Read enough recent glossy-magazine features on Brad Pitt, and you’ll start picking up on some patterns. He tends to speak reverently about growing up in the Ozarks and less so about his life as a celebrity. He’s as adept at making off-the-cuff jokes as he is at speaking solemnly about the “craft.” He’s cool but artsy, even quoting Rumi and Rilke on occasion. He’ll readily pose in thousand-dollar outfits, but he says that he always tries to avoid putting his face on a film poster. The word rueful comes up a lot about his smile or his demeanor. He’s famous, but he’s sensitive—a guy with a lot of capital-F Feelings about his job.
The same could be said about his latest character in the action-comedy Bullet Train. An assassin code-named Ladybug, he’s reluctant about what he does for a living and would rather be anywhere else than aboard the high-speed Shinkansen racing across Japan. For one thing, he’s not the only passenger carrying out a potentially deadly mission; for another, he has no place to meditate or indulge in his newly zen outlook on life. Directed by David Leitch (Hobbs & Shaw) and adapted from Maria Beetle, Kōtarō Isaka’s best-selling novel, Bullet Train is stupid fun—all neon-drenched style over substance. It’s the kind of late-summer flick that coasts on nonsense, violence, and actors trying out questionable accents. The film is a solid showcase for hand-to-hand combat up until it devolves into CGI drudgery. It assembles an overqualified cast that includes Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Michael Shannon, then saddles them with forgettable characters. But as a Brad Pitt vehicle (in more ways than one), Bullet Train is a fascinating branding exercise.
Pitt’s career can be split into phases, and Bullet Train seems to herald the arrival of a new one. In the ’80s and ’90s, Pitt was the chiseled heartthrob. In the mid-2000s, he started taking offbeat, often supporting roles in films by established directors, tapping into his kooky side, courting awards, and appearing, as my colleague David Sims puts it, “ill at ease” with his leading-man looks. But since winning an Oscar for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2020, he has been pivoting again—away from auteurs and toward material that emphasizes his appearance and magnetism. Pitt popped up on Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1998, playing Dr. Anthony Fauci before abandoning the bit and leaning into his familiar cool-guy mystique to deliver a reassuring message to audiences at home. In March’s The Lost City, he hair-flipped his way through explosions and made quips about his handsomeness.
In Bullet Train, he plays someone trying not to attract attention who becomes the primary source of intrigue anyway. The plot is predictable; Pitt is not. He injects a whimsical energy into every scene, adding flavor to the bland jokes littering the script. Late in the film, while watching a stranger die in front of him, Ladybug seems amused, even delighted, by the spectacle. The morbidly funny moment suggests that the assassin doesn’t believe a single koan he’s been dropping and actually takes immense pleasure in his work. Perhaps Pitt, in throwing himself so fully into the character, was signaling his own desire: He’ll talk about his distaste for being a public figure, but he’ll never stop deriving satisfaction from the attention he gets—as long as he’s the one with the upper hand.
Consider his actions off the big screen. During the pandemic’s early months, he participated in a virtual table read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High with his ex-wife Jennifer Aniston; he then initiated banter with her that a longtime tabloid target like him had to have known would feed the gossip mill. Indeed, the reunion led to renewed attention on his personal life—a subject that, for years, he’d insisted on avoiding. “I consider myself on my last leg,” he told the author Ottessa Moshfegh about his career for a GQ cover story—yet the accompanying photoshoot cast him as an artsy chameleon, in painterly poses and flamboyant costumes, as if prepared for a new act. More recently, at the Berlin premiere of Bullet Train, he wore a skirt, later explaining to Variety that he did so because “I don’t know! We’re all going to die, so let’s mess it up.” The sound bite is signature Pitt: somehow facetious and wise at the same time, relishing the noise, as if daring curious onlookers to figure out the answer themselves.
Such headlines and images help drown out the more unsavory news surrounding him, including the ongoing legal troubles related to his divorce from Angelina Jolie and the way he continued working with Harvey Weinstein years after learning of the producer’s predatory behavior. Every celebrity self-mythologizes and puts forth a public-facing persona. But somehow, Pitt’s cheeky nods to his own stardom don’t come off as desperate to many viewers; instead, his antics seem to endear him to them even more.
Pitt’s upcoming acting work includes Damien Chazelle’s next film, so perhaps he’s refocused on A-list directors and supporting roles that don’t directly reference his celebrity. But I’d like to see him further interrogate the effects of his charisma and take roles that draw even more power from his offscreen appeal. He’s proved himself capable of toying with viewers’ expectations, but can he embrace something that would fully unspool his identity? Can he ever risk being genuinely disliked? Pitt has never reprised a role outside of the original Ocean’s trilogy or chanced lampooning himself by hosting SNL. He’s yet to lead a franchise of his own—the kind of gig that might force him to become fully synonymous with a long-term character rather than letting him rely on his well-worn charm. Bullet Train certainly serves the Brad Pitt brand, but it’s too weak to deliver him to a new destination.