Last Days is the third instalment in a triptych (thus far) of experimental films by writer/director Gus Van Sant on the subject of doomed youth. The first of these films, Gerry, was a fictionalised account of a true story about a young man who confessed to murdering his best friend after they managed to get lost in the middle of nowhere. Elephant, which followed, was part-fictionalised account of the Columbine high-school killings, and part-homage to the late British film-maker Alan Clarke, taking the title of his film about the Northern Ireland shootings in the 1970s and borrowing a style that relied heavily upon the use of the Steadicam. Last Days is a fictionalised account of the final days of grunge icon Kurt Cobain, the gifted and highly influential singer/guitarist/songwriter/junkie and rock’n’roll suicide who blasted out the back of his head with a shotgun at the tender age of 27.

Although ostensibly a film about Cobain, the central character hidden behind the woolly jumpers, shades and lank blond hair is re-named Blake, and the film features no gigs, on-screen drug-taking or music by Nirvana. Instead, as with the two preceding films, Van Sant adopts a low-key approach to his subject matter that mostly eschews dialogue, music and conventional narrative in favour of something more abstract and - dare I say it? - poetic.

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For an hour and a half, we watch Blake mutter and mumble incoherently to himself as he staggers around his dilapidated stately home and its grounds, attempts to cook himself some revolting-looking food, gets into a dress and cradles a shotgun as if it were a comfort blanket or teddy bear. The house’s other inhabitants, a group of feckless musicians, leeches and hangers-on – presumably Blake’s guests – mill about in comas of their own like soulless satellites, either unconscious of, or indifferent to, their host’s fragile state of mind. Although there are narrative scenes (a Yellow Pages representative comes to the door, followed – or preceded? – by two proselytisers for a Christian cult and Kim Gordon’s record exec.), they function less as conventional building blocks in a developing story than as self-contained snapshots that dramatise Blake and the others’ increasing remoteness from the outside world.

No attempt is made by Van Sant to explore his tormented protagonist or to explain his final act, and cinema-goers expecting a character-study will be disappointed. There are vague hints and suggestions as to why Blake feels the need to cocoon himself in a fog of heroin and finally abandon planet Earth entirely. The pushy Yellow Pages rep as the face of exploitative capitalism perseveres with his pitch despite Blake’s obvious incapacity to take responsibility for his own decisions. The glossy pop promo on the television and a fellow musician’s turgid monologue about a song detailing a vacuous sexual conquest both showcase the stark emotional banality of a music industry that Nirvana set out to destroy, but which, in a cruel irony, co-opted them with a vengeance. His friends, or acquaintances, or whatever they are, are depicted as shallow and fickle, and he finds that even venturing out incognito doesn’t prevent him from being recognised and accosted by unwanted admirers.

But on the whole, the lack of dialogue and disinterested shooting style deliberately discourage any explicit attempt at either explanation or understanding. Although Van Sant and his cinematographer Harris Savides occasionally employ the Steadicam they used so prevalently on Elephant, most of the action (or, more accurately, the inaction) in Last Days is shot using lengthy unbroken wide shots rather than the close-ups that directors traditionally use to establish audience identification. Yet, despite this, the film is neither cold nor alienating. Rather, Van Sant presents us with a quietly humanistic film that is both a eulogy to a lost soul and an expressionistic portrait of loneliness, alienation and despair of which Blake is just one impenetrable component.

If all of this sounds mind-bendingly tedious on paper, it’s surprising just how engrossing it is in practice. Speaking as someone who found Elephant’s studied blankness both self-indulgent and self-defeating, I was expecting to be similarly frustrated. But Last Days is a far more atmospheric piece of work. The damp cavernous interior of the house with its grotty kitchen, filthy toilets and peeling wallpaper adds to an overbearing sense of decay that pervades the film and its characters. The film’s colour palette is almost exclusively muted greens and browns (punctuated by portentous bright reds) and, although we never see any of the characters actually taking drugs, their inebriated states and rotting environment add to a pervasive sense of decadent collapse (reinforced by the use of The Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs) – lives teetering on the edge of the abyss; twilight in a near-deserted Babylon.

However, the film succeeds partly because it doesn’t dwell on these more sordid elements and refuses to engage in either navel gazing or self-pity. By avoiding the more sensational scenes of drug abuse or an on-screen depiction of Blake’s final act of self-annihilation, Van Sant instead produces a mood piece sustained by a kind of strange, desperate beauty. His skilful manipulation of sound design and strange, elliptical use of time (only fitfully successful in Elephant) here produces a dreamlike experience of the narrative’s events, confusing their order and significance as scenes slide into one another as if in a disorientating opiate-fuelled haze.

The film has its minor flaws. The casting of Kim Gordon is irritatingly self-referential and perfunctory, and the final shot of Blake’s naked soul leaving his corpse is pretentious and, in the context of what has preceded it, both faintly silly and dismayingly conventional. But overall, Last Days is by far the most successful of Van Sant’s last three films, and his most satisfying picture in a long time.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2005
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The final hours of a rock legend.
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Read more Last Days reviews:

Paul Allen ***1/2

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Ricky Jay, Kim Gordon

Year: 2005

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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