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While making such mainstream studio pictures as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Gus Van Sant developed a Kurt Cobain– sized case of the blahs. Those movies retained some of the director’s established motifs, including alienation, male bonding, and the eccentric mentor. Still, the filmmaker was clearly more comfortable with casting William Burroughs in such a role than with casting Robin Williams. Van Sant’s soul just wasn’t in this more conventional material—especially not in its uplifting endings.
So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the director has regained his bearings with a trilogy of terse, low-budget films that end with the death of their major characters. Gerry, Elephant, and now Last Days—the best of the three—observe young people on the verge of the void, whether through misadventure, despair, or simple bad luck. The latest of these movies is so emblematic that it even features the director’s name ambiguously above the title. Whose last days are these, anyway?
Well, Cobain’s, of course, even if the film concludes with a note that its characters are fictional. In fact, most of the players seem more real than not, and they even come outfitted with their actual names: Asia Argento as Asia, Scott Green as Scott, Nicole Vicius as Nicole, and Lukas Haas as Luke. The principal tag switch is that of Michael Pitt—The Dreamers’ lost little American in Paris—who plays a guy named Blake, a disoriented musician who wanders around his shabbily grand mansion on the edge of a forest, seeking to avoid everyone. That includes the characters named above, who constitute what might be called Blake’s anti-entourage. They don’t want to encounter him any more than he wants to meet them.
Last Days opens in the woods, where an authoritatively disheveled Blake ambles into the frame and down to a pond. He mumbles to himself, splashes in the water, urinates, builds a fire, and hums “Home on the Range.” This sequence plays like Gerry for one, with a young man wandering in the wilderness minus the buddy that Matt Damon usually requires. It turns out, however, that Blake is not in the wilderness at all but in his own back yard. And his sense of being displaced has nothing to do with location: He’s lost everywhere, even woozily preparing macaroni and cheese in his kitchen.
Although Blake is essentially alone at home, largely ignored or avoided by his housemates, Van Sant’s not-quite-minimalist script provides a stream of visitors: a Yellow Pages salesman, two Mormon missionaries, a worried record-company exec (Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), and a private detective (David Mamet fave Ricky Jay). There are also numerous phone calls, including one from a high-pitched woman who is clearly Blake’s equivalent of Courtney Love. Blake hustles to avoid some of his visitors, heading out the same back door twice in matched sequences that recall Elephant’s time-looping reprises. (Van Sant edited both films himself.) Yet none of these intruders are any more real to Blake than the Boyz II Men video during which he crumples into oblivion with exquisite languor.
Last Days has been compared to many arty rock films, from Performance to The Hours and Times. But the scenes in which Blake entertains Mr. Yellow Pages or the Mormons—pitchmen from an alternate universe—suggest A Hard Day’s Night, with a near-catatonic Blake substituting for the sardonic George Harrison. Onscreen, the 1964 Beatles borrowed abundantly from the Marx Brothers, and Van Sant’s Cobain anti-biopic also has its farcical side. Though hushed and desolate, the film is far from solemn. Doomed as he is, Blake is something of a clown, and his closing hours are a junkie burlesque. Even as the King’s Singers reappear for a dignified final-credits chorale, the film stages a concluding incident that’s pure slapstick. Just as the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” lampooned the young-death gushing of the “Teen Angel” generation, Last Days gently finds the absurdity in grunge’s doom trip.
Having already remade Psycho, Van Sant has no need to show how his protagonists die or to inspect their bloody corpses. In fact, he keeps his distance throughout, rarely showing Pitt’s face and sometimes pulling back even further as a scene progresses. Using handheld camera and natural light, cinematographer Harris Savides tracks Blake deferentially, giving pictorial form to Van Sant’s refusal to psychoanalyze his beclouded protagonist. Leslie Shatz’s sound design, which breaks most of Hollywood’s rules about balance and clarity, further pushes Blake away. Viewed through a glass darkly, his death is inevitable, not explicable.
Cobain loyalists may be offended by the two main scenes in which Pitt wields a guitar, one a noisy one-man jam and the other a folkie-blues number, “Death to Birth,” written and performed by the actor himself. It’s true that, if Cobain had written it, the latter wouldn’t have made it onto In Utero. Yet Pitt, a member of a band called Pagoda, is more credible than most actors who have played rockers over the years. He ain’t Kurt Cobain, but that’s not the point. With Blake hopelessly disconnected from the mass audience that validated him, the swagger of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be all wrong. Better to collage—as Van Sant does—Boyz II Men, feedback, and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.”
Ultimately, Last Days does present a cadaver, yet the movie joins some notable predecessors in blurring the line between life and death. Like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—whose protagonist was also named Blake—and Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues, Van Sant’s film follows the adventures of a protagonist who might very well be roaming the afterlife. The director does mark an instant in which Blake’s soul leaves his body, using a classical image that’s the most blatant touch in a film distinctive for its tact and subtlety. The narrative logic, however, doesn’t support this transfiguration. After all, from the very first moment he plods onscreen, Blake is essentially a dead man.CP