'Ad Astra' and Crafting a Film Around a Performance

James Gray puts a lot of faith in Brad Pitt, and it pays off tenfold.

Brad Astra
Twentieth Century Fox

Traditional movie stardom has, at worst, been lost and, at best, been irrevocably changed. With fewer and fewer original big-budget films being made, studios bank on the appeal of existing source material more than celebrated actors to draw audiences in. This is why it’s so unbelievably refreshing to see a film like Ad Astra, a major studio release by a thoughtful, talented filmmaker who rests his movie on his leading man’s shoulders and an actor who shows he’s deserving of this good-faith endorsement.

Ad Astra is an anomaly of a film. In an interview with Little White Lies, writer/director James Gray describes the risk of making this as a mid-budget film and a creative personal endeavor with scale. He has a distinct understated and meditative style that has endeared him to critics but hasn’t exactly made him a bankable filmmaker with a marketable brand. Although not everyone has been receptive to his films, Brad Pitt certainly has. Pitt’s production company, Plan B, was behind Gray’s 2016 film The Lost City of Z, a movie that failed to turn a profit but I suspect will gain more recognition over time.

Ad Astra sees Gray and Pitt further develop a working partnership with Plan B once again producing and Pitt starring as Roy McBride, an astronaut recruited for a top-secret mission to uncover whether his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), is still alive on a ship somewhere near Neptune. Set in the future as humanity seeks to find evidence of extraterrestrial life, Ad Astra is a rumination on mankind’s place in the universe, a reckoning with inherited masculine ideals, and a plea for human connection. It handles complex themes with care and is a deeply resonant film, in part thanks to a tender and introspective performance from Pitt that is one of the best of his career.

The film has stunning VFX work and its depictions of space are startling and sublime. However, as much as the grandiose scale of the film is magnificent, some of the most impressive moments are the smaller, more subdued scenes. In Ad Astra, a conversation between two people can be as riveting as a journey through the cosmos. In setting up the narrative, Gray consistently emphasizes Pitt to convey the emotional journey that Roy is embarking on by seeking out his father. In particular, a scene early on in Ad Astra captures the intricate manner in which Gray has constructed his film.

In this scene, Roy is given the details of his mission while in a meeting with some higher-ups at US Space Command. Gray uses conventional shot-reverse-shot editing as Roy is instructed by John Ortiz’s General Rivas about what he is being sent to space to accomplish. As the scene begins, both characters are captured mostly in medium shots or medium close-up shots. However, the shots on Roy are positioned differently. They’re a little bit closer than they are for any other character, and he fills the frame just a little bit more.

We always feel slightly closer to Roy than anyone else. This contributes to our identification with the character and captures his distance from everyone around him. Credit to the concise editing of John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, as the conversation continues, Roy is more frequently depicted in close-ups. The gravity of the situation is sinking in as the framing becomes increasingly claustrophobic. The possibility of Roy’s father still being alive and of reuniting with him is pushing Roy away from everyone else and making it feel like his own world is closing in.

Gray’s masterful direction is exemplified in another scene when Roy is having a conversation with Donald Sutherland’s Colonel Pruitt, who worked with the senior McBride many moons ago. Once again, Gray subtly tweaks the framing in this scene to represent Roy’s mentality and the position he’s in. When the focus of the shot is Pruitt, the camera is placed behind Roy in an over the shoulder shot. Roy is sometimes shot over Pruitt’s shoulder, but he’s often shot without Pruitt captured in the frame. Even when the focus is on Pruitt, Roy’s perspective is paramount, but when Roy is the focus, he’s often alone in the frame. He’s both imposing and isolated; filling the frame more than other characters but devoid of the presence of another. Roy is, before even reaching the vastness of space, utterly and entirely alone.

As Roy journeys to space, it’s made clear that Ad Astra‘s vision of the future is a rather bleak one. This is a future in which people are born and spend their lives on Mars, the expanse of red dust the only world they know. This is a future where the moon is a tourist destination. Rather than a place of impossible wonder, the moon is just another novelty, complete with an Applebee’s and a Dunkin’ Donuts — Fight Club‘s “Planet Starbucks” prophesy fulfilled.

