Gus Van Sant has embarked on a strange and enthralling journey as a filmmaker from which he may well never return. In the past three years, he has written and directed a trilogy films (“Gerry,” “Elephant” and now “Last Days”) about loosely defined characters who inexplicably lead themselves into untimely death. The movies do not stick around to ask why; to them, that is beside the point. Love them or hate them, these films are an escape, the sort of experience where it’s expected that some viewers will be transported and others will want to gouge their eyes out, but no one will respond indifferently.
It’s not as if Van Sant has ever really made easy movies; his signature work, “My Own Private Idaho,” starred River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as sometime gay hustlers from Portland with a knack for Shakespearean dialogue. But after such decidedly mainstream fare as “Good Will Hunting” and “Finding Forester,” no one knew quite how to take it when he made “Gerry,” the barebones tale of two friends with the same name who travel into a desert where they get confused and never return. And then there was “Elephant,” the jarring story of a Columbine-like atrocity that won the Palme D’Or at Cannes but was so controversial that it led Variety’s Todd McCarthy to brand it “pointless at best and irresponsible at worst.”
Now we have “Last Days,” Van Sant’s latest meditative mind trip and his least accessible movie since “My Own Private Idaho.” It follows the hazed, utterly detached dying days of Blake (Michael Pitt, “The Dreamers”), a drug-addicted rock star. It’s an overdose that eventually does him in, but from the film’s early scenes, it’s clear that Blake’s mind has long since vacated his body; he’s so lost that when he makes himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, it’s the cereal that ends up the fridge, not the milk.
The story is a familiar one for music buffs, and given the film’s predilection for serene long shots, Blake sure does look a lot like late Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain. But Van Sant is careful to distance himself from Cobain, who took his own life in 1994, the film’s most obvious inspiration; the final credits inform us that the movie “is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed in the film are also fictional.” Whatever. For a good portion of its audience, the thematic parallels of the two tales will make this very much Cobain’s story, and it’s hard to imagine that Van Sant expected much less.
Whether he has the authority to make such a movie is a good question, but perhaps the more important one is whether or not he had honorable intentions in his use of the story. It seems he did. He is careful not to romanticize the addiction, only giving Blake a true moment of peace in his final ascent from his body at the end of the film.
Even so, along Blake’s journey, the film too often becomes portentously weighed down in nonlinear showmanship, and as vivid as the imagery is, this is probably the least conceptually realized of Van Sant’s recent work. Yet it remains a singular experience, and there is something to be said for that. It might not be candy to sit through, but there’s a lyrical grace to its trance-like storytelling, and even a hit-or-miss work from Gus Van Sant will leave you with more to ponder than most Hollywood movies now playing at a theater near you.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars