(director/writer: Gus Van Sant; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: Gus Van Sant; music: Rodrigo Lopresti; cast: Michael Pitt (Blake), Lukas Haas (Luke), Asia Argento (Asia), Scott Green (Scott), Nicole Vicius (Nicole), Ricky Jay (Detective), Ryan Orion (Donovan); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Dany Wolf; Picturehouse; 2005)
“Unpleasant but hypnotic lyrical meditation on death that was inspired by the suicide in 1994 of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Gus Van Sant (“Elephant”/”Gerry”) wrote and directed this unpleasant but hypnotic lyrical meditation on death that was inspired by the suicide in 1994 of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. This fictionalized biopic reflects on sudden stardom and how it too often takes its toll in celebrity isolation, mental breakdowns and drug abuse. It’s set on the sprawling wooded grounds of a Seattle estate (filmed in upstate New York), where the soft-spoken and zombie-like Blake (Michael Pitt), undoubtedly named after the poet, wanders around his crumbling mansion like a lost soul for the last 48 hours or so of his life. There are various other musicians and hangers-on in residence that include characters played by Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius. Blake’s inertia is broken by a visit from a straight Yellow Pages sales rep making his ad pitch to a polite celeb he doesn’t recognize who is on the verge of nodding out on the sofa. There’s also another comical visit by twins who are elders in the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), who talk scripture with houseguest Scott and try to get him to join their church. Blake doesn’t connect with the other house residents, as he hasn’t seen them for days but doesn’t seem to mind their presence or their lack of contact with him. The rocker keeps busy by walking around in the woods, taking a swim in the pond in the raw, building a fire, strutting a guitar, fixing a combined cereal and macaroni and cheese meal that turns out botched, stumbling around the spacious house in a stupor while trying to stay upright, hiding in his greenhouse to avoid a private detective brought around by a concerned friend to locate the missing musician, and carrying around a shotgun like he was in a John Wayne flick and the Indians were about to attack. That was the action part of the film, the rest is made up of long silent takes guaranteed to disturb many viewers (and, I might add, rightly so).
The film’s success can be attributed to Pitt’s fully realized performance. It’s through his barely articulate mumblings, stoner stance and his hapless physical condition that he tells us all we want to know about his character’s escape from reality and soon-to-be demise. The 17-year-old Pitt brings to the film the spirit of a rock ‘n’ roll cliché, and at the risk of boring the viewer to death plays with the emptiness of the star’s life as something reaching critical mass even though he’s seemingly reached the top of the world materially through his business and artistic success. Pitt also wrote two songs, “All Apologies” and “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” that he performs in the film. They give you the poetry that’s in his character’s soul; the filmmaker’s intention is that the viewer will now have enough to fill in all the blank spaces left by the non-narrative telling of the biography.
We never see the junkie Blake take drugs or kill himself, instead we see someone who lost it and we are just supposed to accept that for what it is and not rail against him or sympathize with him. This kind of no-holds-barred look at a depressed celebrity artist might not please everyone, but the offbeat presentation has a certain power by not trying to explain things that if explained would probably only show how meaningless were his rebel actions. In a coy way the film comes to the defense of the artist, even one that not many would identify with, and shows everyone must do their own thing in this life no matter how ridiculous it may be.
I’ve given Van Sant the benefit of doubt in this indie film, even if I’m not sure I’m being sucker punched by giving him too much credit for saying something I didn’t actually hear him say. I must say his commercial ventures such as “Finding Forrester” and “Good Will Hunting” are something else, they left me with the cold feeling the talented filmmaker had abandoned his commitment and vision to the Hollywood gods.
REVIEWED ON 1/29/2006 GRADE: B