I don’t mean to sound cavalier about the curious career arc of an excellent actor, and I always flinch when I read “whatever happened to…?” articles because they sound blithe and dismissive. But fuck it — whatever happened to Michael Pitt? An Esquire article about fashion styles seen in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (which premieres this Sunday) alerted me to Pitt’s steady recurring role as Jimmy Darmody, and my immediate reaction was “whoa…he fell off the radar and I hadn’t even noticed.”

Michael Pitt in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Pitt was all the rage from ’02 to ’05 or thereabouts, starting with his breakout performances in Barbet Schroeder‘s Murder by Numbers (’02) and a year later in Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers (probably his most emotionally accessible role). For me he peaked with his Kurt Cobain performance in Gus Van Sant‘s Last Days. My geiger counter says Pitt’s last stand-out performance was in Michael Haneke‘s English-language remake of Funny Games (’07).

Pitt has always projected a kind of studied weirdness — a slightly cold and aloof manner mixed with innocence. It’s the kind of thing that probably worked from him better when he he had that doe-faced thing going in his early 20s, but it may not travel quite as well with age. Pitt will be 30 in April 2011.

Perhaps directors (and casting directors got tired of his alien-from-another-planet schtick. I don’t know. But I do know he always felt to me like the real thing — an actor who really and truly meant it in a James Dean sort of way, right down to the core of his soul. I also know that the train he was on seemed to slow and come to a stop two or three years ago. Tell me why.