No Way Out
Once you get past its negligible plot, scant dialogue and near-total lack of action, Gus Van Sant’s elliptical rendering of the final hours in the troubled life of a grunge musician is rarely boring. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but given the absence of such customary cinematic conventions as story and character development, Last Days shouldn’t be half as engrossing as it turns out to be.
More observation than character study, the film doesn’t even try to get into the head of its angst-ridden protagonist. Most viewers will enter the theater fully aware that the film is based on — Van Sant prefers “inspired by” — the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994 at age 27. It’s the last of Van Sant’s trilogy based on newspaper stories — the first two being Gerry, about two friends who get lost while hiking in the desert, and Elephant, about a Columbine-like school shooting. Those films balk at explaining the whys of their situations, and so does Days.
Here, we see Blake (The Dreamers‘ Michael Pitt), the melancholy, drug-addicted recluse at the story’s center, as he wanders through what seems like an unremarkable day. He walks in the woods outside his dilapidated, sparsely furnished country mansion, cooks macaroni and cheese, writes music, avoids erstwhile friends, ignores the ringing telephone, and patiently listens to a door-to-door salesman hoping to sell advertising space in the new phone book. We’re not asked to identify with Blake; rather, we merely observe him. His inner turmoil and the reasons for it can only be presumed, for he never articulates his feelings, and his face never betrays any emotion. (If it does, we’re not privy to it — a ubiquitous clump of blond hair obscures his face like a velvet curtain drawn across a stage. He can peek out, but no one can see in.)
Pitt’s characterization — arguably his best performance to date — is based almost entirely on his physical presence: slouched posture, rambling gait, movements that suggest a man who is both distracted and intensely focused.
Oddly enough, we are conscious of the noises surrounding Blake — wind rustling through the trees, twittering birds, a flowing river, the clang of a nearby train — in a way we probably wouldn’t be if the characters did more talking. The sounds inject a certain warmth into these scenes, providing a break from the isolation that otherwise permeates the film.
The other characters who revolve around him — mainly his hanger-on friends, played by Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Nicole Vicius and Scott Green — make an impression only to the extent that they seem to be using him without offering anything in return. Certainly they are part of his problem.
Last Days never tries to get inside Blake’s head or to understand his confusion or unhappiness, though it encourages us to psychoanalyze him from afar. It’s not so much emotionally cold as it is achingly neutral, but somehow it compels you to watch. It might even stick with you for a while.