Gus Van Sant continues in the “unplugged,” low-fi vein of his last two pics (“Gerry,” “Elephant”) with “Last Days,” a non-linear account of the final hours of rock star Blake (Michael Pitt). “Inspired,” as per credits, by the suicide of grunge idol Kurt Cobain, “Last Days”– like its predecessors — resists offering whys and wherefores. Result is dead-on depiction of the hedonistic rock lifestyle, punctuated by sequences of haunting beauty but also quasi-religious imagery that borders on tacky. Slightly starrier cast than “Elephant” and interest in Cobain should ensure marginally higher returns, but also more mixed critical reaction.
“Last Days” is but the latest installment in the intriguingly eclectic career of Van Sant, one that’s encompassed classically offbeat indie movies like “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho,” a bizarre cover version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and more conventionally structured movies such as megahit “Good Will Hunting” and the much less boffo “Finding Forrester.”
Following the critical mauling of “Forrester,” Van Sant reinvented himself as an arthouse director. He was, by his own admission, deeply influenced by the sparse aesthetic of Magyar helmer Bela Tarr (“Satantango,” “Werckmeister Harmonies”) and other experimental filmmakers.
“Last Days” and the two films before it form a Tarrian trilogy, where long, painstakingly composed shots show characters doing mundane tasks for considerable stretches of time. Time is fractured and spirals back on itself, sometimes showing events several times.
But Van Sant has not simply facilely appropriated Tarr’s visual mannerisms. Instead, he has used the style as a vehicle to explore obliquely larger social problems, like high school killings in “Elephant” or the toll of fame here, sidestepping the didacticism of more realist filmmaking.
Depicting the self-inflicted death of a rock star is unlikely to reap as much controversy as high school killings, except possibly from fanatical Cobain fans who might choose to ignore pic’s legalese disclaimer that this fictional film was “inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain,” to whom it is also dedicated. Indeed, events depicted bear a striking similarity to some of the known facts about the last walk on the wild side of Cobain, lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana, who injected himself with a probably lethal amount of heroin in April 1994, and then shot himself both in the stomach and the head.
Curiously, “Last Days” fictional character Blake is never directly shown taking drugs or actually killing himself, although we do see him in various states of obvious intoxication throughout and toying with a shotgun. He even wears a hunting hat with ear flaps much like the one favored by Cobain in the last year of his life.
Otherwise, Blake’s onscreen activities are mostly quotidian, at least for a drug-addled rock star. He’s first seen babbling incoherently as he wanders through the woods to a stream where he takes a dip. Later, he’s seen digging up a cigar box from his garden, playing music and mostly avoiding the various hangers-on who live in or come and go from his shabby mansion.
He does, however, receive a Yellow Book advertising salesman (real-life Yellow Book advertising salesman Thadeus A. Thomas) who has mistaken him for a locomotive parts dealer. When asked how successful his business has been since the last ad, Blake replies resonantly, “Success is subjective.”
Oddly, it’s the scenes where the least happens within lenser Harris Savides’ Academy-ratio frame that have the most emotional impact despite the fact that one can seldom see Pitt’s face under his curtain of blond hair. In one weirdly mesmerizing sequence, Blake, dressed in a woman’s slip and thick boots, sinks slowly to his knees in a sun-filled room.
Later, Blake is shown twice making instant macaroni and cheese, first from a distance and then in one long continuous medium shot, an affectionate parody of the cooking sequences in Chantel Akerman’s 1976 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Both views are accompanied by the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.”
Despite the laconic naturalism of the performances, Van Sant’s script works in religious motifs — from the opening “baptism” in the river, to a pair of identical twin Mormons (non-pro thesps Adam and Andy Friberg) who explain Christ’s resurrection to some of the entourage, to a near final shot where the ghostly, naked soul of Blake rises via superimposition from his dead body and climbs a ladder seemingly to Heaven — an excessively sentimental detail shown with a metaphoric straight face by Van Sant that nearly ruins the movie.
One might give Van Sant the benefit of the doubt and say the very triteness of the image is intentional, that the film is knowingly playing out what Blake’s manager (Kim Gordon, from rock outfit Sonic Youth) calls “a rock ‘n’ roll cliche” to its bitter end. But a worrying sense develops as the film goes along that Van Sant may see the story as a kind of secular, Gen-X Passion Play, where the genius saint dies for our sins.
The entourage ensemble could be seen as the disciples who fail their rock messiah — a supposed visionary like his poet namesake William Blake — preoccupied as they are with endlessly coupling with each other and taking drugs.
None of the supporting players has much acting to do here (Asia Argento literally walks through the pic in a thong). But Lukas Haas and Scott Green incarnate bleary wooziness well, while helmer Harmony Korine has a droll cameo as a fan who rants at Blake about playing Dungeons and Dragons with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
Within the limitations of the role, Pitt acquits himself very well as Blake, giving a nervy, physical performance that expresses character mostly through gait, mumbled dialogue and, most importantly, music with two songs he’s credited with having written.
The first is a discordant but rousing punk jam called “That Day,” which is heard as Blake is strikingly shown by a slow tracking back camera which gives the scene a brutal subsonic force.
The second song, “Death to Birth,” sounds like a weak parody of a Nirvana song even down to its slow-fast structure, but with lyrics more far more banal than anything the composer of “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ever wrote, even at his worst.
Elsewhere, despite the fact that the film is about a rock star, music is used sparingly with selections from 16th century madrigal composer Jancquin and avant-garde composer Hildegard Westerkamp’s atonal “Doors of Perception” as non-source backing. Deftly mixed by sound designer Leslie Shatz, the various bleeps and bells of the latter composition merge seamlessly with source noises and snatches of dialogue to create an appropriately hallucinatory soundscape.
Savides’ lensing is immaculate throughout, providing its own painterly pleasures even when the story may irk. Editing by helmer himself is evocative if occasionally enigmatic, suggesting work of a highly intuitive filmmaker.