'Last Days': Kurt Cobain in Thin Disguise

(Picturehouse Films - Photo By Picturehouse Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

If the grunge generation had a "Passion of the Christ" it would be Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," a meditation of almost exegetical solemnity on the death of musician Kurt Cobain. For fans who came of age with the fiercely anti-corporate sound of Nirvana, watching "Last Days" may well prove to be as powerful a communal and spiritual experience as Mel Gibson's "Passion" was for millions of Christians.

As depicted by Van Sant, Cobain -- who projected a disarming persona of integrity, independence and vulnerability even as he became a hugely successful rock star and legendary drug addict -- certainly fits the role of a Christlike figure. In a transfixing performance, the actor Michael Pitt, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cobain, portrays his alter ego as the gentle, doomed symbol of transcendence and sacrifice.

Although Van Sant has been coy about how literally he has based "Last Days" on Cobain -- a postscript says the film was "inspired" by Cobain's story -- there's never any doubt who Pitt's character, named Blake, is meant to conjure. Cobain's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994 has provoked endless beer-sodden speculation and even a malicious documentary suggesting that he was murdered by his widow, Courtney Love. Van Sant eschews such pointless theorizing, instead imagining how Cobain might have spent his final hours.

"Last Days" begins just after Blake has left a drug rehabilitation facility and returned to his Seattle mansion, an elegantly decrepit pile overlooking a placid sound that will be both his Golgotha and Calvary. Stumbling and mumbling his way through a part that never calls for a line of clear dialogue, Pitt plays Blake as something of a feral creature, wandering through the near-empty rooms of a house that he shares with a group of spacey hangers-on. The phone rings and isn't answered; at one point a salesman for the Yellow Pages shows up, mistaking Blake for the former owner of the house. The drug-addled rock star, wearing his wife's black slip and a pair of hunting boots, doesn't disabuse him, and the two engage in an absurd conversation about whether advertising in the phone book improved Blake's "business." After giving the question serious thought, the young multimillionaire on the verge of suicide concludes that success, finally, is subjective.

It's one of the few funny moments in a movie that is suffused with suffering, both physical and psychic. Hunting images, from the heraldic paintings on the walls to the boots and cap that Blake wears, run through "Last Days," and throughout the film Blake is portrayed as a creature being pursued (and he is, by a private detective played by Ricky Jay). For those interested in how far Van Sant goes in re-creating Cobain's friends and family, Love looms large here, in the form of a character named Blackie, who appears as a Shakespearean off-stage presence, shrieking into the other end of the telephone. Similarly, Blake's band mates call to cajole him into committing to some upcoming tour dates.

Between those conversations and a series of unresolved encounters with the wastrels who share Blake's house (well played by Lukas Haas, Scott Green and Asia Argento), Van Sant seems to suggest that by the time Cobain died, he was being fatally used by nearly everyone in his life. The only person who seems genuinely to care for Blake is played by Kim Gordon, as a friend who tries to persuade him to return to rehab. Gordon's husband, Thurston Moore, supervised the music for "Last Days," and their imprimatur, as co-founders of indie rock's Sonic Youth, goes a long way in giving credibility to an enterprise that might otherwise be open to accusations of exploiting Cobain's legacy.

Even though Van Sant is clearly paying homage to Cobain's purity of spirit here, the question remains of just what he's trying to accomplish in so ritualistically revisiting his death. As he did in his last film, "Elephant," which recapitulated the Columbine school shootings in a similar thinly fictionalized fashion, Van Sant is embarking on a bold narrative experiment, obsessively ruminating on the same moments over and over again, doubling back on long, uninterrupted scenes to subtly change their valence.

Regardless of how morbid you find the enterprise -- and there is something ghoulish about Van Sant's willingness to co-opt such a painful, private moment as Cobain's death -- the film is unarguably mesmerizing. Thanks in large part to Pitt's breathtaking performance, which is almost balletic in its physical expressiveness, viewers find themselves attending to each detail of Blake's final moments, trying to find a thread leading to their inevitable climax. That climax, by the way, is handled with an image that is almost painterly in its delicate, even spiritual, iconography.

As transcendent as that image is, the moments that lead up to it are almost laughable in their banality. Blake eats some Cocoa Krispies, he watches a Boyz II Men video, he listens as one of his roommates asks for advice on a demo tape, he sings and plays the guitar (Pitt, in Nirvana-sounding songs, has also managed to capture Cobain's signature plaintive yelp), he looks at the water. Whatever inner turmoil he's experiencing is left for viewers to fill in for themselves. (Van Sant deserves credit not only for handling Cobain's suicide with tact but also for referring to his heroin use obliquely but unmistakably.)

More than an exploration of Cobain's inner life, "Last Days" may be most memorable as one of the screen's best representations of celebrity sycophants, the lumpen hipsters who have such a talent for sponging off the rich and famous. Even with the right clothes and a taste for Velvet Underground, this shallow entourage recalls Kato Kaelin more than the tortured artists they're impersonating. (One philosophical quibble with "Last Days" is why, after so brilliantly eviscerating these vapid poseurs, Van Sant would give them the last word in a final sympathetic shot.)

Finally, despite all of Van Sant's narrative feints and coy protestations, the audience is left with one searing memory after seeing "Last Days," and that memory is of Cobain. Was he, as Gordon's character suggests at one point, simply a rock-and-roll cliche? Or was he a visionary genius, as the name of Pitt's character implies? Whatever the answer, "Last Days" leaves a haunting impression of a man who, even at the height of his fame and adulation, was hiding in plain sight.

Last Days (97 minutes, at Landmark E Street and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for profanity and some sexual content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company