Indie Classics: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days
Although Gus Van Sant’s Last Days is very clearly based on the story of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain, it really could be anyone’s story. As his record exec asks him when discussing whether he has been in touch with his daughter, “Do you say, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a rock and roll cliche’?” And that’s truly all that Blake (played by Michael Pitt of recent Boardwalk Empire fame) is in the end. In this artistically shot fictional mini-biopic, Van Sant takes the audience along for a heart-breakingly personal ride through the final days of a talented young rock star’s short life.
Drug-addled, burned out, exhausted, jaded by the fame “machine,” and used by his friends and acquaintances, Blake spends the last days and hours of his life in the fog of heroin and depression. He spends his time avoiding all of the people looking for him (all of whom want something, be it money or songwriting help, from him), stumbling through the woods, and nodding off in unusual positions/places from excessive drug use. Although, from the title of the film and the common-knowledge status of Cobain’s suicide, the climax of the story comes as no surprise, Van Sant does a masterful job of creating a consistent tension and giving a fresh, flushed out perspective on a well-known story that remains largely a mystery.
I loved the camerawork in this film; it framed the story and created the mood perfectly. I was not at all surprised to discover that the film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for its cinematography. Due to the film’s sparse dialogue, most of the story was created and developed by the shots. In particular, I felt that the wide shots of Blake alone in the woods were extremely effective in amplifying his growing feeling of isolation. Rather than dialogue, the film mainly relied on its soundtrack which I felt was very carefully crafted to tell the story and place it in a specific identifiable time and scene. Michael Pitt gave an admirable performance, getting into the role to such an extent that he lost a significant amount of weight in order to look more like a heroin addict. He was a dead ringer for Cobain looks-wise, the costuming was impeccably 90s grunge, and he even contributed two original compositions to the soundtrack and played the guitar live on camera.
I was initially worried that the film might be a little bit gratuitous in its portrayal of drug use and suicide-by-rifle. However, it was quite the opposite. It would have been easy for Van Sant to go for the cheap shock value that comes with showing everything, but he went the artistic and more difficult route. He never showed explicit drug use instead choosing to portray it through Blake’s behavior and the suicide is not shown on camera. I found it very admirable and impressive that he got his story across effectively without making anything too obvious.
My only complaints with or criticisms for this film would be issues of volume and pacing. The little dialogue the film had was extremely quiet and often wedged between wailing guitar licks and other equally loud music. The contrast caused me to be constantly changing the volume on my TV which detracted a little bit from the film. The pace of the film was a little slow for me and I felt that a shorter, quicker version (maybe an hour instead of an hour and a half) could have been equally poignant.
All things considered, I enjoyed Last Days and would recommend it as worth watching to anyone who’s a fan of Nirvana, Cobain, Van Sant, Pitt, the 90s grunge scene, or really anyone who enjoys stylistically compelling camerawork. Also, for anyone who’s familiar with indie writers/directors, keep an eye out for the random Harmony Korine cameo.