From 2002 to 2005, director Gus Van Sant offered audiences what he called his “Death Trilogy.” 2002’s Gerry followed two friends as they got lost in the desert and it featured what appeared to be a mercy killing. 2003’s Elephant was a mediation on the Columbine High School massacre and it featured several murders. Finally, with 2005’s Last Days, Van Sant ended the trilogy with a film about a suicide.
Michael Pitt plays a world-famous musician who is suffering from depression. Though the character is named Blake, no attempt is made to disguise the fact that he is meant to be Kurt Cobain. When we first see Blake, he has just escaped from a rehab clinic and is walking through a forest. There are no other human beings around and, perhaps not coincidentally, this is the only moment in the film in which Blake seems to be happy. He even sings Home on the Range, shouting the lyrics like a little kid.
When he reaches his home, Blake’s demeanor changes. He walks around the house with a rifle and pretends to shoot the four other people — Luke (Lukas Haas), Scott (Scott Patrick Green), Asia (Asia Argento), and Nicole (Nicole Vicius) — who are sleeping in his house. Later, when those people wake up and attempt to speak to him, Blake is largely unresponsive. When a detective comes to the door and asks if anyone has seen Blake, Blake hides. When a record company exec calls to tell Blake that it’s time for him to tour again and that he’ll be letting down both his band and the label if he doesn’t, Blake hangs up on her.
Who are the people staying in Blake’s house? Luke and Scott are both musicians but apparently neither one of them are in Blake’s band. When Luke asks Blake to help him finish a song, Blake can only mutter a few vague words of encouragement. Scott, meanwhile, appears to be more interested in Blake’s money. Everyone in the film wants something from Blake but Blake wants to be alone. In the one moment when Blake actually gets to work on his own music, his talent is obvious but so is his frustration. With everyone demanding something from him, when will he ever have time to create? With everyone telling him that it is now his job to be a rock star, how will he ever again feel the joy that came from performing just to perform?
As one would expect from a Van Sant film, Last Days is often visually striking, especially in the early forest scenes. In many ways, it feels like a combination of Gerry and Elephant. Like those previous two films, it is fixated on death but stubbornly refuses to provide any answers to any larger, metaphysical questions. Like Elephant, it uses a jumbled timeline to tell its story and scenes are often repeated from a different perspective. However, it eschews Elephant‘s use of an amateur cast and instead, Last Days follows Gerry’s lead of featuring familiar actors like Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, and Asia Argento. Unfortunately, though, Last Days doesn’t work as well as either one of the two previous entries in the Death Trilogy.
Last Days runs into the same problem that afflicts many films about pop cultural icons. Kurt Cobain has become such a larger-than-life figure and his suicide is viewed as being such a momentous cultural moment that any attempt to portray it on film is going to feel inadequate. No recreation can live up to the mythology. The film itself feels as if it is somewhat intimidated by the task of doing justice to the near religious reverence that many have for Cobain. As enigmatic as Gerry and Elephant were, one could still tell that Van Sant knew where he wanted to take those films. He knew what he wanted to say and he had confidence that at least a few members of the audience would understand as well. With Last Days, Van Sant himself seems to be a bit lost when it comes to whatever it may be that he’s trying to say about Cobain. This leads to a rather embarrassing scene in which Blake’s ghost is seen literally climbing its way towards what I guess would be the immortality of being an icon. One might wonder how Cobain himself would feel about such a sentimental coda to his suicide.
Last Days is a film that I respect, even if I don’t think it really works. It does do a good job of capturing the ennui of depression and one cannot fault Van Sant for his ambition or his willingness to run the risk of alienating the audience by allowing the story to play out at its own slow and deliberate pace. But ultimately, the film cannot compete with the mythology that has sprung up around its subject.
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