This is the third in Gus Van Sant’s series of minimalist films, and it’s by far the weakest of the lot. Compared to the masterful “Gerry” and “Elephant,” “Last Days” is disappointingly flat. Since its narrative mirrors the suicide of Kurt Cobain (the end titles are careful to say that the script was “inspired by” Cobain’s death rather than based on it), the picture may attract Nirvana devotees for that reason alone. But they’re likely to be as bored as Van Sant fans will be.
From one perspective, the overall trilogy can be interpreted as a reverie on adolescent fantasy. In “Gerry,” the story of two young men who get lost in the desert, one of them seems to mature beyond his buddy (his juvenile self, perhaps) and effectively leaves him (or his adolescent life) behind. In “Elephant,” a hypnotic take on the Columbine shootings, adolescent fantasies aren’t outgrown but are instead acted out with devastating results. In “Last Days” we’re given a portrait of person who’s effectively destroyed by being trapped in the ultimate adolescent fantasy–enormous success as a rock star. So far, so good. The problem is that while “Gerry” and “Elephant,” each in its own way, managed to universalize their themes through a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory style, this film seems merely repetitive; it lacks either the cool jocularity of the first or the awful lyricism of the second, and finds nothing to replace them with but a doggedly grungy view of the perpetually disheveled, obsessively reclusive Blake (Michael Pitt) wandering about his ramshackle wilderness estate, mumbling incoherently to himself and determinedly avoiding any of the business-driven associates who periodically call him about a planned tour or drive out to see him in person. He’s not exactly alone; a few hangers-on, most notably a lanky fellow named Luke (Lucas Haas), his girlfriend Asia (Asia Argento) and a wannabe musician (Scott Green), are also resident, and there are occasional visitors, most notably a telephone ad salesman (Thadeus A. Thomas) who mistakes Blake for a customer and two Mormon missionaries (Adam and Andy Friberg) who have a conversation with Luke. (There’s also a woman, played by Nicole Vicius, who briefly turns up to encourage Blake to clean up his act.) But nothing that happens illuminates the central character or his emotional and intellectual state (or his fate). And the occasional bits of religious imagery seem utterly extraneous; indeed, the last of them, which shows the dead Blake’s “soul” literally climbing to some higher plane, comes across as jaw-droppingly silly.
Within this unrewarding context the performances are strictly functional. Pitt certainly looks convincingly forlorn, and (as in “The Dreamers”) shows himself willing to do pretty much anything asked of him. But in his hands Blake is far from an interesting figure, and not a particularly sympathetic one either. (It certainly doesn’t help that his dirty blond locks frequently obscure his face.) Haas and Green have a few decent moments, and Mamet favorite Ricky Jay gets some actual dialogue as a detective called in by Blake’s business asspciates to find him, but Argento is largely wasted. Non-pros Thomas and the Fribergs are amusingly amateurish. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides have undoubtedly gotten the look they wanted, but it has nothing like the evocative appearance of “Gerry” and “Elephant.” Even the soundtrack, which mingles a couple of new songs–neither of any real distinction–with some classical compositions–is relatively drab.
“Last Days” is thus no more successful on the surface than it is beneath it. While the two earlier installments in the director’s trilogy were also minimalist and (to some maddeningly) circuitous, both of them had an elegiac dreaminess that gave the bare-bones material a woozy but palpable profundity. But here Van Sant hasn’t found a means of deepening the premise he initially establishes, and his film bores and irritates rather than entrancing us as its predecessors did.