Monday, April 30, 2018

Last Days / ***1/2 (2005)

Three movies in Gus Van Sant’s filmography make up what is commonly referred to as his “death trilogy,” and like similar multi-picture endeavors by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier they are linked less by story or characters and more by deep thematic echoes. But to describe the material in them as being just about “death” would be to simplify the nature at which they originate; while death itself awaits many of the important players, it is the journey towards it that stirs uncomfortably in the mind of their curious author. Consider the long and arduous walk towards nothing in “Gerry,” or the almost haunting silence preceding the chaos of the final hour of “Elephant.” Van Sant’s theory is not that some are meant to die young or tragically, but that they often do so because of a decay in stability brought on by lifelong alienations – many of them either self-imposed or clandestine. In these worlds, taking one final breath well before the mortal clock has wound down may just be a release from a routine that has already killed their goal to persevere.

Though he sees those three pictures to be the cornerstone of his own evolution as a serious filmmaker, perhaps it is us as viewers that experience the most resounding ascension. Many of his early films deal with a lot of the same situations, ranging from the sullen detachment of rebels to the unspoken brilliance of underdogs, yet in some way we were soothed in knowing that many of the people involved could find more rewarding destinies after the cameras ceased rolling. Because none of the key beings will experience the same reward here, it signals an immediate cut to our brooding optimism. “Last Days” localizes the prospect further: it shows the curse of man who is in the final throes of a drug addiction, withdrawn and isolated, reduced to meandering walks through the wilderness and mumbling incoherent dialogue to those wandering the margins of his existence. At one moment he is asked by a door-to-door yellow pages representative how is he doing, and the response emphasizes a forlorn concession: “just another day.”

The movie claims to be “in part” about the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, who at age 27 shot himself at his home in Seattle after a long bout with depression and heroine addiction. If many continue to seek answers into those final few hours of his volatile life, then Van Sant can only aggravate the search. His movie serves not as a confession or an insight into that horrific final act, but as a living document about the wordless experiences they endure on their way through the final curtain. For the entire 97-minute ordeal, our eyes rest calmly on frames that lack a sensationalist urgency, all while the lead star remains aimless, despondent and lost in thoughts no one can understand. What once drove him to become a famous rock star is no more, and in place of those aspirations is a shell of flesh and bone that moves to the beat of an emotionless mechanism. Others regard it with concern that is displaced by an unspoken passiveness, and there is a moment towards the end where he wanders through a nightclub full of people that is telling: everyone in the room knows who he is, yet few make a motion to devour what is left of his celebrity.

The premise concerns Blake (Michael Pitt), a man who, like Cobain, hit it big on an emerging rock scene in the Pacific Northwest while he was quietly dealing with the demons of self-doubt and substance abuse. A large brick mansion on the hill has become his emotional prison, where he has filled its corridors with an assortment of random background players: band mates, groupies, maybe even former colleagues. Many of them detect a concern for their landlord’s behavior but are slaves to the rhythm; they are more apt to wander out of his periphery than to deal with the discomfort of the reality directly. Again, Van Sant is skilled at showing us this certainty in a single scene – in this case, a moment when Blake dresses in a woman’s slip, wanders into the living room and turns on the television to a music video involving a mainstream R&B ballad. Is it one of the sources of his agony? Potentially, given preferred genre’s anti-establishment roots. But after he collapses from a self-imposed exhaustion and is found by a housemate, her reaction is not shock or concern – after searching for his pulse, she simply picks herself up and wanders to the other side of the house. All part of the deal, unfortunately.

The lead performance matches the restraint of the narrative. Pitt, whose manner of dress and behavior are a direct homage to the Cobain personality, has a disquieting presence in the lead; often seen unkempt and vaguely present, he has a natural ability to seem wildly unpredictable while remaining methodical in the conviction. Maybe that is more difficult than it looks. The more resonant examples involve him humming to himself; they play like realistic nervous quirks driving his guideless descent. Think of how chilling that seems, in particular, during a scene where the camera circles around him while he is at the center of a dark room, nervously scribbling on a scrap of paper in his lap. The whole time, he is humming a wordless, almost painful little melody. And after several slow paces around his concentrated profile, eventually the frame descends to see what his scrawls have yielded: a sheet of paper full of small words that seem to be nonsensical run-ons. But are they lyrics to a song… or part of what may eventually be a suicide note?

Yet still the most powerful scene involves not the eventual final act or the discovery of it, but of a moment when Blake is left alone in the studio and the camera slinks back between windows, observing from an increasing distance as he prods the various instruments and creates a garble of strange, supernatural sounds. Most films would not bother with such a slow build-up to nothing, but here Van Sant is possessed by a fixation on the psychosis of their conductor. Are the sounds a sonic reflection of the torture he is quietly enduring? A metaphorical plea for help? Or a signal that horror is encroaching on his incredible talents? Before his death, Blake is seen lucidly playing what turns out to be the last song of his life, and it plays as the invert of the earlier display: beautiful, sad, almost peaceful. Both motions, I suspect, underscore the dual nature of the tortured artist right before he has accepted his fate. If Blake, like Cobain, knew early on what was to become of his existence, maybe music was the only means at conveying the warning.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 2005; Rated R; Running Time: 97 Minutes

Michael Pitt: Blake
Lukas Haas: Luke
Asia Argento: Asia
Scott Green: Scott
Nicole Vicious: Nicole

Produced by
Jay Hernandez and Dany WolfDirected and written by Gus Van Sant

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