In this time when the stars are within reach but hope has been lost, Gray’s sharp focus on Roy reaffirms the deeply humanist element of his story. He crafts his film so as to emphasize the complex emotional storm raging beneath Roy’s surface as he wrestles with questions about the man he’s become because of the man who abandoned him. It’s less about capturing the scope of his world and more about capturing one man’s depth. This choice itself is a risk — for it to work, Gray needs a lead actor who can pull this responsibility off. Enter Pitt.

Pitt’s performance is impeccable and perfectly subtle. With Gray deftly capturing him in close-ups, Pitt is afforded every opportunity to convey the emotional nuances of a character who has tried so hard to not feel anything through the guise of valuing pragmatism over emotion. Rather than address his feelings of abandonment, Roy has mirrored the coldness of the world around him. But when facing a potential reunion with his father, his resolute surface begins to crack.

When he’s briefed on the mission, Pitt’s performance is especially meticulous. It seems impossible that a subtle twitch under his eye could be controlled by Pitt, and yet it is. His eyebrows are ever-so furrowed, just enough that this is only perceptible to someone keenly observing him. Roy holds himself in an unwavering manner, but his eyes shifting around the room betray his turbulent emotions when he’s informed that his father might still be out there.

When asked about how his father’s absence affected his mother, his lip quivers slightly. These are all minute details — some of them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acting choices — but together they all contribute to an understanding of how hard Roy has tried to keep decades worth of emotional strife under his control.

Before leaving for his journey, Roy begins to leave a voicemail for his estranged wife, Eve (Liv Tyler). His closed-off emotional state has alienated her, causing a rift that Roy doesn’t know how to mend. When he leaves the message, he first looks up at the ceiling while speaking, before dropping his head and looking at the floor. In either case, he can’t look straight ahead. Even without Eve in the room, Roy is unable to hold himself in such a way that would be the equivalent of looking her in the eyes. He needs to deflect from his emotions by averting his eyes one way or another. Pitt perfectly conveys the idea that this is a man so divorced from his emotions that he can’t bear the thought of facing someone else, even over the phone. Naturally, Roy doesn’t end up leaving a message.

Later, while boarding a ship, Roy greets other passengers affably, offering a smile, but once again quickly averting his eyes. This is a performative warmth; a gesture meant to politely appease the room but not invite any further exchanges. This same type of measured approach to interactions is seen later when Roy is on a ship that stops to answer another ship’s distress single. With his focus locked on his mission, Roy resists the idea of stopping, but the ship’s captain refutes his suggestion.

Roy acquiesces to the captain rather than continue the argument. He holds his emotions in check enough to toe the line; to appear stubborn would be to acknowledge those strong feelings, even if those feelings are just frustration. But when he appeases the captain, he blinks, hard, keeping his eyes closed an extra second, processing this and staying calm. It’s just enough time to make it clear he’s perturbed by the captain going against his wishes and holding back what he actually wants to say.

As the narrative unfurls, Roy’s emotional walls begin to falter. Pitt’s performance remains subtle, eschewing grand gestures in favor of a nuanced approach to conveying Roy’s shifting psyche. In Ad Astra, the director and his star work perfectly in tandem: Gray’s camerawork foregrounds Pitt at every chance, and Pitt delivers an impeccable performance, in which even minuscule details are not overlooked.

Ad Astra comes across as a once in a blue moon film. Gray has remained true to his signature pathos while working with a more substantial budget than ever before. In doing so, he has captured a beautiful and poignant performance from Pitt in a type of introspective role rarely seen in a film of this scale. Gray’s impeccably detailed and insightful oeuvre is one that invites endless rewatches, and Ad Astra is no exception. This is a film and a performance that are worth returning to for the emotional weight of the story and to further comprehend the minutia of Pitt’s faultless performance. To the stars, again.

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.