Brad Pitt will probably win an Academy Award in February, and it will be for the wrong film.
His cooler-than-cool performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has received the lion’s share of awards interest in him this season, and he’s in top form as Tarantino’s resident ass-kicker. But Ad Astra offers a more challenging and captivating performance that better encapsulates what has made him one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars since he first broke out nearly 30 years ago in Thelma & Louise. If Pitt’s awards season narrative is that of a culturally adored but artistically underrated actor finally being recognized for a meaty late-career role, there is no better proof point this or any recent year than his work here.
In Ad Astra, Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut with the U.S. Army’s Space division. He’s primarily known for two things: his unshakable psychological profile, and that he is the son of celebrated astronaut Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing years ago on an expedition to Neptune to find extraterrestrial life. It’s quickly established that Roy’s nerves are less steely than completely disconnected from the rest of him: he operates on a purely functional level, unable to even draft a voice message to his estranged wife (an underused Liv Tyler). Roy’s robotic nature makes him the perfect candidate for the Army’s classified mission to stop a wave of electrical surges from threatening humankind. That, and the fact that the surges can be sourced to Neptune, suggesting that Roy’s father might be alive after all. Roy is tasked with making contact, and he sets forth on a complicated journey that tests the limits of his tenuous connections to his father, humanity, and reality.
Like most films set in space, Ad Astra is not modest in its ambitions. The unknowable vastness of the darkness above has captured the imagination of filmmakers for decades, each of them using it to offer some commentary on the human condition. Ad Astra is unique in how deeply it explores our fragility, through a lens intensely focused on its enigmatic lead. Director James Gray crafts a claustrophobic atmosphere for audiences, pulling his camera close to capture every micro-change in Roy’s expression and how it signals even the slightest unraveling of his vacuum-packed psyche. When Gray does pull back, it’s to convey just how small our psychological and emotional issues are in comparison to the great beyond. The film’s most marvelous scenes have little to do with Roy’s improbable mission to find his father, but rather contemplate its emotional implications, with Roy’s resolve slowly chipping away to reveal a man mired in repressed feelings of abandonment and frustration over his father’s legacy. Wherever the camera is aimed, whether it’s on a tear rolling down Roy’s cheek, or a solitary body floating through the empty void, the compositions are stunningly beautiful.
Ad Astra owes its thematic success to Pitt. The film is his first significant star vehicle in several years, and it relies almost exclusively on him to do its heaviest lifting. The camera has always been kind to Pitt, allowing him to emanate a mysterious, classically masculine allure that recalls Redford and Newman at their best. Gray’s camera is similarly kind, but it scrutinizes him more, challenging him to dig deeper than the rock-hard stoicism and breezy charm that are part-and-parcel of his wheelhouse. Pitt doesn’t cripple under the scrutiny, but flourishes. From the beginning, he imbues his character’s steady nature with an unsettling energy that hints at his character’s deeper pain, and pulls it closer to the surface the further Roy’s journey continues. Pitt exerts incredible control over his character’s emotions, and deploys them beautifully in some of his strongest moments captured on film. Like fellow icon Jennifer Lopez did in Hustlers, Pitt’s singular presence not only justifies the film’s existence, it also proves the value of the presumed-extinct “movie star”.
As central as Pitt is to it, Ad Astra‘s ambitions do stretch beyond him, sometimes too far. The film wants to be a ruminative, mood-driven drama, but Gray also preoccupies it with distracting, odd, and overly intense narrative threads that, while arresting, can make for a confounding experience. Roy’s mission in and of itself is a nesting egg of trips and protocols that lose sensibility the farther it goes. It can feel like nitpicking when you consider the movie’s true purpose, but the actual mechanics, especially in the third act, defy reason to even the least knowledgable about space travel. The film trips itself up on the geopolitics of space colonization, with an awkward commentary about the commercialization of the moon, and a bizarre action sequence involving international space pirates. Also bizarre is how unflinchingly brutal the film can be, with some of the most unflinching and, frankly, creative ways I’ve ever seen people die in a space film. The characters who survive aren’t treated much better, serving as superfluous goalposts for Pitt to pass. The only other actor given more than that to do is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays similar, but more rugged, character beats to Pitt.
Ad Astra is bound to have detractors who will label it pretentious and even boring. In some ways, they’re right. It’s certainly not an easy watch, if you could measure it by how many times my eyes widened, head titled, and eyebrows furrowed in utter confusion. However, amidst the more confounding elements is a powerful character study that aims to break down the harm that compartmentalization and repression can cause, and challenges the mechanisms in which we judge mental health. If that’s too heady for a film about flying through space, at least there’s Brad Pitt, giving one of the year’s best performances, in the captain’s chair of this challenging but stunning effort. That alone is worth the journey.