Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days constitute his “death trilogy,” which explore the idea of death at the hands of a friend, stranger, and oneself, respectively. All three are shot by the great Harris Savides, who brilliantly captures deserts in Gerry, makes brilliant use of deep space in Elephant, and beautifully frames both elegant mansions and lush forests in Last Days. The first two films are especially divisive, Gerry for its complete lack of story and Elephant for its Columbine-inspired subject matter and its refusal to provide rationale, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on how you perceive it. Last Days shares the uneventful, Bela Tarr-influenced long takes, but it’s nonetheless slightly more story-driven than Gerry, or at least, it offers enough of a mystery to let one assume that it is, and it has so little dialogue that it’s impossible to wish that they would talk about something more interesting. In other words, it doesn’t make false promises and, unlike the star-powered Gerry, doesn’t frustrate expectations so much as it does ignore them altogether.
The first line of dialogue in Last Days isn’t spoken until 15 or so minutes into the film, and our protagonist, an insecure rock star named Blake (Michael Pitt) who is clearly modeled after Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, must have fewer words than any other character in the film, which is a window into the moments before a suicide (or perhaps, we belatedly discover, a murder). Friends, bandmates, and label people only talk to Blake when they want something from him, and Blake spends much of the film trying to escape his acquaintances altogether. He goes for a swim in the springs of the Upstate New York’s lush forests, writes music, and hides out in his unkempt but ornate mansion, or, in a marvelously composed shot, a rock club (where provocateur Harmony Korine makes a cameo). It’s not an easy journey. The most exciting thing that happens is a strange dance scene to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” and there are more than a couple still-shots of Blake songs that Pitt himself composed. Plots concerning a private detective and Blake’s friends/bandmates are difficult to discern and harder to care about considering how utterly clueless they are.
What Van Sant seems to be asking is: how can so many people could cross the path of a man who is so obviously teetering on the edge and not notice? In addition to Blake rarely speaking, Pitt plays him as perpetually bored and fatigued—the most motion we see out of him is when he quickly takes a few steps into a shack to hide—while Savides keeps his cameras far away, giving Blake breathing room that he chooses not to utilize. There is distance in every sense of the word, and nobody seems to notice. The grueling pace, the film’s long takes, and the general monotony all contribute to pulling us into Blake’s mindset, and the level of obliviousness his friends exhibit make it easy to acknowledge the literal Chekhov’s gun when it is planted at the beginning. With his fame, money, and power, everybody assumes Blake must be invincible so nobody asks if they can help him. Even those who are supposed to be closest with Blake only want from him what he can do for them, just as it was with Kurt Cobain.
In spite of the formal rigor, Last Days doesn’t always work. Pitt’s compositions are largely unmemorable, and while the first showcase, an exterior-looking in but slowly backtracking as Blake makes music, the second, still-camera shot wears out its welcome quickly. In another sense, Elephant provided mystery and dynamism with its non-chronological, puzzle-like structure, and Gerry tried to give continued sense of character development through constant conversation. Last Days does a brilliant job at letting us feel Blake’s isolation, but it does little to complicate the journey, and scenes shown from different points of view remove us from Blake’s loneliness and attempt instead to help us toward the film’s problematic ending. The film’s biggest question occurs with that end, when it is strongly suggested that the people closest to Blake murdered him. It’s an enormous misfire, one utterly devoid of motivation, a destroyer of the trilogy’s thematic unity (it would make the book-ends “death by friend” and the middle “death by stranger”), a nullifier of the entire portrait of Blake drawn beforehand, and a sociological befuddlement, as if the film has spent it’s run-time telling us that the levels of unsocial and apathetic behavior exhibited are warning signs only to instead tell us in the final five minutes that that’s just the way Blake was, and it took someone else to end his life. Without the ending, Last Days is a difficult but worthwhile journey; with it, it borders on pointlessness, redeemed largely by the chemistry of Van Sant and Savides and the lingering impressions of the way fame and wealth can blind those around it as much as those who possess it, impressions that would be far more powerful and meaningful if the film concluded not with Blake’s housemates driving away, but with Blake’s spirit ascending an invisible latter into whatever Nirvana awaits him above.