How is it that between “Kurt & Courtney” – Nick Broomfield’s 1998 tabloid conspiracy about the nefarious forces that pushed Kurt Cobain to kill himself (or did he?) – and “Last Days” – Gus Van Sant’s sumptuously shot and reverent fictional meditation on the end of Cobain’s life – it is Van Sant’s film, and not the clownish Broomfield’s, that seems by far the more exploitative? Maybe it’s because Broomfield was just playing detective, trying to piece together a murder mystery where there was just sadness and disappointment, while Van Sant appears to be digging up the dead for no great purpose or effect.
In theory, “Last Days” is only inspired by Cobain, and to be true, it does make a lot of concessions; after all, that dirty blonde druggie rock star who looks and dresses like Cobain wandering around his big house in the Pacific Northwest-looking woods, avoiding his band members and feared wife, and strumming out a song that sounds like something off Nirvana Unplugged – he’s actually named Blake, you see the difference? From what we can piece together from the few scraps of information thrown our way, Blake (Michael Pitt) is a pretty famous rocker who should be getting ready to go on a three-month tour – as his business associates desperately try to remind him when they finally get him on the phone – but he’s rather stagger through the woods and his falling-down castle of a house, talking to himself.
A good part of the film is just the camera (expertly wielded by Harris Savides, who’s shot all of Van Sant’s recent work, as well as a couple of Fincher’s better films) tracking along with Blake on his wanderings, there when he nods off into a junkie daze, there when he performs the seemingly impossibly complex task of making macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile the sound design (also phenomenally done) keeps us off-guard with seemingly random irruptions of nonsensical noise – church bells, gurgling water, choirs – that seem to be drifting in from another dimension almost. There are others in the house, too, a raggy quartet of grungers who must be his bandmates and their girlfriends, but they mostly act like Blake isn’t even there. The outside world keeps trying to bust in, from Mormon missionaries stopping in for a chat, to a record executive (Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, doing a bad job of hiding her amateur actress status) telling Blake to stop acting like “a rock ‘n’ roll cliché” and a private investigator (Ricky Jay, trying to keep the somnolent affair alive by telling stories) hired by Blake’s wife snooping around. It’s as though Blake is already dead, nobody can find him, and even those that do can barely get a word out of him. The only time Blake comes alive is when he plays a song, a ghostly howl of blues that sounds like his soul ripping in two.
Of course, the song registers the way it does because it sounds like Nirvana. We watch what Blake is doing because he looks and acts like Cobain (only prettier). While it’s no shock that Van Sant can be a problematic director, he’s often at his best when pushing the envelope. But the mastery and promise of his last film, the uncompromising “Elephant,” whose naturalistic scope seems at first to be echoed in “Last Days” (at least in its thrilling visual and aural texture), is wholly squandered by this pointless twaddle. “Elephant” succeeded in large part because Van Sant seemed to just set up the scenario and step out of the way, letting things unfold at their natural pace. Here, he seems to have taken the raw material of Cobain’s sad end, fictionalized it just enough to get rid of what he didn’t like, and tried to fashion a work of chic, ugly beauty, with Blake his ragged angel (there’s enough religious symbolism here to choke on). What we are left with is less art than a joyless exercise in poorly conceived perversity.