Last Days is Van Sant's hypothesis of what Kurt Cobain might have done in the hours before he took one final heroin dose and shot himself, at the age of 27, in 1994. The central character, played by Michael Pitt, has been renamed Blake, but he looks more like Cobain than any Stars in their Eyes tribute act, and his Dennis The Menace jumper and 1950s movie starlet sunglasses could have been stolen from the singer's wardrobe. None of Cobain's biographical details are included, though. Blake is never seen buying or taking any drugs, and the moment of his death isn't shown. No band's name is mentioned, there are no gold discs on the walls, and there are no hits on the soundtrack (the sounds of church bells, clock chimes, doors closing and lapping water are pasted on instead). A phone call from his manager about a proposed European tour is the only explicit confirmation that he's a star. As well as avoiding the clichéd glamour of the average rock biopic, this approach is also a plaintive acknowledgement that success, for Blake, has turned out to be nothing like the decadent playground that the genre usually portrays.
The film has the voyeuristic feel of an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, except with an award-winning cinematographer. The camera spies on Blake in long, unbroken takes as he slopes from room to room in a grubby, mildewed mansion which, like its owner, would look splendid if it had a good spring clean. Always at least half-asleep, and usually muttering and groaning to himself, he strums a song (written by Pitt), he strokes a kitten, he prepares some instant macaroni, and he trudges through the woods around his home, rather like Peter Sellers in Being There, blankly carrying on with his gardening duties after his master's death because he doesn't know what else to do. From time to time visitors knock on the door, and Blake either hides from them or else responds to their queries with a few mumbled monosyllables. Meanwhile, four hangers-on loaf around the house, sometimes approaching their host in order to check that he's still alive and to ask him for money, not necessarily in that order.
It's more absorbing - entertaining, even - than that might sound, but there is a troubling difference between Last Days and its two predecessors, in that the director didn't try to make the characters in Gerry and Elephant look exactly like the people they were based on, and even if he had done, not many of us would have spotted the resemblance. But the rock star in Last Days isn't just modelled loosely on Cobain: he's as close to identical as is possible without a digital touch-up. To purloin the image of a real person in that way, and then to change his name and to fantasise about his death, rather than researching what really happened, is as presumptuous and exploitative as any made-for-cable-TV biopic.
A distasteful affront, then? Almost, but it's easy to forgive a film that has such fondness for its subject. Last Days isn't as technically crafty as Elephant or as experimental as Gerry, but it has much more heart than either. A rueful tragicomedy, it observes Blake from a distance, as if it doesn't want to judge or intrude on him. And because Pitt has hardly any lines, it's also like a silent film. When Blake pours himself a bowl of breakfast cereal, and then leaves the milk bottle on the counter and puts the Rice Krispies packet in the fridge, the tender, sad, funny scene owes as much to Charlie Chaplin as to Kurt Cobain.Reuse content