'Moneyball' vs. 'Tree of Life': Which Role Will Get Brad Pitt an Oscar?

He's extraordinary in both films, but Moneyball may be the one to land him the Academy Award

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Sony Pictures / Fox Searchlight

Brad Pitt is a great actor. It's easy to forget that fact amid the endless tabloid obsession over his non-relationship with Jennifer Aniston, his ever-expanding brood with Angelina Jolie, and his hunk-for-life status. But few ordinary gossip magnets could have credibly delivered the two vastly different performances Pitt has offered in 2011. The hardscrabble '50s Texas dad of The Tree of Life and the magnanimous Billy Beane of Moneyball don't have much in common beyond the overarching sense that they are stark personalities with emotions that run deep—and that they're both among the most memorable characters on screen so far this year.

The Tree of Life and Moneyball have both racked up rave reviews, and Pitt's performances in each have been singled out for praise. What's more, Pitt is a two-time Oscar nominee without a little gold man on his shelf. As awards season amps up, speculation has naturally centered on whether this could be Pitt's year and, if so, which of his 2011 performances is more deserving of the statue.

'Moneyball' isn't a dramatization of sports history. It's a portrait of a man thinking his way out of a professional and personal abyss.

Of course, attempting to compare two distinct works side by side is a dicey proposition, especially considering that each film's releasing studio (Fox Searchlight for Tree and Sony Pictures for Moneyball) will make its own decision on how to market Pitt to the Academy. But Oscar precedent shows that when there are two awards-worthy performances given by the same actor in the same year, it's usually best to concentrate on one. So Pitt's hopes rest on a focused, targeted campaign for the performance that's most likely to resonate with voters, a notoriously old-fashioned bunch.

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's spiritual ode to existence, Pitt plays the archetypal tough Texas father. On the surface, the no-nonsense Mr. O'Brien—his hair cropped to a tight crew cut—is a taskmaster who dominates his family, demanding adherence to a a code of domestic rules and rituals. He makes his presence felt; unafraid to get physical with his sons or his wife (Jessica Chastain), O'Brien preaches ferocity and a steel will as the best way to get ahead in the world.

Given the part's obtuse nature and the philosophical bent of the production, Pitt could very well have stopped there. He might not have gotten much help from Malick, given that Sean Penn complained to Le Figaro in August that the filmmaker never explained what Penn's character (the older version of Jack, one of the O'Brien sons) was supposed to be doing in his scenes.

Yet each of Pitt's stern moments is underlined with vulnerability, and the effect is a nuanced picture of a man who can't quite confront his own inner emotional turmoil. O'Brien's inability to get his entrepreneurial business going forms a deep-rooted sense of emasculation that shows itself in Pitt's subtle expressions of anxiety and regret, as well as a few outpourings of terse rage.

Pitt's scenes with the top-notch actors playing his three sons are rife with a sense of longing—for an emotional connection that's not there, for the mutual respect that's inherent in a meaningful father-son bond, for the opportunity to say what must be said. These complicated moments, rather than Malick's digressions into the ancient past or the vast cosmos, form the core of the production.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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