Last Days

on July 22, 2005 by Sheri Linden
Dedicated to and "inspired by" Kurt Cobain, Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" is a meticulously crafted art film that eschews narrative biopic conventions. Though its account of the Nirvana frontman's final descent is fictional, the feature assumes a certain knowledge of the famous life and death and is unlikely to engage moviegoers unfamiliar with Cobain's story. With its long, contemplative stretches sans dialogue and its characters' stuttering, fuzzy rhythms, "Last Days" is one of the most honest, hyperbole-free big-screen depictions of heroin addiction.

At the beginning of the film, Blake (Michael Pitt) has just escaped from rehab. A slender, mumbling figure with a familiar mop of blond hair, he stumbles through the woods around his Seattle home and takes a dip near a waterfall. It's a hopeful image, a hint of baptismal redemption. But Blake hasn't returned home to get clean on his own terms. Van Sant never shows him or any of the story's other junkies shooting up, but the drug permeates the film in the slow-motion, disjointed rambling and perambulation of Blake and the parasitic hangers-on (Asia Argento, Lukas Haas, Scott Green) who are crashing in his stone castle.

It's not much of a fortress; Mormon proselytizers and a Yellow Pages ad salesman come knocking. The latter (Thadeus Thomas), in a comically poignant scene, delivers a low-key spiel that spurs Blake to note, "Success is subjective." The disappointing weight of success is evident in Pitt's hunched shuffle and in Harris Savides' restrained camerawork. A profound disconnect throbs in the castle's run-down interiors and the gloom of the surrounding woods (Garrison, N.Y., subs for Seattle). Characters provide indirect commentary on Blake's fate: As a detective who's far from thorough, Ricky Jay yaks about a magician's "death by misadventure." Kim Gordon plays a label executive who vainly tries to rescue Blake from himself; her penetrating gaze is accusatory and pained.

Gordon's husband, Thurston Moore, serves as music consultant on the film, which makes eloquent use of everything from clanging bells to Boyz II Men's R&B schmaltz to Blake's thrash guitar. Nirvana toured with Moore and Gordon's band, Sonic Youth, years before Cobain's success became a soul-crushing burden. Some viewers might be frustrated with the lack of exposition in "Last Days," but for those who know the saga and who appreciated Van Sant's elliptical "Elephant," it's an unblinking portrait of impenetrable sadness. Starring Michael Pitt, Asia Argento, Lukas Haas, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, Ryan Orion, Harmony Korine and Kim Gordon. Directed and written by Gus Van Sant. Produced by Dany Wolf. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 96 min

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