What strikes the viewer most about Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a bleak meditation on the inner turmoil of a fictional rock star in his last hours, is his mundane and lonely existence. There is no glamour to beguile and transfix the pop wannabe.
Michael Pitt’s Blake – who has more than a passing resemblance to Kurt Cobain – wanders alone through his estate, a ramshackle Xanadu as decrepit materially as he is psychologically, while his parasitical friends have fun at his expense. He cuts an isolated figure, muttering to himself like a mad King Lear lost in a court of jesters.
The film opens with Blake’s shambolic figure on the banks of a stream into which he dives. There is no sound but the breeze through the trees and the rush of water. Dwarfed by the natural world around him Blake is a hunted creature, stalked by the camera. It is a sinister insight into celebrity voyeurism: fame isolates its subjects by turning them into entertainment for us.
As with Van Sant’s previous two films Elephant and Gerry, the director favours an elliptical style of storytelling using improvisation and fixed settings. It demands audiences work hard, giving their full attention and patience – a sharp contrast to the fast edits that dominate cinema now.
We follow Blake as he shuffles around his mansion, watch him make his macaroni cheese, play his music and stare with him at the emotional schlock of a Boys II Men video. His behaviour is never accounted for and the audience is effectively treated as an outsider as events unfold. Even when Blake performs his music the camera keeps its distance allowing no intimacy with a subject who never looks it in the eye.
Van Sant decision to offer no answers to why Blake implodes is counter to a world that demands easy explanations for big news stories, be that the motivation of London Tube bombers or rock star suicides. The only comment on Blake’s ultimate death is that this artist has been exploited by a system he cannot control. Though the tortured artist as cultural commodity is a cinematic cliche, here it is presented with more intelligence than usual. Van Sant seems to be saying: the question why is impossible to answer, make your own mind up. He should be congratulated for once acknowledging audiences have brains.
This is a rock movie with a sparse soundtrack. Only four songs are used, the Velvet Underground‘s Venus in Furs, two original tracks written and performed by Michael Pitt and a discordant choral piece, The Doors of Perception, which opens and closes the movie. Instead Van Sant plays with sound to further disorientate his audience. As Blake walks through the forest doors are heard closing and engines sputter to life. Inside his ramshackle mansion breezes blow and water constantly pours.
This movie is not for slackers. It requires something often lost in Hollywood: thought and attention. It is also a bleak and terrifying message about a society that is unable to anchor and sustain creative genius without commodifying it and condemning the creator to a stuttering kind of wilderness existence.