It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Meet Joe Black” is a movie about a rich man trying to negotiate the terms of his own death. It is a movie about a woman who falls in love with a concept. And it is a meditation on the screen presence of Brad Pitt. That there is also time for scenes about sibling rivalry and a corporate takeover is not necessarily a good thing. The movie contains elements that make it very good, and a lot of other elements besides. Less is more.
As the movie opens, a millionaire named William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is pounded by a heart attack, the soundtrack using low bass chords to assault the audience. He hears a voice--his own--in his head. On the brink of his 65th birthday, he senses that death is near. He tells his beloved younger daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) that he likes her fiance but doesn't sense that she truly loves him: “Stay open. Lightning could strike.” It does. A few hours later, in a coffee shop, she meets a stranger (Brad Pitt). They talk and flirt. He says all the right things. Lightning makes, at the very least, a near miss. They confess they really like each other. They part. He is killed. That night at dinner, she is startled to find him among her father's guests. The body of the young man is now occupied by Death, who has come to inform Parrish that his end is near.
He does not recognize Susan. That's odd. Isn't Death an emissary from God? Shouldn't he know these things? He's been around a long time (one imagines him breaking the bad news to amoebas). This Death doesn't even know what peanut butter tastes like, or how to kiss. A job like that, you want a more experienced man.
No matter. We accept the premise. We're distracted, anyway, by the way Brad Pitt plays the role. As both the young man in the coffee shop and as “Joe Black” (the name given him by Parrish), he is intensely aware of himself--too aware. Pitt is a fine actor, but this performance is a miscalculation. Meryl Streep once said that an experienced actor knows that the words “I love you” are really a question. Pitt plays them as a compliment to himself. There is no chemistry between Joe Black and Susan because both parties are focused on him.