Although Kurt Cobain died more than 10 years ago, the beginning of Gus Van Sant's imaginative account of his death is spooky because it looks so much like Cobain on screen. All we see is a thin man with a mop of scraggly blond hair covering his face roaming through a Pacific Northwest forest. With his pajamalike clothes and a plastic wristband on his arm, he looks like he just escaped from a mental institution or rehab. He's mumbling to himself and not looking up. It's absolutely haunting.
Van Sant, who experiments with very long shots that are almost wordless, lets this character ramble as long as possible in one long take, as if he's testing the patience of the audience to stay with him. When he finally breaks the frame, he zooms in on the figure and lets us see him brush his hair back. That's when we know for sure that this is a character, played by Michael Pitt, who is a stand-in for the legendary rocker in his last days before he committed suicide in 1994.
That revelation breaks the mood a little, but only for a second, until Van Sant brings in other captivating elements. Pitt, as a disheveled star named Blake, staggers back up a hill and into a sprawling mansion where he proceeds to play a cat-and-mouse game with the other residents over the course of a few days, trying not to get noticed or pinned down in any sort of conversation.
The others, a motley band of hangers-on (played by Lucas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius), are so self-involved that they barely notice Blake or the state of disrepair he's in. He's able to go in and out of the house, avoiding the people from the outside world who try to bother him, like a detective sent by his ex-wife and his team of managers and agents who want him to buck up and get back on the road to tour. Everyone depends on the money he can bring in, and they don't care at all what's going on with him.
Pitt keeps his concentration entirely and never breaks out of the madman role. Even though it's impossible to understand anything he's saying, he gets across Blake's complete psychotic breakdown with inventive mannerisms that make you feel like you can see inside the character. Even a small set piece that has Blake making a dinner of macaroni and cheese in a ramshackle kitchen is fascinating to watch.
That's not to say that this film goes down easy. It may be mainstream now to be a Nirvana fan, but this is anything but a mass-market film. Most people will have trouble staying with Van Sant's vision, no matter how beautiful and evocative it is. It will take more of a cinema aficionado than an alternative rock fan to love this.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will captivate those with the patience for it
Stars: Michael Pitt, Lucas Haas
Director/screenwriter: Gus Van Sant
Producers: Gus Van Sant, Danny Wolf
Release date: July 22, 2005, limited; later in select cities
Distributor: Fine Line