Last Days (2005)

"Extraordinary"

Last Days (2005) Review


Completing a stylistic and thematic trilogy begun with 2003's Gerry and Elephant (and inspired by the work of Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr), Last Days finds director Gus Van Sant once again engaging in breathtaking experimentation with sound, image, and content. Just as Elephant was modeled after, but not a faithful depiction of, the Columbine high school shootings, so Van Sant's latest - charting the final hours of a reclusive, iconic rock star in his remote country mansion - is simultaneously about and not about Kurt Cobain, a hypothetical rumination on the deceased musician that shares with his preceding films a hypnotic sense of time and space, as well as a fascination with the prosaic moments proceeding death. Having turned his back on the staid narrative conventions of formulaic Hollywood dramas (including his own Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting), Van Sant now embraces an avant-garde aesthetic concerned with finding truth through non-linear storytelling and a focus on environmental tone and texture, both of which are employed as a means of placing viewers in a particular physical and emotional "space." And with Last Days, this unorthodox filmmaking achieves a state of sublime cinematic nirvana.

"Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I'm bored and old," sang Cobain on Nirvana's Serve the Servants, and one can feel that infectious malaise throughout Van Sant's portrait of Blake (Michael Pitt), a grungy icon living out what a friend (Kim Gordon) dubs "a rock and roll cliché." Donning Cobain accoutrements such as a hunter's cap and a green-and-red sweater and sporting shoulder-length blond hair, Blake spends the film sleepwalking around his backwoods home and property with a mixture of drug-addled bewilderment and spiritual melancholy, and Pitt embodies this wayward soul - whose rambling exploits involve wearing a black spaghetti-strap dress and toting a rifle - with a hunched, drooping-to-the-floor sagginess (as if under tremendous strain) that's at odds with the actor's slender physique. His constantly incomprehensible muttering, such as during an amusing, chance encounter with a telephone book salesman (where the only audible Blake line is telling: "Success is subjective"), echoes Cobain's frequently indecipherable lyrics while also conveying a torturous emotional detachment. Trapped in Van Sant's constrictive full frame (employed to heighten the oppressive claustrophobia gripping the character), Pitt's Blake is a zombie who, as revealed by the film's opening scene - finding him symbolically baptizing himself in a tree-shrouded lake, and later whispering and then roaring "Home on the Range" to the empty nighttime forest - desperately seeks communion with the world around him.

Religion is an ever-present, if peripheral, manifestation throughout Last Days (including choral singing and church bells that bookend the movie, the appearance of Mormon proselytizers and a ghostly out-of-body ascension to heaven), though as with so much of Van Sant's elliptical film, the exact reason for such iconography - which threatens to go too far in casting Blake as a tragic, saintly figure - wisely remains elusive. The more persistent thematic focus, however, is on the contentious relationship between image and reality. As a private detective searching for Blake, Ricky Jay tells a story about a professional rivalry between a Chinese magician and a two-bit imposter, the latter of whom proved ultimately triumphant. A tale of style over substance, this anecdote is complemented by the preceding juxtaposition of Boyz 2 Men's "On Bended Knee" video with Blake's miserable, slow-motion collapse, a contrast of saccharine, marketing-approved insincerity and authentic emotional turmoil that - via Van Sant's placement of the video-displaying television on a marble pedestal - hints that Blake's suicidal despondence has been sparked (or at least exacerbated) by the growing cultural exaltation of entertainment industry spuriousness.

For the most part, though, Van Sant remains oblique about the reasons for his protagonist's torment, pointing to a clique of selfish, parasitic friends whose loyalty extends only as far as Blake's patronage and studio execs who, in a phone call with an unresponsive Blake, demand that their client follow through with upcoming tour plans. An aura of confusion permeates the film, from a homosexual tryst between Scott Green's Scott and Lukas Haas' Luke (the latter of whom has just previously discussed his torrid one-night tryst with a beautiful woman) to Van Sant's repetition of certain scenes in slightly different forms, a narrative doubling-back that adds further chaos to the already hazy proceedings. And in its most mesmerizing moment, Blake - circumscribed by bookshelves, a table and a drumkit in a corner of the screen - performs a Nirvana-esque song (chorus: "It's a long, lonely journey from death to birth") that makes up for its musical mediocrity through the force of Pitt's recital (hunched over guitar, face obscured by his dangling locks) as well as the song's familiar progression from quiet to loud, culminating in a pained scream that functions as the singer's distraught attempt at cathartic rebellion against pervasive disorder.

Once again collaborating with cinematographer Harry Savides (who worked on both Gerry and Elephant), Van Sant shoots much of the film in languorous single takes, creating a contemplative mood of mystery that's heightened by his camera's regular position behind the ambulatory Blake as he traverses his estate. The director's refusal to succumb to moviemaking conventions (three-act plot structure, character development, a widescreen aspect ratio) is, in the end, an act of revolt not unlike Cobain's music, which - from the simple, blistering opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the plaintive sparseness of "All Apologies" - shunned, and sought to make obsolete, the mundane rules of contemporary rock. Of course, Cobain's primal, back-to-basics sonic assault was eventually co-opted by second-rate imitators who distorted and misappropriated his sound for a slew of Top 40 atrocities, a fate unlikely to befall Van Sant's eccentric moviemaking. But with the transfixing Last Days, the director nonetheless proves himself a kindred spirit of Cobain's by channeling the former Nirvana frontman's anti-status quo attitude into a work of art that fully embraces the term "alternative."

Smells like Prell.



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