Warning: This essay contains spoilers
To start off this essay series about film, I want to begin with Brad Pitt. There are an infinite number of places I could start in regards to cinema, but it feels fitting to discuss two roles of his in particular: Mickey O’Neil from Snatch (2000), written and directed by Guy Ritchie, and Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds (2009), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. When thinking about how to go about writing about film, these are the two characters that immediately stood out to me in terms of what they have in common: their eccentric natures. I like eccentric characters in general, but I particularly love how eccentric characters become multidimensional in the film medium. I saw both movies when they came out; Snatch blew my mind when I saw it as a teenager and it still continues to impress me because of the brilliant way Ritchie intertwines all the narrative threads; Inglourious Basterds was the first movie I saw by Tarantino that really had an impact on me, particularly because of his unique interpretation of World War II and how he used dialogue to intensify already intense situations within key scenes. I thought it would be an interesting idea to examine these films through the lens of Pitt’s characters, so I decided to select two scenes to look at and put them in conversation with each other. First off, I will present each scene; then, I’ll discuss them together.
The scene I chose for Snatch has less dialogue and more action, but it is an incredibly impactful moment in the film. Here, Mickey has challenged Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to a fight. It is important to know that Gorgeous George is a boxer who works for Turkish (Jason Statham), the main character and narrator of the film and Mickey is a “pikey,” which is a slang term for an Irish Traveller. The movie takes place in the seedy underbelly of London; Turkish’s business partner, Tommy (Stephen Graham) and Gorgeous George visit the Irish Traveller camp to buy a caravan, which they do, but it never makes it out of the camp because it immediately loses its wheels. Tommy wants his money back, but Mickey suggests that he and Gorgeous George fight—if Gorgeous George wins, Mickey will give him a refund. As the scene opens, there is a crowd in what looks like a barn. Gorgeous George immediately punches Mickey in the face as he’s trying to take his jacket off, punches him a second time, and he falls to the ground with his jacket halfway off. Here’s some dialogue and scene direction:
Mickey: [Still on the ground] So that’s the kind of fight it’s going to be.
Gorgeous George: [Charges toward Mickey] You ought to stay down. [Picks Mickey up and slams him against a wire mesh wall; Mickey rolls toward Gorgeous George who kicks him in the stomach] You ought to stay down! [Mickey jumps up and takes his jacket off] Get back down and fucking stay down! I promise ya, you ought to stay down.
Mickey: Plenty of kick for a fat fucker, you know that?
[Gorgeous George grabs Mickey and throws him against a wooden gate; his friends help him up by lifting the gate]
Gorgeous George: Get back down or you will not be coming up next time. [Mickey practices punching in the air and bends down to stretch] Oh, bollocks to ya’s. This is sick. I’m out of here.
Mickey: You’re not going anywhere, you thick lump. [Mickey takes off his shirt and faces Gorgeous George] You stay ‘til the job’s done.
[The crowd goes quiet]
[Gorgeous George charges toward Mickey who kisses his necklace and knocks him out in one swift, fast punch]
The scene I chose from Inglorious Basterds is one of the most violent scenes in the film, but the dialogue that builds up to the violence is incredibly masterful. It is important to know that Aldo Raine is a Lieutenant in charge of a special group of soldiers who are Jewish-American; their only mission is to kill Nazis, but they don’t just kill them, they scalp them afterwards. In this scene, they have captured a Nazi officer and a few of his soldiers and Aldo is interrogating the Nazi officer, Sergeant Werner Rachtman (Richard Sammel). They are outside in what looks like a ditch near a small bridge with dead soldiers behind them. Aldo sits facing Werner. It is also important to know that Aldo is from the Smoky Mountains (he claims to be a descendent of the mountain man Jim Bridger and therefore also has a little “Injun” in him); there is a long knife scar across his throat. Here’s some dialogue and scene direction:
Aldo: You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner taking business. We in the killin’ Nazis business, and cousin, business is a-booming. That leaves two ways we can play this out. We either kill you or let you go. Whether or not you’re gonna leave this ditch depends entirely on you. [The camera shifts to face Aldo] Up the road a piece, there’s an orchard. Besides you, we know there’s another kraut patrol fuckin’ around here somewhere. [The camera shifts to Werner, then back to Aldo] If that patrol were to have any crack shots, that orchard would be a goddamn sniper’s de-light. [Aldo pulls out a map and unfolds it] If you ever want to eat a sauerkraut sandwich again, you gotta show me on this here map where they are. [The camera zooms in on the map sitting between them] You gotta tell me how many they are, and you gotta tell me what kind of artillery they’re carrying with them.
