Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Harmony Korine
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Gus Van Sant
Last Days" is the third in a series of minimalist films by director Gus Van Sant in which the random meanderings of man are explored, not in a search for meaning, but more as a statement of journey.
The trilogy began with "Gerry," a journey of two friends where the end seems almost inevitable yet is achieved without judgment or even feeling. The second film, "Elephant," was, in many ways, more tragic as it closely resembled the Columbine killings in the way it followed a typical day in high school that would end in pointless but quite deliberate murder by friends. The final film, "Last Days," quietly brings to close the trilogy in a film inspired by the death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain.
In all three films, the tragedies that unfold are achieved without histrionics and without judgment. They are, seemingly, a mere part of the journey between death and birth. Van Sant avoids all the more marketable approaches to these sorts of films and merely allows the characters to exist, following their paths, making their choices and facing their inevitable destinies. It is tragic, and yet it never truly feels tragic.
"Last Days" stars Michael Pitt as a Kurt Cobain look-alike to a frightening degree. We are not given a chance to bond with Blake, his character, nor are we given a chance to experience him as a success through concert footage or groupies or anything resembling a positive life experience. Instead, as the title of the film might suggest, we are privvy to his "Last Days." The film opens with Blake wandering aimlessly through the woods mumbling nonsensical rock lyrics not that much unlike Nirvana's lyrics. Yet, much like Nirvana's lyrics if you listen closely you will hear brilliant, poetic statements that scream of this man's complete and overwhelming inner pain. To look closely at Blake is challenging largely due to the moody and atmospheric cinematography of Harris Savides, who also photographed both "Gerry" and "Elephant." Savides uses long shots, often blurry and Van Sant often uses Blake's hair as a sort of mask to keep anyone from ever truly seeing him. Pitt captures beautifully the minimalist approach to this character, and completely avoids histrionics to the point that his inevitable demise is almost completely anti-climactic. Blake wanders in and out of his castle type home, wanders the woods, swims, visits the small cottage in the back of his home (which eerily resembles the actual area in which Cobain actually died) and briefly visits in town to wander through a rock show, speak briefly at a friend and often repeats his behavior so identically that on two occasions I wondered if the film had actually skipped.
Pitt's performance is a quiet performance, and it would be nearly impossible to call it brilliant. Yet, it is surprisingly impact despite the fact that Pitt essentially wanders and mumbles throughout the entire film. His interaction with others is minimal at best, and we are given literally no chance to bond with him or those around him. He's clearly in the end stages of drug addiction, appears to be wearing a hospital arm band and is nearly completely incoherent.
The supporting cast around him includes gangly Luke (Lukas Haas), Scott (Scott Green), Asia (Asia Argento) and assorted individuals who visit the home during the day including a quietly humorous visit from twin Mormon missionaries, a private detective joined by a "friend" who seems more like a sell out named Donovan, a record executive (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame)and even Harmony Korine shows up as a guy in the club Blake visits while in town. The cast themselves play characters who are oddly respectful of Blake, yet clearly just living their own path completely detached from him. It would be easy to say that they are clearly sponging off him, yet it never truly feels that way. Everyone simply seems to be existing and there's never a point where anyone's path feels judged until the very end when Luke, Scott and Asia choose to leave town out of fear they will be implicated in Blake's death. At one point, Blake sits over Scott and Asia while they are sleeping with a gun over them...nothing tragic occurs. It just happens.
Gus Van Sant is a brilliant director, however, "Last Days" never quite achieves the level of quiet brilliance as its two minimalist predecessors. While I can understand and respect the choice to follow only Blake's last days, nonetheless, the absence of connection in the film becomes tiresome and the repeated behaviors is slightly confusing. Occasionally, the sound mix became distracting and on at least two occasions I found myself wondering "What is that sound anyway?" It distracted me and caused me to lose focus from the film. Likewise, while the music involving Blake (including at least two songs written & performed by Pitt himself) are masterful, the accompanying score is, at times, irritating...especially the music over the closing credits.
Perhaps the only point in the entire film where I felt like Van Sant made a choice of "judgment" was in Blake's actual death. While I won't go into the actual visualization, for me it played as if Blake were becoming spirit AND going to heaven. It was a bold choice considering the obvious harsh lifestyle, active drug addiction and many poor choices Blake had made. Yet, truly, it felt right.
While I may not consider "Last Days" to be the best film of Gus Van Sant from a purely critical standpoint, it is a film I greatly admire and would wholeheartedly recommend to lovers of independent, thought-provoking and bold cinema. Van Sant foregoes the easy choices and even commercial choices and makes a film here that feels deeply authentic.
I cried the day Kurt Cobain died. The tears didn't flow necessarily because he was a great rock musician or because I was a huge Nirvana fan, though I certainly loved their music. No, instead, I cried because of what Cobain represented...a voice for the hurting, the lost and the pissed off who had managed to find a way to express it and turn it into something productive. When Cobain died, for a long time I questioned survival...I questioned whether or not those of us who'd had fucked up, abusive and tragic lives could really survive. Several years later, all I can still think is what an absolutely stupid end to such brilliant potential.
"Last Days" is not a perfect film...but, it is a film in which one's flaws are irrelevant. Do we value life or do we completely disregard it? It doesn't matter. It's just a journey.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic