By the mid-90s Brad Pitt‘s star began to explode, with major roles in Legends of the Fall, Seven and 12 Monkeys. The film that initiated this period however was 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. Based on the 1976 novel by Anne Rice, the film pairs Pitt with Tom Cruise as Lestat de Lioncourt, who at the time was already a global box office powerhouse. Their dynamic largely drives the film, in addition to director Neil Jordan’s lavish style and melodramatic bombast. While undoubtedly a visual triumph, Interview With the Vampire lacks narrative momentum, something exacerbated by its central character, Pitt’s Louis de Pointe du Lac, being a passive, vacuous beefcake.
Interview With the Vampire begins ominously in the 1990s, with two men meeting in a decrepit, anonymous room. One of them is a reporter, played by Christian Slater. The other is Pitt’s Louis, who begins to tell Slater’s character about his life as a vampire during the 19th and 20th centuries. The film then flashes back to 1791, when Louis was still human and an aristocrat living on a sprawling New Orleans estate. Louis states through voice-over that at the time he was a grieving widower, chronically depressed and flirting with self-destruction.
More than willing to oblige him is Tom Cruise’s Lestat. A well-dressed dandy of a vampire, Lestat attacks Louis one evening by biting him on the neck, levitating him into the air and then dropping him promptly into the drink. Instead of fully killing him, however, Lestat offers Louis the chance to become like him, promising that it will take away his suffering. Louis inexplicably decides to accept and is transformed into a nosferatu in a highly sexualized sequence. This begins a relationship that feels like if The Odd Couple became serial killers. Lestat, as it turns out, is completely amoral, killing indiscriminately with a hungry relish. Louis, conversely, maintains ties to his humanity, continually butting heads with Lestat over the necessity to take human life.
The beginning sequences of Interview With the Vampire are evocative and bold, leaving no doubt that what you are seeing on-screen is the work of master craftsmen and women. Under Jordan, late-18th century New Orleans feels alive and three-dimensional, the mise-en-scene dominated by twisted graveyards, vast ports and ornate costuming. Despite the film being more than 20 years old, it looks more credible than last year’s In the Heart of the Sea, which had a story set in 1820’s Nantucket.
Contributing to the film’s immersive atmosphere is Cruise’s performance, which showcases the actor’s preternatural ability to exude humorous cruelty. As someone who always comes off as a bit dickish (even in his most virtuous roles), Cruise’s Lestat strikes the same electric tone as his performance in 1999’s Magnolia, pairing sardonic viciousness and deep, destructive loneliness. Although the literary Lestat’s bisexuality and philosophical inquires are absent, Cruise’s performance still works, even if it feels secondary to Pitt’s character.
The protracted use of Louis’s POV though is where many of the film’s problems are localized. While the juxtaposition between him and Lestat is initially compelling, the character’s chronic brooding and underdeveloped motivations quickly wear on you. This is so rapid actually that by the time the film hits the 45 minute mark you’ll be looking to introduce your chest to its own personal wooden stake. Things do improve when Louis and Lestat come across a young, orphaned girl named Claudia, played by a 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst. The two vampires decide to also turn her into a creature of the night, furthering their somewhat disturbing variation on a nuclear family.
Claudia is a role that would be tricky for any actress, particularly as it involves the character’s body remaining frozen in time while her mind ages. This makes Dunst’s work all the more impressive, as she commands the screen despite her young age at the time. Beautifully balancing humor and horror, she gives life to some of the film’s strongest sequences, such as a well-edited montage showing Claudia killing everyone, even her dressmaker and piano instructor, much to the chagrin of Lestat and Louis.
As a dark satire on the family unit, Interview With the Vampire succeeds enormously. Yet, the triumvirate of Lestat, Louis and Claudia soon fractures, leaving the characters adrift. At this point Louis again takes center stage, and the narrative again slows. The bulk of the film’s second half is devoted to him searching for other vampires with Claudia. This journey eventually leads them to Paris where they meet Armand (played by Antonio Banderas), a vampire who runs the Théâtre des Vampires and leads a Volturi-like coven of bloodsuckers. Like Stephenie Meyer’s central antagonists, Armand’s brood is dangerous, violent and governed by a rigid code, which sets up a frenzied, bloody climax.
What is particularly interesting is how emotionally uninvolving the climax is. And while this may be a simplistic analysis, the fault seems to lie in the writing and acting behind the Louis character. Jordan and company do their very best to create a sense of dynamism for Pitt’s role, blending pristine makeup and special effects with sweeping orchestral cues to highlight action. What’s missing is credible explanations by Anne Rice (who also wrote the screenplay) into why Louis does the things he does. The emotional spectrum Pitt provides also never feels legitimate. Just look intently at his face or eyes at any point. He’s simply, not, there.
Strangely, this quality also makes Interview With the Vampire somewhat interesting. Throughout the story Louis elicits fascination by almost everyone he encounters, for reasons that are never clarified. Seeing how he has less personality than a pathetic lump of dirt, my guess would be that it is due to his looks, which are incredible. There probably has never been a more beautiful cinematic vampire than Pitt’s Louis (sorry Robert Pattinson), and the obsessive attention he receives is fascinating in how it mirrors Pitt’s own experiences. In the early-90s Pitt was primarily known as a cake, a hunk of man meat, not the acting and producing powerhouse that he is today. With this in mind, Interview With the Vampire becomes an intriguing commentary on the early stages of the man’s career. What it isn’t, however, is a particularly amazing movie.