“I think in some ways you learn more from the things you don’t like than the things you do.” – Michael Pitt
At 40 years young, Michael Pitt hardly looks a day over 30, with a sharp stare and pronounced facial features that recall the fierce characters of his early career. Having acted since his troubled teenage years, Michael Pitt found success through acting in independent films, an avenue he has largely stuck on during the majority of his career. Working with world-renowned filmmakers such as Michael Haneke, Larry Clark, and Gus Van Sant, his colourful career is dotted with great success despite having never truly broken into the popular mainstream.
This will, however, come as no distress to Pitt, who himself stated: “Don’t look at me, look at what I’ve done. Every movie that I’ve picked, from my first film on, has been considered by everyone to be ‘career suicide’. And I have an amazing life. I have an amazing career. I work with artists. But I’m not making Spider-Man”. This urge to defy conventions is only reinforced by his own band Pagoda, and their refusal to pigeon-hole themselves within a specific genre.
A Hollywood enigma with a gift for playing cinema’s most twisted, gritty and disturbed minds, let’s take a look into Michael Pitts’ most definitive films.
Michael Pitt’s six definitive films:
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell – 2001)
With only scattered credits to his name before appearing in John Cameron Mitchell’s film, Pitt had struggled through multiple single-character TV roles as well as the odd film role before breaking through in 2001.
A champion of LGBTQ filmmaking, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, based on the director’s own co-written musical, follows a gender-queer punk-rock singer from East Berlin as she tours the U.S with her band and tells her life story along the way. Pitt plays the eccentrically named Tommy Gnosis, a rival rocker who stole much of Hedwig’s material. It’s a strange, haunting performance from Pitt who lingers like a nightmare in the protagonist’s mind, as a sunken, pale presence.
Bully (Larry Clark – 2001)
The turn of the new millennium would bring renewed success for Pitt as he catapulted off the success of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to appear in Larry Clark’s Bully.
A name synonymous with underground independent filmmaking, Clark had only recently completed Another Day in Paradise and Kids, when he took on his 2001 venture following a pack of naïve teenagers who conspire to murder an aggressive mutual friend. Based on the book by Jim Schutze, which itself is written about a real-life event, Pitt plays one of the murderous teenagers, a psychotic weed-smoker who initiates the killing.
The performance brings real gravitas to the insane story, asking the audience whether we should sympathise with, or condemn these ‘innocent’ youths.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci – 2003)
A strangely similar role would follow Michael Pitt’s performance in Larry Clark’s critically acclaimed film, as he again played a murderous teenager in 2002’s Murder by Numbers, a more mainstream take on young murder where Pitt appeared alongside Ryan Gosling.
Though it was instead a role in legendary director Bernardo Bertolucci’s penultimate film before his death in 2018, that would elevate Pitt into a different tier of thespian pedigree. Playing the lead role of Matthew, an American exchange student who strikes up a relationship with a French brother and sister during the Parisian riots of 1968. A sexually charged romantic drama, Pitt’s character finds himself deeply in love with both siblings for wildly different reasons and carries his character in such a way that elicits sympathy and strange admiration.
Last Days (Gus Van Sant – 2005)
With his prestige growing year-on-year, particularly after Pitt appeared in M. Night Shyamalan‘s commercial success, The Village, the once supporting actor was quickly finding his feet in lead roles.
Inspired by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days stars Michael Pitt in the moody lead role as a Seattle musician whose life and career unfurl in the last few days of his life. Pitt looks and sounds remarkably like the Nirvana frontman and closely emulates Cobain’s guitar and singing styles, he also struck up a close relationship with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who served as the film’s music consultant and also had a close history with Cobain. It’s a dark and sombre film, but Pitt’s performance certainly shines through.
Funny Games (Michael Haneke – 2007)
It was perhaps Pitt’s sheer dedication to encapsulate the qualities of Kurt Cobain, as well as of course his career history of playing unhinged characters, that would’ve drawn Michael Haneke to the actor on his ascendancy.
A remake of his own 1997 film of the same name, Funny Games is a twisted psychological thriller following two psychopathic young men who visit a family in their holiday home and use cruel games and manipulation to take them hostage. Michael Pitt’s performance alongside co-star Brady Corbet is truly menacing, a realistic portrayal of a sadistic psychopath, incapable of reasonable emotion. It’s his own twisted performance that makes the film so memorable, and perhaps so controversial too.
Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders – 2007)
Infamously controversial for its lack of diverse cast members considering its central location, Rupert Sanders’ American live-action remake of the classic Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell, may be inferior to its original but certainly draws Michael Pitt into the mainstream limelight.
In the eclectic cyberpunk neo-Tokyo, the film follows a cyber-enhanced super-soldier named Major (Scarlett Johansson), tasked with stopping some of the world’s most dangerous criminals. Pitt plays Kuze, a mysterious and insightful cyborg feeding information to Johansson’s character, doing so with a certain menacing charm and dazzling silver hair.
Though critically and commercially unsuccessful, his appearance in a leading role of a major blockbuster provides promise for this highly talented actor once bound to smaller independent films. Michael Pitt is indeed capable of greatness.