white man more beautiful than 2008 Brad Pitt: somewhat younger Brad Pitt. The movie winds up feeling like Fincher’s fullest and somehow also least successful attempt to build a new, improved Pitt—something Tarantino would do far more organically in Hollywood. Button resembles a speculative tribute to all of the Brad Pitts that have been, and will be. It’s Brad Pitt at every age, always compelling but never developing a fully convincing personality, once again more icon than man.

There are still some wonderful touches to Pitt’s inward performance. The deliberate way that Button moves as an infirm child seems to stick in his bones on some level even as he becomes more confident and youthful, and Pitt’s soft New Orleans accent stretches out his usual vocal emphases, making them sound less punchy (and, like his twitchiness in Seven, almost a parody of both his own instincts and a certain character type, in this case the Southern naif). It’s a retreat from the demonstrative physicality of Seven and Fight Club, into a relative stillness—even more so than the taciturn menace of his Jesse James, because that role held the threat of violence, while Button never seems to be promising much of anything.

The restraint Pitt shows in Benjamin Button is of a piece with Jesse James, along with the repression of his father character in Tree Of Life, and the quiet of Moneyball. (He also embodies a form of minimalism in the Ocean’s movies, though to less dramatically ambitious effect.) But Fincher doesn’t fully harness Pitt’s laconic middle-aged power in his epic drama, even in its best moments. Fight Club doesn’t give Pitt a great role, but he’s central to its visuals; many of Button’s most beautiful and indelible images involve Pitt only incidentally, and sometimes not at all. There are multiple shots of Button looking at something gorgeous happening in front of him: a dance by love of his life Daisy (Cate Blanchett), or the sunrise he shares with his dying, semi-estranged father. Even more than Fincher’s other films, Button turns Pitt into part of the film’s meticulous design work—one more element that the director can tightly control. Button’s tendency to watch time pass makes the character feel extra-narrative, as if Pitt himself is observing Fincher’s most beautiful technical work and preparing to move on.

This makes the movie especially transitional for Pitt, but not unimportant. Pitt playing a person out of time now seems like a productive rehearsal for the actor’s middle age. The last decade-plus of Pitt’s career without Fincher (their longest-ever stretch apart) has benefited from those past roles while feeling less self-conscious about Pitt’s changing image. Having achieved that rarified Redford/Newman status, Pitt doesn’t seem to have as much need for Fincher.

Without Pitt, Fincher continues to play with his actors’ images, whether that means helping to design a distinctive look for Rooney Mara’s take on Lisbeth Salander or harnessing the haplessness of Ben Affleck to productive aims in Gone Girl. It would be fascinating to see what he’d cook up with Pitt in advanced middle age (a planned Fincher-helmed World War Z sequel fell apart), but it’s hard not to look at Pitt as a more successful, less sketchy version of Cliff Booth: laconic and skilled, aging but well-preserved, in a give-no-fucks groove. In Hollywood, Pitt feels fully formed and, yes, effortless on screen in a rare and beautiful way. It’s hard to picture what other new wrinkles (beyond actual wrinkles) need to be added to Pitt’s persona at this point. But maybe Fincher will be there for another imperfect round of icon revision if the cool of Hollywood starts to wear off. If Benjamin Button is clear about anything, it’s that time comes for everyone, no matter what direction the clock moves.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!