With Last Days
, which is "loosely inspired" by the end of Kurt Cobain’s life, Gus Van Sant concludes his "death" triptych. The three uber-minimalist films – which also include Gerry
and the Columbine-inspired Elephant
– could just as easily be subtitled "Essays in American Isolation: Social, Physical, Emotional" (or perhaps "The Contemporary Film Cycle That Launched a Thousand Dissertations"). The three films have been seen as the once ardently arthouse director’s return to form after a dalliance with studio filmmaking (if the unfairly maligned Good Will Hunting
is where Van Sant danced with the devil, its egregious followup, Finding Forrester
, is where he plumb signed away his soul). And it’s an aggressive return, at that: The three films don’t just confound studio filmmaking, they freeze out conventional storytelling techniques altogether. Like its predecessors, Last Days
is aesthetically gorgeous, strenuously unsentimental, and maddeningly opaque. Nothing much happens in the last days of a thinly fictionalized mumbling rock star named Blake (The Dreamers
’ Pitt). He wanders through the woods. He pisses in a stream. He makes mac and cheese and avoids the hangers-on who use his house as their personal playpen. He puts on a slip dress and a hunting cap and tramps around with a rifle (Van Sant even flies in the face of Chekhov’s famous maxim – the suicidal shot is never seen or heard). In fact, Blake’s death might not even be gunshot-related; it could just as easily be drug overdose, although drug use, too, is something Van Sant never shows. One wonders if the film would work at all if the viewer didn’t bring to the experience a previous understanding of Cobain, and even then the film is a baffler: It plucks biographical facts from Cobain’s real life, but captures none of his charisma and very little of his complexity. Granted, these are the "last days," and one might argue that, by then, all that was left was an addled incoherent. Working within those parameters, Pitt gives a brilliant, near-wordless performance. He looks on the world with the deeply ponderous gaze common to the very young and the very stoned; it is in these physical tics – in the marionette-like jerk of his gait and in his slow, junkie-slumps in and out of consciousness – that we may glean any understanding of the character. I sense Van Sant’s hands-off approach – even the camera trails behind at a polite distance – is borne out of a deep respect for Cobain. There seems to be a sort of wariness to say too much, a reluctance to presume who the man was and what was going on in his head. But in the absence of any narrative, we are left to scrutinize, even fetishize, an act as banal as the making of macaroni and cheese. It makes for an uncomfortable, vaguely dirty feeling, considering the cult of personality that engulfed the singer – a complex that, one might argue, made his fans complicit in his death. It’s unclear if Van Sant intends to inspire guilt; here, as elsewhere, he is exasperatingly abstruse. And in this striving to not say too much, he ends up not saying much of anything at all.