Near the end of Gus Van Sant's fictionalized elegy to Kurt Cobain, the rock star, barely disguised as a disintegrating musician named Blake with lank blond hair and the stubbly face of an angel, is visited by a record executive—played by another indie-rock icon, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon—who tries to persuade him to come away with her, and asks him whether he's spoken to his baby daughter. "Do you say, 'I'm sorry that I'm a rock & roll cliché?'" she says sadly, and leaves empty-handed. Doped to the gills and barely registering the world around him, Blake (who's played by TheDreamers' Michael Pitt) comes close to the stereotype of the suffering rock idol. But Van Sant's startlingly beautiful and original film serves precisely to rescue Cobain from the clutches of the mawkish biopic that, sooner or later, will be made about him. Imagine a Kurt Cobain movie by Oliver Stone—rubber tourniquets biting into a skinny arm, flashbacks to warring parents, fawning crowds, Courtney losing it on- and offstage, the imploring eyes of their neglected baby, the climactic shot ringing out—and you'll see everything LastDaysis not.
Next to nothing is known about the immediate circumstances surrounding Cobain's death, but one senses—and that's the operative word in this preternaturally silent, impressionistic and intensely descriptive movie—that LastDaysedges closer to the truth of a soul burning itself out than any documentary could, and I mean no disrespect to Nick Broomfield's Kurt&Courtney. This is not a film about sex (the nearest thing to an erotic encounter—not counting the one between the camera and Asia Argento's lovely bum—happens mostly offscreen), drugs (nobody actually shoots up) or, for that matter, rock & roll (the one sustained piece of music is not from Nirvana but from an MTV video of Boyz II Men singing on "Bended Knee"). There's no stand-in for Courtney Love, and though Blake totes an old hunting rifle over his shoulder, we never see him die. Instead, a camera at once matter-of-fact, poetic and intermittently goofy tracks Blake as he stumbles around his leafy Pacific Northwest estate (shot in upstate New York) and his cavernous, decrepit mansion, mumbling to himself, flicking away mosquitoes, making macaroni and cheese, watching television. The phone goes unanswered, people come and go. Blake runs away from friends, his record producer, a private detective (Ricky Jay) and proselytizing Mormon twins, then—in one funny and unnerving scene in which Pitt appears clad in a lacy black slip and combat boots—he courteously receives a Yellow Pages salesman, murmuring his assent to the pitch as his head sinks closer and closer to his knees. Pitt's terrific performance is clearly improvised yet also superbly controlled and minimalist.
Van Sant's camera rests on Blake, or pulls away slowly as what remains of the artist rallies in a brief burst of musical creation, or shifts slowly to the foliage and the house that dwarf him, the band members and hangers-on who alternately ignore and importune him. LastDaysis all of a piece with Van Sant's two previous movies, Elephantand Gerry, both torn from the headlines, both quiet stories about unquiet events. Van Sant offers no history, no psychology of Cobain, only what's happening—or more crucially, not happening—in the moment. The physical landscape is transformed into an emotional geography of appalling isolation, and we are brought to feel what it's like to grow so indifferent to the world and the self, to be so unable to speak in words or song, that death seems the only escape. Cobain is neither deified nor exonerated of responsibility for his decline. Instead, LastDaysmakes a virtue of not knowing.