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‘Last Days’ is pretentious yet riveting

A look at the final days in the life of a Kurt Cobain-esque rock star
/ Source: The Associated Press

Somewhere between the hypnotic minimalism of “Elephant” and the mind-numbing tedium of “Gerry” lies “Last Days,” Gus Van Sant’s pretentious yet oddly riveting look at the end of Kurt Cobain’s life.

Though the writer-director has changed the character’s name to Blake, it’s clear that the late Nirvana lead singer — and the mystery of the moments before his suicide — are the inspiration.

With his scraggly blond hair and chin scruff, his hunched carriage and wardrobe of layered cardigans and flannels, Michael Pitt (“The Dreamers”) looks freakishly like Cobain. Sounds like him, too, when he finally opens his mouth and sings. More on that later.

First — and mostly — Blake meanders in and around his dilapidated mansion in the Pacific Northwest woods, mumbling to himself while dressed in a black nightie and carrying a shotgun. Sometimes he struggles to make cereal or macaroni and cheese. For a long time he sits in a half-conscious heap on the floor, watching the video for the Boyz II Men love song “On Bended Knee,” which seems even more maudlin and commercial compared to the viewer and the setting.

Bandmates and hangers-on come and go. They party at his place, then bail. Blake tries to avoid them all — though he does invite a Yellow Pages salesman into the living room for an absurd discussion about maximizing his ad space potential. The moment is amusing, though it feels like Van Sant is trying too hard to make it weird. At least it livens things up, albeit briefly, but then Blake passes out before it ends.

Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth also shows up as a record executive who urges Blake to get his act together. She asks if he’s talked to his daughter on the phone, and what does he say to her? “Do you say, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a rock ’n’ roll cliche?”’ The question doesn’t quite address what’s really wrong with Kurt — er, Blake — but it’s a start.

The film’s many quiet spaces are intended to let us interpret the rest. Either that, or they’ll have viewers checking their watches and squirming in their seats.

As in his two previous experiments with severely stripped-down filmmaking, Van Sant resolutely rejects fundamentals like plot and character development. “Elephant” is about a high school where a Columbine-style massacre takes place at the end of a long, ordinary day. In “Gerry,” Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walk around the desert and barely speak.

The approach is bold and visually striking, yet completely maddening. Some of the long tracking shots (again the dreamlike work of cinematographer Harris Savides) and ponderous silent stretches seem pointless.

But nothing is ever haphazard with Van Sant. Stick with it, because it all leads to a powerful musical climax that’s startling in its intensity, and for the rare insight it provides into this enigmatic figure.

Sitting by himself in his rehearsal space, an acoustic guitar on his knee, Blake begins strumming and playing a small, quiet song that builds and grows with plaintive force. By the end he has screamed himself raw and even broken a string. (And that really is Pitt performing, which makes it all the more amazing; he also wrote the song.)

It sounds just like latter-day Nirvana — a lost track perhaps, the rights to which the other two members of the group would have fought Courtney Love for in court. It serves as a startling contrast to everything that came before it. It offers a glimmer into this tortured artist’s soul. And it’s so good, it’s worth the wait.