So many nights I dream of you,
Holding my pillow tight.
— Boyz II Men, “On Bended Knee”
A mediation on sadness, desire, and lack of direction, Last Days seems almost to stretch out its minutes. Its rhythms are deliberate, its images lyrical (courtesy of superb cinematographer Harris Savides), its mood alternately somber and droll. While the film moves slowly, its subject is strangely urgent, for you know from the start that this is Gus Van’s Sant’s much anticipated interpretation of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. And so you know that the vulnerable, mumbling Blake (played by the androgynous, tender-faced Michael Pitt) will soon be dead. It’s only a matter of time.
And yet the film is less depressing than quietly romantic, more emotionally elusive than morally judgmental. For some viewers, this approach to the legend of Cobain will be frustrating, even boring. But it’s of a piece with Van Sant’s previous two films, Gerry (two young men lost in a desert) and Elephant (an oblique consideration of the Columbine High School shootings). That is, Last Days‘ lack of plot and dialogue, lyrical long takes, and smoothly mobile frames all indicate Blake’s internal state. Increasingly dislocated from what appears a generic “rock musician’s” existence, he seems almost to float through the film, apart from those characters with whom he comes into brief contact.
As the film opens, Blake has wandered off from the rehab center (his hospital bracelet still on his wrist), and is making his way through the woods to his Pacific Northwest home. The camera follows along behind him or tracks slowly just before him, remaining at just enough distance that his face — covered in long blondish hair — remains obscured. At “home,” a large stone mansion surrounded by huge trees, shrouded in shadows even during daylight, Blake stumbles through hallways and cavernous rooms, avoiding encounters with his Luke (Lukas Haas) and Scott (Scott Green), who spend their own hours sleep, party, and impress their girlfriends, Asia (Asia Argento) and Nicole (Nicole Vicius). They’re just as glad not to face Blake, who carries with him a guitar or a shotgun (sometimes both), wearing a series of outfits that recall Cobain’s favorites — a woman’s slip, frayed striped sweater, faded jeans, flannel shirt, and fuzzy-hooded jacket.
The film works by repetition and fragmentation (again, like Elephant), with moments revisited from different angles: one scene first takes place in a living room, then repeats, with similar character interactions and added dimensions, but in the kitchen. Last Days further resists linear narrative by using ellipsis, leaving out as much as it shows, offering only hints at how a scene might tell a story.
When Blake reaches his house, he immediately sets to digging in the back yard, where he’s buried a cigar box full of drugs. This image appears from a distance, through an upstairs bedroom window. Asia and Scott slumber peacefully, and a small tv by the window shows a karate instructional, the figures going through their forms and kicks in deliberate, detached fashion. The precise loop among these images is unclear, even as the frame waits and watches for an extended moment: the sleeping leads to the schooling tv which leads to the digging which leads to the sleeping, and on. What to make of these activities in relation to each other? What are you seeing here?
Similarly, Blake’s interactions with others and efforts to comprehend the media that pervades his/your existence appear indirectly meaningful (like art, like communication). When a Yellow Pages salesman, Thadeus (Thadeus A. Thomas) shows up at the front door, Blake entertains his pitch, pretending to remember what was involved in last year’s ad (for a locomotive shop, selling parts). When Thadeus asks, “Was it successful?”, Blake lapses into philosophy: “Success is subjective, you know.” His next move, to remove his jacket and reveal the slip he’s wearing has the salesman backing into his chair, then offering to come back another time. As he tries to say goodbye, however, Blake has already nodded off. And so the salesman’s sense of embarrassment emerges only from his own fear of impropriety and is unrelated to Blake, who has no intentions (or any consciousness at this point).
This leads to a couple of ideas: first, Blake feels the pressure of expectations from everyone around him, and he need only show up to have them imposed on him. People want him, read him, project him. Scott complains that he has no money for a ticket to Utah or apples to eat; Luke wants help writing a song for a girl he likes, and his manager (who calls briefly) wants him to commit to a “short” tour, just 86 days. And second, Blake is high, perpetually, as a means to escape even the most mundane instants of existence.
Somewhat ironically, given that Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy may be the last word on junkie detail-obsessiveness, Last Days doesn’t show the process of getting high. The film features no scenes of preparation or taking, not even much in the way of drinking. Yet Blake and the others at the house appear stoned, stumbling, nodding off, attending to the sorts of minutiae that only keep your focus when you’re high. Again, the movie is roundabout, showing the effects of drug use (disorientation) rather than drug use, as a means to underline Blake descends into himself.
The salesman and others come and go, including a couple of Mormons, and a private investigator (Ricky Jay), perhaps hired by Blake’s unseen wife. but even as Blake wanders the house and the grounds, prowling, avoiding his friends, ditching the detective (and even briefly into town), you get the sense that this is a movie about sense of loss. He’s descending within himself. This becomes clear when Blake receives a brief visit from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, whose character identity remains unclear: she worries that Blake is not “free” (perhaps of drugs, perhaps of his demons), and encourages him to call his daughter and to leave the house. But her melancholy face as she leaves underlines that her primary function is to underline Blake’s own immobility, his continual circling into himself.
His only temporary diversions emerge in his music. For short times, Blake plays guitar or drums and sings (his capacity for creative self-expression almost painfully delicate and desirous: “It’s a long, lonely journey”). Stranger and more telling is the repeated appearance of the Boyz II Men video for “On Bended Knee,” that pop ballad all about yearning for lost “perfect love,” in which the singers wear their signature argyle sweaters and Bermuda shorts, so clean and pristine they make Blake look like an alien from another planet.
And this is Last Days‘ underlying theme, that Blake can’t “fit” into the commercial music industry or perpetual demands of those who don’t bother to know him. He looks peaceful playing with kittens, and again, when he lies dead, as his angelic ghost leaves his body. He’s desperate, but the film is not. He exits, and the film continues to circle.