Gus Van Sant's Last Days

(2005) *** 1/2 R
97 min. Picturehouse. Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Kim Gordon, Nicole Vicius (II).

Last Days is the third in an unofficial series of existential, willfully slow photo-studies by Gus Van Sant. Each film mulls a true incident: Gerry tells the story of two men lost in the desert, Elephant spins off from the Columbine shooting, and Last Days takes loose inspiration from the final hours of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the popular '90s band Nirvana. For mysterious reasons, Gerry worked for me, and Elephant didn't, but all three films have a unique visual potency and a creeping way of asking viewers to reflect on a simple and disturbing premise.

Last Days invites us to enter, helplessly, into the slow destruction of Blake, a junkie artist embodied with mesmerizing ability by Michael Pitt. A muttering mess, this rock star's ability to connect with others is behind him, though he can still manage grace notes through his music, as proven by two devastating performances, recorded live to film by Pitt. The first is a solo jam session; the second—a Morrison-like primal scream called "Death to Birth"—was written by Pitt ("It's a long, lonely journey from death to birth..."). Seemingly spontaneous and presumably unrecorded, Blake's song is like a transmission through the cold reaches of his outer space.

Van Sant opens the film with a long sequence of Blake wandering in the wilderness. The gaunt, lone figure could be a messiah in the desert, and Van Sant teases the death and resurrection themes of a doomed rock star who lives on in public fascination: snatches of choral music; church bells; references to being "on bended knee"; encounters with water, fire, and wind; and the final, naked ascent of Blake's soul all play into a spiritual reading of the film.

The doomed rocker clearly participates in his own destruction. Implict drug use and a hospital bracelet on his arm demonstrate a life on the edge, and he cultivates a martyr complex, insisting, "I'm being treated like I'm a ...criminal." Then again, you're not paranoid if there are people after you. Blake consistently retreats from those who know him: bandmates more interested in tour and recording contracts than his life, a record executive who challenges him to return to his family instead of being "a rock-and-roll cliché," and his hanger-on housemates (Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, and Scott Green), who all want a piece of him.

Ironically, Blake humors the strangers who enter his home: two fresh-faced LDS "elders" (who talk, with unintentional foreboding, of achieving purity by sacrificing something innocent) and a Yellow Pages representative who's barely fazed by the black-nightie-clad Blake's druggy mumblings ("Success is subjective, you know?"). Two people searching for Blake (Ryan Orion and Ricky Jay, as a blasé, storytelling detective) never find him. A tortured soul surrounded by inanity and grasping for the tatters of his own coherence, Blake jerks out his death throes among the human wild, conspirators in the deadpan, black comedy portions of his last-days tragedy.

Since Blake is surrounded by tweakers who are mostly disinterested or willfully ignorant of his decline, the settings speak more loudly than the characters, making Last Days a tragedy told in the language of a dream. The elegant stone exterior of Blake's castle belies the unsettling, dessicated interior, and the timeline is fragmented to the point of unreliability (Blake's lifestyle is a viciously cyclical one: no forward movement). Van Sant's film strikes me as a sincere effort to sound an echo into Kurt Cobain's cave. Though the point is not to inspire to any literal-minded conclusions, Van Sant turns photographic art into screen poetry. Like a walk through an art gallery, Last Days invites reflection as much as appreciation.

[Click to read Groucho's interviews with Gus Van Sant and Michael Pitt.]

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