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If there is a universal truth, it is that we all must face death, but what if Death was not just an event but an actual being? The figure of the Grim Reaper as the personification of our mortal end has long existed in history and in nearly all cultures, and as such has made numerous appearances in film in tragedies, drama, horror, and comedy. Typically presented as hulking, with a black robe and scythe, in the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, loosely based on the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, Death switches things up a bit and instead arrives as, well … Brad Pitt.
THE STORY: Susan (Claire Forlani), a doctor of internal medicine, is in a loveless relationship, and on the eve of her father’s 65th birthday party, meets a young man who she immediately falls for, but unknown to her, is struck in a terrible car accident right after they depart. While it appears he has been killed, not long after, we see him again, this time though as Death himself, taking the name Joe Black. Coincidentally, he’s come for Susan’s father Bill (Anthony Hopkins).
Joe though is willing to delay the older man’s passing if Bill can show Joe what life is like as a mortal Man, a deal Bill accepts, realizing his days on Earth are numbered. This begins a strange pattern of behavior for Bill, as noted by his family and colleagues, some of whom are, obviously unaware of Bill’s fate, conniving to remove him as Chairman of his own company. All the while, Joe is becoming enamored with Susan, who herself is confused by his arrival, thinking he is the man she briefly met earlier. As the story progresses, Death has much to learn about the value of life and the meaning of love.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Meet Joe Black starts strong but eventually meanders a bit to its melodramatic end though there are some good things happening here, especially the dynamic between Bill and Joe with some great interactions between Hopkins and Pitt.
Pitt plays Death as an innocent, a being of immense power who has little knowledge about the souls he holds domain over. His movements are stiff, he doesn’t understand tact, and he tries to mimic others as to appear more, well, human. Pitt handles this really well, keeping it subtle throughout, and while the narrative might lean on the heavy-handed, Pitt does not and delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance.
A GREAT MOMENT: Life is all about timing and what we do with the opportunities that we can seize and capitalize on, but how often are things right in front us that we let slip by? Early in the film, when Susan and the as yet unnamed man first meet is the film’s best moment, capturing that sense of wonder with pitch perfect attention to all that matters.
We know Susan is considering marrying a man she does not love. Her father tells her that she must hold out for hope because one day lightning may strike and true happiness can be hers. In a coffee shop, that lightning seems to have struck as she engages in a conversation with a man who even quotes back her father. The chemistry between Forlani and Pitt is really the thing here as every fiber of your being wants them to be together. It’s like a fairy tale in real life and you just feel it straight to your toes that these two people are the very definition of soul mates. As they walk away from each other, it’s almost unbearable as we long so much for them to stop. It’s a great moment (even if it ends in jarring trauma).
THE TALLY: Meet Joe Black is certainly flawed (in many ways) and meanders with side stories that detract from the greater theme, but at its start, when two young people find each other – something that in itself is one of humanity’s most wondrous experiences – the movie is, for just a moment, beautifully ethereal. There is a time when all of us are struck by that lightning, when we see in a person’s face or hear in the sound of their voice or feel in a first touch something that is unlike anything we have ever known, igniting a passion that trembles our very core. Sometimes, for the lucky, that moment is captured for both and is felt across whatever unknowns lie between them. This is carried through the film well enough, even while it gets layered in other dramas that extend the film to a three-hour length.
Featuring a sensational score by Thomas Newman, Meet Joe Black explores the value of love and the meaning of personal sacrifice for those you love, understanding that being human is not about the desire and dreams of only yourself but to recognize the desire and dreams of another and cherish them as your own.
Director: Martin Brest
Stars: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani
Run Time: 2 hrs 58 mins