Last Days

Director    Gus Van Sant
Starring    Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento
3 stars


5th September 2005

There is one pivotal scene in Last Days that almost managed to convince me that I was watching a work of genius. Having shambled aimlessly around his deserted mansion for almost an hour of running time, mumbling incoherently to himself, stumbling from room to room pausing only to make himself cereal and something approximating macaroni and cheese, tortured musician Blake sits himself down and props himself up with a guitar. After a brief interruption, he begins to play. As he strums and sings his heart out, the man's soul explodes on to the screen, as splendid as it is rotten to the core; having barely opened his mouth thus far, his performance is like an epiphany. It's just a man, playing a guitar, but deep down, it's so much more than that.

Or so it goes. I'm not the biggest fan of experimental films; I've little to no time to invest in pictures that are weird simply for the sake of being weird and Gus Van Sant has been dabbling dangerously close to this area for some time now. First there was Elephant, based on the Columbine shooting, characterised by long, silent shots, unknown actors and largely improvised scenes. Then there was Gerry; two guys called Gerry get lost in a desert, and stay lost. That's it. No story, just beautiful cinematography with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck arguing a lot and getting hot and sweaty. Last Days continues in the same mould as Van Sant's last two pictures - it's blood-curdlingly slow, at times unwatchable but frequently and surprisingly effective.

The famously litigious Courtney Love must be wondering what the hell to do. Unmistakably based around the final few days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's tragic life, Last Days nonetheless remains a work of fiction, substituting Cobain for Blake, but keeping his trademark unkempt locks, unshaven visage and kooky taste in clothing. We watch as Blake potters around his huge, unclean mansion (Kim and Aggie would have a field day), trying to make sense of his surroundings like a child, desperate to grab hold of something with any meaning to him. The sparse moments of human contact he has come in the form of accidental meetings with his in-house hangers-on (who use him for money, notoriety and little else), although he might as well be the only man on the planet for all the good it'll do him. It's heart-breaking to watch the man fall deeper into the arena of the unwell, spiralling uncontrollably towards self-annihilation; harder still when you realise you're basically watching a true story unfold.

But this isn't a Channel Five made-for-TV dramatization of Cobain's last days - this is a Gus Van Sant film, which means long, lingering shots, minutes and minutes of silence and entire scenes seemingly without point or purpose. A minimalist approach always goes a long way to setting the right mood and is used to excellent effect here, Blake's frail figure often but a dot on screen, dwarfed by his large and empty surroundings. The languid, drifting shots complement a largely ambient soundtrack, leaving Last Days with a ghoulish, ethereal quality, rather like the calm before a storm that never materialises. Surprisingly, moments of unintentional comedy can be gleaned from Blake's isolation - watching him flee from an unwanted house guest is a treat, and his encounter with a Yellow Pages salesman (while wearing a dress and carrying a rifle) is as funny as it is faintly disturbing.

There's always the suspicion with these kinds of films that you're witnessing an Emperor's new clothes scenario i.e. you're being told to appreciate what isn't there rather than focus on what little there is. While I'm not asking for an explicit, bullet-time shotgun suicide or a Courtney love lookeylikey lurking in the shadows, if you're going to mine the tragedy that was Kurt Cobain's life then there's certainly more 'material' to use, as macabre as it may sound. Minute long panning shots of a single figure walking through a forest mumbling to himself might be your idea of entertainment, but it's not exactly mine, and you might even change your mind after 90 minutes of it. However, every time you think you've hit a wall, Van Sant manages to win you over, reveals a little more soul and keeps you watching. It's a testament to his filmmaking ability that you'll last the entire running time.

I was too young to weep for Cobain when he killed himself in '94, and I'll be too old to cry for Pete Doherty when he kicks the bucket next year, but there are plenty of people out there to whom Kurt was more than just a singer, he was an untouchable icon. Gus Van Sant is obviously one of those cats, and in Last Days he's delivered a highly personal, yet highly divisive movie that'll delight and annoy in equal measures, for both fans of Nirvana and fans of film alike. Frustrating? Inconsistent? Touched by genius? You could say the same things about Cobain himself, so maybe it's a fitting enough legacy after all.

More:  Drama  Biopic  Music
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