Director Gus Van Sant’s new film may be dedicated to and “inspired by” Kurt Cobain, but moviegoers hoping for a sensationalistic look at the suicide of the Nirvana rocker won’t find it in “Last Days.”
The film, which stars Michael Pitt (”The Dreamers”) as a musician hiding out in his enormous stone house from his career, his family and his parasitic hangers-on, opened in New York and Los Angeles Friday.
Contemplative rather than reportorial, “Last Days” eschews many of the conventions of mainstream narrative movies, though with “Good Will Hunting” to his credit, Van Sant is no stranger to more crowd-pleasing fare.
Like the director’s previous two films, “Last Days” uses a real-life incident as a point of artistic departure. “Gerry” (2002) centered on two hikers stranded in the desert, and ”Elephant,” which won the top award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, followed a group of high school students in the days before a shooting rampage similar to the one at Columbine.
And like those movies, Van Sant’s imagining of Cobain’s shocking final descent in 1994 is interested less in answers than in suggestion and observation.
“There isn’t really one answer,” the director said in a recent interview with Reuters. “If there is, I tend to think that the answers become sort of like scapegoats. People want answers in the same way that they want the culprit. It doesn’t matter if the guy or girl was really responsible for the crime, so long as you have somebody to hang by the tree.”
But complicated questions like death, suicide and mass murder, he says, defy simple answers. “We show instances of what may be bothering our character in ’Last Days,’ but we don’t say, ’This is for sure the reason.”’
Van Sant was drawn to the final chapter of Cobain’s saga precisely because there’s so little information about it. What is known is that Cobain, battling heroin addiction, a chronic stomach ailment and creative insecurity, spent his last days in virtual solitude before retreating to the greenhouse of his Seattle home and putting a shotgun to his mouth. His body was not discovered for several days.
The film follows the Cobain-inspired character in long takes while he tries to protect his troubled solitude from a variety of colleagues, friends and strangers, including four stoned hangers-on living in his house. (Pitt contributes his own musical compositions; there are no Nirvana songs in the film.)
For his ensemble, Van Sant uses both professional actors (Lukas Haas, Ricky Jay, Asia Argento) and first-timers like musician Kim Gordon of veteran indie rock band Sonic Youth.
There may not be any clearly signaled “aha!” moments, but Van Sant creates an affecting atmosphere of seclusion and disconnection in the film, which was shot mostly in and around a 19th-century castle in upstate New York.
“There is no story,” Van Sant said with a laugh. “There’s a direction, but there’s no setup.”