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.

Continue reading: Last Days (2005) Review