Werner: [Chuckles slightly] You can’t expect me to divulge information that would put German lives in danger.
Aldo: [Takes off his cap and scratches his head] Well, now, Werner, that’s where you’re wrong ‘cause that’s exactly what I expect. [Tosses cap on the ground; lowers his voice slightly] I need to know about Germans hiding in trees and you need to tell me and you need to tell me right now. Now, just take that finger of yours and point out on this here map where this party is being held, how many is it comin’, and what they brought to play with.
Werner: [Lifts his hand and places it on his chest] I respectfully refuse, sir.
[The sound of a bat tapping the walls under the bridge are heard]
Aldo: [Points behind him] Hear that?
[The bat taps again]
Werner: Yes. [The camera briefly focuses on one of the captured German soldiers as the bat taps continue]
Aldo: [Says in a low voice] That’s sergeant Donny Donowitz. You might know him better by his nickname: The Bear Jew. Now, if you heard of Aldo the Apache, you gotta heard about The Bear Jew.
Werner: [Camera shows Aldo and Werner facing each other] I heard of The Bear Jew.
Aldo: What’d you hear?
Werner: Beats German soldiers with a club.
Aldo: He bashes their brains in with a baseball bat, what he does. And Werner, I’m gonna ask you one last goddamn time and if you still respectfully refuse, I’m callin’ The Bear Jew over. He’s gonna take that big bat of his and he’s gonna beat your ass to death with it. Now, take your Weiner Schnitzel lickin’ finger and point out on this map what I want to know.
Werner: [Camera faces him] Fuck you [Shouts] and your Jew dogs!
[Laughter is heard from the soldiers as the camera looks down on the scene where Aldo and Werner sit, by the dark space under the bridge]
Aldo: [Smiles and folds the map] Actually, we’re all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies. [Gets up] Donny!
[Camera shows a hidden room under the bridge and rifles standing upright next to the dark opening]
Aldo: Got us a German here who wants to die for country. [Sits back down] Oblige him.
What is important to note about both films is the fact that they feature an ensemble cast. Pitt’s characters in each movie highlight one narrative thread among multiple narrative threads. What I find interesting about each of these scenes is how they open both movies up in compelling ways. In Snatch, it is revealed at the end of the scene that Mickey is a bareknuckle boxing champion and is not to be fucked with. As the film continues, his character gets more complex as he is forced to participate in the world of British crime. In Inglourious Basterds, Aldo’s exchange with Werner is low-key, but utterly brutal; his casual demeanor creates deeper tension that feeds into the overarching plot which is concerned with the delusions of Nazi superiority. Aldo is also pulled deeper into the plot as he is smuggled into a Nazi film premiere Hitler is attending by the German actress-turned-spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
These scenes in particular are important because they establish both characters as not only eccentric and unpredictable, but in control of their situations. In Snatch, Mickey is forced to box for Turkish in a match against another boxer who works for the crime boss Brick Top (Alan Ford) after he kills his mother (Sorcha Cusack) by burning down her caravan while she was asleep. He is told that he has to go down in the fourth round, but he doesn’t. He ends up knocking out his opponent in the fourth round as his Irish Traveller companions murder Brick Top’s men and then Brick Top himself. It is also revealed that one of the reasons he never goes down in a fight when he’s supposed to is because he always bets on himself. In Inglourious Basterds, Aldo finds himself in a dangerous situation at the Nazi movie premiere as Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) (who owns the cinema) plans to burn the theater to the ground (and succeeds). However, the high-ranking Nazi officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) intercepts Aldo, takes him into Allied territory, and willingly surrenders to him (because he has made a deal with the Allies in order to save his own life), who immediately handcuffs him, shoots his radio operator, and carves a swastika into his forehead. These early scenes serve as predictors for how Mickey and Aldo will act throughout the rest of the films: in accordance with their own rules.
