It has been 11 years since Kurt Cobain, frontman of the grunge band Nirvana, was found in his Seattle home with his body full of heroin and his face blown off. His melodic, punk-influenced songs had sold more albums and attracted more fame and than he or any of the band ever dreamed of – or wished for.
“It’s a long, lonely journey from death to birth,” sings the rocker Blake (Michael Pitt) near the end of his life in director Gus Van Sant’s newest film, Last Days, an investigation of the demise of a Cobain-like star. While it is a nonjudgmental, non-exploitative film, it is often as dreary to watch as that lyric suggests.
A Not-So-Coincidental Resemblance
R for language, sexual content
Van Sant, of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester fame, makes many odd choices in this film. Actor Michael Pitt (The Village), with his stringy blond hair and shambling attitude, could have stood in for Cobain at a concert and left many fans none the wiser. Does Van Sant harbor an obsession with Cobain that he wanted to explore in this film? Even one of the film’s final shots, of Blake’s sneaker-clad foot, resembles the post-mortem image of Cobain’s foot that was shown around the world after his death.
What Last Days does not include is a scenery-chewing spouse on the order of Cobain’s wife, rocker-actress Courtney Love, who shared his affinity for heroin and who many people believe had a hand in his death. Van Sant seems to ask, in the absence of an external cause of death, how could someone at the pinnacle of fame and fortune kill himself? The filmmaker’s answer points not just to the young man’s self- and drug-induced derangement but also to the isolating effects of fame and fortune.
At the beginning of the film, Blake clomps through the woods, mumbling to himself. He hangs his shirt and pants on a branch and plunges into a river pool, later building a fire to dry himself out. It is then we see the hospital bracelet: he has evidently escaped. His shuffling walk makes his progress seem aimless, but when he arrives at an old stone castle he goes into the greenhouse and emerges with a shovel that he applies to some ground outside a window, behind which a couple sleeps.
Inside the castle’s grimy, peeling kitchen, Blake puts the box he has unearthed, still in its Ziploc bag, under running water. He pours himself a bowl of cereal, putting the Cocoa Krispies box in the refrigerator and leaving the milk on the counter. We never see what’s in the box he dug up, but his subsequent episodes of stupor leave no doubt that he retrieved his heroin stash.
Alone Again, Unnaturally
Despite the presence of other band members and their girlfriends in the massive, decrepit house, Blake is almost completely alone. Blake’s isolation makes it clear that he is the star of the show here: people avoid him, tiptoe around him, second-guess him, talk at him, ask for help or money, or demand his decisions; if Blake responds at all he mumbles from behind his curtain of shoulder-length hair. One of his band members, Luke (Lukas Haas, Witness) asks him for help with some lyrics he’s working on, but is maddeningly pulled away by another before any interaction can take place. The longest conversation anyone has with him is when Thadeus Thomas, a Yellow Pages salesman, sits down with Blake to ask whether he wants to update last year’s advertisement for a locomotive parts business.
“Was your ad successful last year?” asks the mannered salesman.
“Well, success is subjective,” murmurs Blake, dressed in a woman’s black slip and combat boots, drifting in and out of consciousness.
It becomes tempting to read a lot into exchanges like this one because the dialogue is so spare throughout. A pair of Mormons, both called Elder Friberg, stops at the castle to spread the word about Jesus, one of them awkwardly recites his script, saying, “By killing – by sacrificing – something pure, you become pure yourself.” It is impossible not to feel foreboding at this line, not to wonder whether the band may be sacrificing this sensitive soul to preserve something they want for themselves. When a guy named Donovan shows up with a private investigator (Ricky Jay), the P.I. is brimming with esoteric chatter, first about a magician whose demise is ruled “death by misadventure.” Shortly thereafter he picks up a die that is crystallizing, observing, “After a while this will just implode.” That’s exactly what Blake seems to be doing in the brief time covered by this film.
The Sounds of Silence
One of the elements of the film that works well is the sound and score. Most films about rock stars are peppered with songs that are included on the accompanying soundtrack. In Last Days, however, the music is decidedly absent; instead we hear the chirpings of forest life and the sound of Blake’s feet crashing through brush, trains and cars, doors squeaking, water dripping, and church bells and choirs.
The music we do hear often seems random but has relevant echoes: in his drugged haze, Blake turns on the TV, where a smooth soul video features Boyz II Men asking, “Can somebody tell me how to get things back they used to be?” in the song On Bended Knee. The bended knee image recurs when a bandmate puts on a Velvet Underground record, singing along with Lou Reed’s Venus in Furs: “I am tired, I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years…. Severin, Severin, speak so slightly/Severin, down on your bended knee.” When Blake picks up instruments (Pitt wrote the songs he performs), he becomes more articulate than at any other time in the film.
The rest of the time it’s all shuffling and mumbling. Blake murmurs phrases like “can’t do anything,” “do me any favors,” “being treated as if I’m a fuckin’ criminal.” A woman shows up (Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth) and asks him, “Are you free? Are you free enough to play that guitar? Have you talked to your daughter? Do you say, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a rock and roll cliché?’ You can go now. It would be easy. There’s a car. No one’s here. If you stay here, you’re just gonna….” Blake can’t answer, and as she turns and walks out the door we know that the end of her sentence won’t be a happy one.
This is our first hint that Blake has significant others, and the next scene shows Blake in his daughter’s old room, holding a tiny shoe and then one of a new litter of baby kittens. Neither the daughter nor the kittens reappear.
Out of Time
Some odd time sequencing is another of Van Sant’s inexplicable choices in this film. In one scene, Asia (Asia Argento) wakes up and, in the dissipated style that characterizes all of the people in the house, she goes downstairs with nothing on her lower half when she realizes Blake is in the house. She opens a door, and he slumps over. Later, we see the same scene, but from the other side of the door just before Asia opens it. This time Asia wrestles Blake back into a sitting position before she goes out.
Another scene shows band members Scott and Luke and their girlfriends arriving home. Scott puts on the Velvet Underground record while the women grope each other. Luke is in the music room asking Blake to listen to a song he is working on when Scott comes in and pulls Luke away. Scott and Luke go upstairs, Scott insisting to a skeptical Luke that Blake just wants to be left alone, just before the two fall onto the bed together to have sex. Later, we come back to the same scene, but this time starting with Blake in the kitchen making macaroni and cheese when Scott sings along with the Velvet Underground LP in the next room. Blake goes into the music room, eating and listening to Luke’s story behind the song he is trying to write, when Scott comes in and pulls Luke away, leaving Blake alone again.
Every scene culminates in Blake’s loneliness. He is unmoored and cut off from everyone around him, unable to act or think clearly. When his dead body is found in the greenhouse, his ghost gets up out of his body and climbs an invisible stairway (to heaven, one can only hope). Even after his death, the people around him distance themselves from him. When they learn that Blake is dead, the other members of his band and one of the girlfriends decide to drive to L.A., knowing they may be implicated in his death for having bought the drugs that likely killed him.
As a meditation on the deadening effects of stardom and self-destruction, Van Sant’s film Last Days is chilling and thought-provoking. But oppressive dreariness permeates the hour-and-a-half stumble toward death of the Kurt Cobain-inspired rock star.