CANNES -- As tedium settles in while watching Last Days, viewers can be excused for wishing the film were called The Last Day. Writer-director Gus Van Sant calls this vacuous exercise a "meditation on the inner turmoil that engulfs a brilliant but troubled musician in the final hours of his life." As such it skips over such cinematic non-essentials as character, motivation, backstory and narrative to witness a man, apparently severely damaged by drug abuse, stumble and mumble through several days before death puts him out of his misery. The only good spin one can put on Last Days is that few films have ever deglamorized drug use so vividly.
Van Sant's name ensures the film domestic distribution, but it will get stuck in specialty venues. The film has acquired a whiff of notoriety because Van Sant claims Last Days was inspired by the 1994 suicide of Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain even while insisting the film is a work of fiction. (Which is a classic case of having it both ways.) Yet music, the one thing that might have given the film some kick, is de-emphasized, with only two songs sneaking into the picture.
Van Sant sees the film as the completion of a trilogy that encompasses Gerry (2002) and the Palme d'Or-winning Elephant (2003). What links these films, at least in Van Sant's mind, are the theme of death and the experimental styles all three embraced.
But Gerry only grew tedious following an engaging and comical first 45 minutes, after which Van Sant clearly ran out of ideas for two characters lost in a vast desert wilderness. Elephant divided audiences with its Columbine-like theme, but few would deny the film's lively shooting style, in which cameras tracked individual groups of characters over the course of a day with scenes sometimes replaying from different points of view.
But what to make of this mess? If one's idea of experimentation is a repetitive, voyeuristic, even callous scrutiny of a man coming unglued, so be it.
Van Sant is a talented filmmaker, which was evident in his first independent work, Mala Noche, and his breakthrough film, Drugstore Cowboy. After flirting with studio filmmaking, notably the impersonal and colorless Finding Forrester, Van Sant understandably wanted to return to his indie roots in these last three films. One can only hope he again finds a place for basic storytelling.
Michael Pitt plays the Cobain-like figure named Blake. The viewer must assume he is a famous rocker though two brief musical interludes show little glimmer of that talent. You must also assume that the ragged-looking hangers-on in Blake's rambling, funky two-story house in a secluded wood are more sycophants than friends.
Mostly, Blake lurches through scenes mumbling indistinctly. (At the Palais screening, one could at least read the French subtitles to get an idea of what he is saying.) In moments off camera, he apparently changes his clothes. His most striking outfit is a black slip, which he wears while clutching a rifle.
He has a few interruptions: A Yellow Pages salesman (played by a real one named Thadeus A. Thomas) shows up at the door and delivers his sales pitch as if guys in Blake's condition were part of the everyday routine. Two young and earnest Mormon missionaries turn up and deliver their sales pitch, only this is to the hangers-on, not Blake.
A private detective appears but what he intends to do were he to find Blake is unclear. This episode is an excuse for the actor playing the PI, magician/author Ricky Jay, to deliver a monologue on a bizarre tale from entertainment history. A record exec (Kim Gordon) drops in, and she is the only person who tries to rescue Blake.
Blake is hiding from everyone, in exile from his own life, though that gives a greater sense of reason to irrationality than it deserves. Blake is in too much of a stupor to be doing anything consciously. What fame or record execs or groupies or his mother once did to him to reduce him to such a pathetic wreck is left of the viewer's imagination.
Pitt is a good actor, but here, with face down or turned away from the camera much of the time and his character not in possession of his faculties, there is not much of a performance here. As it is, the Yellow Pages guy steals the show.
The film is made with low-budget simplicity. Most scenes are shot from a single angle, which not only saves on footage but also eliminates the need for editing. Background noise is allowed to filter through. Harris Savides' lighting and the decor -- no designer is listed -- make the entire house look like one vast, ill-kept rehearsal space.
Credits: Screenwriter/director/editor: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Dany Wolf
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Music consultant: Thurston Moore
Costumes: Michelle Matland
Blake: Michael Pitt
Luke: Lucas Haas
Asia: Asia Argento
Scott: Scott Green
Nicole: Nicole Vicius
Detective: Ricky Jay
Donovan: Ryan Orion
Salesman: Thadeus A. Thomas
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 97 minutes
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