Generally speaking, these characters are fascinating because of how Pitt portrays them. They are from what would be considered undesirable backgrounds; Pitt presents them in a very nuanced and no-nonsense style. Mickey is not just Irish, but an Irish Traveller, and speaks in what sounds like gibberish to untrained ears. Aldo is from the Smoky Mountains, an area of the US whose inhabitants are looked down on as backward and ignorant. Pitt plays both of these characters so well that he embodies them; they become almost bigger than the films themselves. It is also interesting to me that an Irish Traveller is the one who eventually takes down a famously violent and feared British crime boss, and a man from the South makes an example out of the true villain of the film, Hans Landa, a high-ranking Nazi officer who not only lived by his own rules within the Nazi party and was notoriously seen as a violent force, but betrayed his fellow officers and his Nazi sensibilities in order to save his own neck.
In these scenes, Pitt utilizes the underdog nature of these characters so that what typically would be seen as negative stereotypes become strengths. He does this primarily through action in Snatch. He says very little to Gorgeous George, and avoids going fist-to-fist from him, playing up the stereotype of the lazy, unserious “pikey” who is more interested in being a swindler than a fighter. Gorgeous George is twice his size and more violent than he is as he roughs him up. Mickey gives off the impression that he is just screwing around, and he is, until he’s ready to show his true colors, and he does, when he knocks Gorgeous George out in one punch. In Inglourious Basterds, Pitt shows Aldo’s strengths through his speech, utilizing his nuanced way of talking—backwoods-sounding and good-natured—as a way to combat a force much bigger than him: Nazism, as represented by Werner. His folksy tone and lingo, which might be viewed as inferior by Nazi sensibilities, is what drives the conversation between him and Werner in ways that are empowering. He takes his time explaining to Werner what he needs him to do and why, and is very polite and forthright in his warning about what will happen to him if he doesn’t cooperate. When Werner refuses to comply, Aldo just grins and calls upon Donny (Eli Roth) to handle him.
When I say I like these characters because they are eccentric, I hope it is understood that by eccentric I mean creatively resourceful. Pitt brought Mickey and Aldo into multidimensionality by performing the underdog as the victor. His characters, although from humble and disenfranchised backgrounds, always have the upper-hand even when it feels like they don’t. Mickey loves his mother; he wants to buy a caravan for her; he is devastated after she is murdered by Brick Top’s men. Aldo has a scar across his throat which suggests he’s come close to losing his life in the past. When he attempts to fake an Italian accent at the movie premiere in front of Hans Landa, there is humor, but also a sense of being out of his element, which serves as a subtle nod to his vulnerability in that moment. He has to struggle to sound Italian when it is so obvious he is Southern, even to Hans, who teases him from his racist Nazi high horse.
Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that Mickey and Aldo are two of Pitt’s most exceptional roles. Viewers can look at these two characters and clearly see why Pitt is a brilliant actor. He is brilliant because he became Mickey; he became Aldo. He immersed himself in their psyches and brought them to life in ways that are extremely difficult to do no matter how talented an actor/actress is. Another strength of Pitt’s is his ability to understand the earthiness of these characters and translate that earthiness into movement and voice—so he is an excellent actor in the physical and verbal sense. In these essays, I want to examine film from the position of zoomed in moments, either through characters as performed by actors and actresses, or through film plots, or how directors translated their visions onto the screen. To me, to begin this series by examining these roles seems obvious because Brad Pitt is the ultimate actor, not just because he made these characters badass and loveable, but because he humanized them against the brutal forces they were fighting: British crime and Nazism.
August 29, 2022