Movie Review: Last Days
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
When actor Michael Pitt comes wandering out of the woods in the opening scene of Gus Van Sant's new film, "Last Days," playing reclusive rock star Blake - a character who takes part of his bio from Seattle grunge legend Kurt Cobain - it's as if civilization were being put on hold. An eerie quiet takes over the screen. Branches rustle, water rushes. As this jammy pants-clad rocker, looking irretrievably stoned, staggers around, sloshes through the river and finally urinates into the water, all in a single shot, we're plunged with him into the onslaught of twilight - not just the falling night all around him, but the twilight of his soul.
It's a strange scene, harbinger of stranger scenes to come. As most of the audience probably knows from the Cobain hints in the "Last Days" publicity (the movie is said to be "inspired" by his life and is dedicated to him), that soul is soon to leave its damaged husk. This rumpled, unshaven, blond, stubbly-faced guy, muttering incomprehensibly to himself, is trapped in the film's vision of death, in Van Sant's long, long tracking shots and in an inexorable doomward trajectory.
But it's not necessarily a downer. Van Sant uses Cobain's image for a portrait of physical and moral disintegration, but he also exhilarates us with his mastery of image and sound. For the next 90 minutes, we watch Blake roam the grounds of his woodsy mansion (supposedly in Seattle but actually shot in New York at an 1891 estate called Castle Rock), and the effect is scary and lyrical.
We see Blake avoid his frowsy retinue of hangers-on and guests (Luke, Asia, Scott and Nicole, played by the like-named Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius), evade an inquisitive private eye (Ricky Jay), slough off a concerned record executive (Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth), converse with a voluble visiting Yellow Book salesman (played by actual salesman Thadeus A. Thomas), listen to twin Mormon missionaries (Adam and Andy Friberg), and finally keel over and travel up the stairway to heaven.
That's not a spoiler. There's no doubt about what will happen to Blake from the moment we first see him. The movie gains in interest if you know that all its seemingly mundane, aimless-looking scenes, its vaguely narcotic atmospherics (though no drugs are shown) are haunted by approaching death. All the while, as we eavesdrop, the camera follows its wandering junkie star: disengaged, almost voiceless except when he picks up his guitar and makes it suddenly wail, shriek and moan with the pent-up emotion he doesn't express any other way.
Van Sant says the movie is not a Cobain bio-drama but a film inspired by Cobain's life - and especially his last days and hours - and anyone looking for the musician's story or Nirvana's music will be disappointed. "Last Days" bears the same relationship to an actual attempt at film biography that Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" bears to a biography of Lincoln. Instead of facts, hagiography or factoids, it gives us a dream of a hero dying. It's an elegy, a lament, a largely homoerotic poem of love and death.
This is no exhaustive bombastic career-cover like Oliver Stone's "The Doors" or Taylor Hackford's "Ray," packed with historic moments and greatest hits. (Indeed, the soundtrack is layered with 16th century madrigals by Jancquin, Hildegard Westerkamp's musique concrete and some rock by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Boys II Men and Pitt himself.)
Instead, "Last Days," with a style that almost suggests surveillance-camera neutrality, shows us the stuff hidden from the public and even from Blake's entourage - or as Van Sant calls them, the "rabbits," so named for their timidity and horniness. (At one point, Blake actually dresses up as Elmer Fudd for "wabbit-hunting.") Empty-seeming and smashed as Blake himself, this is a drama about what happens when the music's over - or nearly over.
For some, it will be an infuriating picture, because it so stubbornly excludes most of the things an average audience expects from a movie about a rock star. But in many ways, that's its strength. Pitt, who played a transvestite superstar in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and a young American in '60s revolutionary Paris in Bertolucci's "The Dreamers," does a remarkably self-abasing job. Avoiding self-projection, swallowing up his entire performance like a snake devouring its tail, he manages to suggest, in his shriveled mutter-monologues, what Blake once was and why he can't go on a minute more.
"Last Days" - like Van Sant's last two defiantly non-mainstream, somewhat homoerotic art movies, 2002's "Gerry" and the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning "Elephant" (2003) - seems a little bit in love with death. Eventually, the spooky lyricism of the style takes over. As executed by cinematographer Harris Savides, the long shots in "Last Days" replace cuts, jumps and all the frenetic editing and angle-switching that Hollywood has made into an international film language.
These protracted tracking shots and unbroken camera takes are part of the extreme style of some of the major European and Asian art film directors of today, including Greece's Theo Angelopoulos, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien and Van Sant's admitted inspiration, Hungary's Bela Tarr ("Satantango," "Damnation"). Van Sant, like Tarr and the others, doesn't coerce us. He tries to blend realism with feeling and fantasy, and within these long takes, both naturalistic-looking and highly theatrical, the directors and actors breathe in an alternative world.
They die in it as well. The biography Van Sant gives us here is as much his own (in his post-"Drugstore Cowboy" affluence) or that of the late actor River Phoenix (who starred in Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"), or any young counterculture drug casualty he may lament. For Van Sant, Blake has a certain heroism because, for all his raging inner talent, he doesn't choose to win and live. Even if that philosophy is suicidal, the poetry of "Last Days" has a stoned grandeur.
Directed, written and edited by Gus Van Sant; photographed by Harris Savides; art direction by Tim Grimes; music by Michael Pitt, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Boyz II Men, Jancquin, Hildegard Westerkamp and Rodrigo Lopresti; music consultant Thurston Moore; sound design by Leslie Schatz; produced by Dany Wolf. An HBO Films release; opens Friday, Aug. 12. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (language and some sexual content).
Blake - Michael Pitt
Luke - Lukas Haas
Asia - Asia Argento
Scott - Scott Green
Nicole - Nicole Vicius
Detective - Ricky Jay
Guy in Club - Harmony Korine
Elder Friberg No. 15 - Adam Friberg
Elder Friberg No. 25 - Andy Friberg
Yellow Book salesman - Thadeus A. Thomas