Kurt Cobain. It seems like even today, ten years after the fact, we still mourn the death of the unlikely rock legend. For being in the social consciousness for such a short period of time his impact cannot be denied both in terms of helping to change the face of music but also for serving as poster child for Generation X. Serving as an open homage to the last days in Cobain’s life Gus Van Sant’s portrait of fictional rocker Blake in “Last Days” is a victory for ambitious filmmaking if not always a successful attempt at character study.
Being a more intimate film along the lines of Van Sant’s last two pictures, “Elephant” and “Gerry”, “Last Days” takes its time in showing the viewer Blake (Michael Pitt) as he shuffles through his life. He and his bandmates (played by Scott Green, Asia Argento, Lukas Haas and Nicole Vicius) are holed up in a large house in the woods hiding from the outside world and the increasing pressures of an upcoming tour. While the bandmates seem content simply to hang out, Blake is restless, wandering out into the forest, donning a black dress and running around the house with an unloaded shotgun and jamming alone with the musical instruments lying around all the while mumbling incoherently to himself. Of course the hum drum nature of Blake’s life is reaching towards its inevitable conclusion but Van Sant seems less interested in the final violent act as much as the time spent leading up to and following it.
Van Sant’s new detached almost documentary approach to filmmaking along with his skewered chronology is refreshing, not only by showing an established filmmaker reinventing himself but also for the more personal stories he is allowed to tell using such a technique. However, despite Van Sant’s stylish direction and an awesome job on the part of Pitt in portraying a Cobain-like figure, “Last Days” never seems to truly engage the audience. The main obstacle in any type of biography is finding the right rhythm in representing the subject at hand. By showing Blake barely able to speak to those around him and drifting around in his own world, Van Sant’s approach to Cobain is too detached, never allowing the audience to view him as anything more than an icon. Blake has Cobain’s scruffy beard, wears the black dress, owns the shirts and sunglasses that Cobain was famous for, but never feels as if he himself is a real entity, merely an homage.
There are brief moments when “Last Days” takes off, a cameo by Ricky Jay playing a talkative detective, a surprise visit to the house by a man shilling ad space in the phone book and whenever Pitt picks up an instrument, especially during a sequence where, using a recorder, he is able to play an entire session by himself. These moments that feel so real seem to betray the rest of the film which seems like an act, what these events were supposed to feel like instead of like what they really were. Pitt disappears into the Blake role and proves his talent as an actor continuing to shine in indie fare, but one wishes that his character was asked to do more within the context of this film. Near the end of the picture, Blake is shown achieving a state of grace, it’s an unexpected, wonderful moment that feels like a cheat. We see Blake’s final fate and yet we don’t know how he got there, he is more a stranger at the end of the film than he was at the beginning.
All these years later, Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” remains a relevant cinematic classic for its ability to take a brutish thug and humanize him, allowing his plight to represent ouR own. The problem with “Last Days” is that it takes a figure that many of us could relate to already and distances him, turning him into more of a hollow symbol instead of a real person.