Depressed and alienated rock star Blake (played by Michael Pitt, based on Kurt Cobain) is holed up in a country retreat with a smattering of hangers-on. Uncommunicative and incapable of even preparing breakfast, Blake drifts towards suicide while his comp
If Gus Van Sant has been walking a distinctly counter-mainstream path in recent years with films such as Gerry and Elephant, he’s veered drastically off the beaten track with Last Days, a languid, oblique study of a suicidal ’90s grunge-rock star’s final days. In the film’s opening, Blake (Michael Pitt) is found wandering by a river, far from the maddening crowds. Who is this guy in his pyjamas? Where the hell is he? What’s that he’s muttering? Questions keep coming in Last Days, which places demands on the audience from the outset, and to the end hints at answers without elucidating them.Last Days is essentially a picture of the artist in retreat, although here the final fall-back is self-annihilation. Confused, isolated and drug-addled, Blake and a gaggle of vacuous acolytes haunt a dilapidated mansion. Pitt’s Cobain approximation is underplayed and wholly convincing, a shambolic, almost mute presence. His parasitic, directionless followers, an apathetic Asia Argento among them, are similarly believable, oblivious to their benefactor’s existential angst. A mesmeric experience, the film carries the effect of a cinematic mantra, though its somnambulant rhythms can induce stupefaction rather than meditation. Incident is scarce — unless a befuddled rock star struggling to make macaroni cheese counts. But the minimalist camerawork achieves some majestic photography, drifting through the house’s lonely spaces, shots lingering as whole scenes play out without dialogue. There is occasional comedy — the visit of the Yellow Pages salesman is hilarious — although the tone’s broadest strokes are sombre, sometimes unsettling. Without the active engagement of a viewer willing to fill in gaps for themselves, this brand of passive, open-ended cinema is left beautiful, though bereft of drama.Like Elephant — a fictionalisation of the Columbine school shootings — this attempts to strip away sensationalism and to demystify a seismic cultural event, not redramatise it. And even more so than Elephant — which at least has a gripping sense of impending disaster — the enigmatic Last Days is sure to divide audiences on the matter of Van Sant’s genius.
A beguiling work of some beauty, this is a further move into a world of hypnotic, observational cinema for Gus Van Sant. But in the end, the detached style has the power to alienate as much as to enthral.