Van Sant’s latest docu-drama offers thin guise for Kurt Cobain’s demise, but too little insight
A film inspired by Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide, “Last Days” is revealing not because it has much insight into his life but because it debunks other films about drugs and fame.
As a portrait of addiction, though not a very explicit one, it adopts a slow, languid rhythm, far from the sensory bombardment of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” It makes hanging out with a famous person look like the most boring thing one could do. Intentionally or not, the film only accomplishes one task—portraying celebrities and their hangers-on as dull losers.
Rock star Blake (Michael Pitt) lives in a mansion with a small entourage. In the opening scenes of “Last Days,” he walks through the woods and swims in the river near his house. Blake’s friends and record label want to track him down—and have even hired a private detective (Ricky Jay) to do so—but he just wants to be left alone. Deeply troubled, he walks around in a daze.
When a salesman for the Yellow Pages knocks on his door, Blake has difficulty holding down a coherent conversation. His friends want money or help with music. His manager wants him to go on tour. He seems to want to disappear.
I’m sure van Sant means no disrespect for Cobain, but “Last Days” is filled with a subtle but steady undercurrent of disdain for its characters. To adopt a metaphor from his last film, heroin is the elephant in the room, omnipresent but unspoken here. Blake is never shown using drugs, but his behavior, especially the constant nodding out, suggests a smacked-out stupor. By remaining ambiguous—or coy—on this point, “Last Days” leaves room for other interpretations. Pitt’s steady flow of mumbled gibberish recalls Damian Lewis’ performance as a schizophrenic in Lodge Kerrigan’s forthcoming “Keane,“ with the crucial difference that Pitt never makes sense.
As well as Cobain’s death, “Last Days” is haunted by the specters of actor River Phoenix and singer Elliott Smith, who contributed to the soundtrack of “Good Will Hunting” and killed himself two years ago. A disclaimer informs us that “although this film is inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain, it is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed in the film are also fictional.” This leaves van Sant an easy way out—he doesn’t have to say much about the specifics of his subject’s life. Although Blake is a father, his daughter’s mother is out of the picture, as is the daughter for that matter. There’s no counterpart to Courtney Love.
More importantly, there’s an enormous gap between Cobain and Blake. Despite his demons, Cobain was smart and extremely talented. Blake rarely seems to have two active brain cells working simultaneously, and his music, written and performed by Pitt, is mediocre. “Last Days” would pack a greater punch if one felt that by committing suicide, Blake was throwing away a life full of promise and artistic potential. With dyed-blonde, shoulder-length hair, a few days’ stubble, a wardrobe full of dresses and an inability to look the camera in the eye, Pitt looks the part, but he’s content to mumble away rather than dig very far into his character.
After achieving great success in Hollywood with “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forrester” and becoming America’s most prominent gay director, van Sant turned into a born-again indie filmmaker. His discovery of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, a master of long takes and slow tracking shots, marked his conversion. Tarr’s influence hangs over “Gerry” and “Elephant,” but another van Sant favorite—Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s 1975 “Jeanne Dielman”—offers a key to “Last Days.”
In “Jeanne Dielman,” Akerman spent three and a half hours exploring the daily life of a housewife who also works as a prostitute. The film includes real-time scenes of her protagonist washing a bathtub or peeling potatoes. It’s a landmark in feminist filmmaking—before it, no one had taken such a close look at women’s everyday drudgery. “Last Days” looks at the mundane—Lukas Haas singing along to most of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” Blake ineptly cooking macaroni and cheese—with a similar amount of rapt fascination. In fact, the film consists of almost nothing but such low-key moments, rendered dreamlike by cinematographer Harris Savides.
In the past, shallowness has sometimes worked for van Sant. “Elephant” said little of substance about the causes behind the Columbine massacre (its references to violent video games, bullying and Nazism strike me as ironic) but its direction—especially the claustrophobic use of a narrow frame—showed a great deal of insight into the way schools can be maddening, physically confining spaces. Van Sant and Savides, who also shot “Elephant,” are able to make “Last Days” a film of alluring, seductive surfaces.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing more to it. Its lack of affect is epitomized by a scene in which Blake plays a song as the camera gradually zooms away from him. “Last Days” tells us that being rich, famous and troubled can make you just as miserable as if you were living in a vacant lot on Avenue D. That’s not exactly breaking news. The film mirrors its characters’ empty lives all too well.