In the first decade after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, not one of the umpteen media postmortems got the story right. I think it started with Kurt Loder’s comically solemn MTV commentary outside the house where the Nirvana frontman made his last big career move, but Cobain’s drug-infested corpse has been rolling downhill toward deity ever since, gathering sticky cultural gravitas with each tumble.
He became the Byron of Generation X, the young poet overwhelmed by the tragic kingdom of real life. It helps that people his age are absolutely starved for relevant social icons in an age of tabloids and slackers, so Cobain became much more than what he was: a reasonably talented addict-hipster no more important than Billy Corgan or even Dave Grohl when he croaked. There was nothing majestic about the way he went'leaving his band in the lurch and his daughter in the spiny tentacles of Courtney Love'yet he lives on precisely because he couldn’t live on.
And director Gus Van Sant has figured that out. He sees the ordinary screw-up under the rock-god burial shroud, and he patiently pulls it back in Last Days, an ingenious pseudo-biopic about the final 48 hours of a musician named Blake who looks, sounds and dies like Cobain. This is the third film since Van Sant’s fascinating decision to quit making regular movies and start crafting impressionistic reveries, following the look-at-me road pic Gerry and the brilliantly warped Columbine meditation Elephant, but this one tops his recent endeavors through its sheer intelligence, discipline and complete refusal to meet any expectation but the ones in Van Sant’s mind.
Cobain’s surrogate rocker is remarkably interpreted by Michael Pitt (The Dreamers), whose face doesn’t even appear in a lengthy close-up until the final frames. It’s filmed around a spectacularly rustic stone house in the middle of the woods, where Blake wanders through the trees, shambles about the homestead and makes macaroni and cheese in the company of four incoherent hipster friends (most prominently Asia Argento and Lukas Haas) who dress like mannequins in an Urban Outfitters window. Fighting intoxication and what seems to be paralyzing depression with every blink of his eyes, Blake dodges urgent phone calls and performs chilling songs (one written by Pitt himself) as he slouches toward immortality.
This is an agonizingly slow film'an all-day wander through an irreparably damaged mind with a pace and camera stability that could infuriate anybody raised on the MTV culture that now celebrates Cobain. But cinematographer Harris Savides, who used a handheld camera on the digital Elephant, hangs on to every scene like a painter who can’t finish a canvas. It culminates in a lengthy shot through a big window, slowly moving backward while Blake plays every instrument in a song. Meanwhile, Van Sant jumps around the plotless script, retracing ground several times without much warning. It might be infuriating if you’re unwilling to match his self-control, but Van Sant is working from a blueprint: He sprinkles snippets of reality through an endless trance, all so we feel a bit of the sourceless frustration of a suicidal cloud. It’s dull, and it’s an ingenious way to illustrate Cobain’s demise.
This calibrated deficiency in cinematic charisma works in a different way when Van Sant improvises a handful of scenes among his core characters and the outside world: Twin Mormon missionaries show up at the door of the house shortly after an ad salesman for the phone book company, and the untrained civilians labor through their scenes with all the grace of a costumed junior high school mascot. These scenes all sound exactly the same'like Napoleon Dynamite meets Kids'but they add a harmony to the basic melody of dissonance that is Blake’s rambling haze. It all somehow jells into poignancy, even when Van Sant underlines one drug-induced collapse with the video from Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee,” of all things; sullen grunge played right alongside ham-handed R&B as the soundtrack to that unfortunate musical decade, and Van Sant remembers.
Last Days neither aggrandizes nor crucifies Cobain, though his soul does rise visibly from his body. It simply presents him as he was in the months before death sanctified him. In fact, if anybody deserves such worship, it might be Van Sant. He’s not too precious for this world.