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LAST DAYS (R) (2005)

Fine Line Films

Official Site

Director: Gus Van Sant

Producers: Gus Van Sant, Dany Wolf

Written by: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, Ryan Orion, Thadeus A. Thomas


Gus Van Sant’s startlingly great Last Days introduces its Kurt Cobain stand-in (Pitt) stumbling and vomiting through the woods, muttering to himself. Coming to a stream, he takes off his shirt and pants (but not his shoes), dives into the water and flails around for a while. Later he sits by a fireplace and dries his socks, mumbling more, and eventually bursting into a bellowing rendition of “Home On The Range,” but the crackling of the fireplace sounds far cleaner, more coherent and hypnotic than his inarticulate droning. He walks home the next day and gets a shovel. Looking up to the sky as he walks forward, instead of going down the steps, he takes a near-slapstick pratfall down a grassy slope. Pitt is a mess, lurching between various non-functional modes—now running away from others quickly and clumsily, then crawling on the floor with kabuki-like slowness. In his first and only conversation on the phone, he can’t even speak a whole word. “Did you get my message?” the caller asks. “N-” says Pitt, completely omitting the vowel.

Unlike Pitt, the film moves with great agility, more so than previously displayed by Van Sant in his Arthouse II: After Finding Forrester days. In Gerry, he started slow and went even slower: Whether the shot was tracking, static, or a 360-revolution around a character, everything moved somnambulistically. Elephant was basically an exercise in Steadicam mastery in search of a better movie. Last Days has greater technical deftness than either of its predecessors, because it’s not afraid to switch aesthetic strategies rather than sticking with one unrelieved method from beginning to end. At the opening, we go from tracking Pitt with a pan in the woods to static takes of him swimming to an eerie Steadicam track behind him—coming close to his shoulder, then pulling back, momentarily suggesting oncoming demons that threaten and then leave him alone for a while (a feeling only strengthened by the use of Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Doors of Perception,” a slew of electronic frequencies and ambient sounds that—like the use of a huge dilapidated house that Pitt wanders through—suggest Wendy Carlos’s work in The Shining). Rather than succumbing to the over-rarified atmosphere of Elephant, Van Sant finally has the confidence to sustain a mode with multiple methods; he’s evolved (back) into his own artistic voice. When he remade Psycho shot-for-shot, some wondered why such a formerly distinctive artist was suddenly becoming a copycat apprentice, yet there were no similar objections when Van Sant openly confessed his admiration for Bela Tarr and started aping his lengthy tracking shots and purposeful obfuscations (probably because barely anyone in the U.S. has had a chance to actually see Tarr’s work). But Last Days settles comfortably, never adopting one tactic too many times while feeling all of a piece.

Last Days establishes an environment for Pitt, then tries to disrupt it. People keep coming to the house wanting stuff, whether it be young Mormon twins (Adam and Andy Friberg) aching to convert the residents, a Yellow Pages salesman (Thomas), or a P.I. (Jay) sent (presumably by a never-seen Courtney Love) to find Pitt. All attempts are unsuccessful, and the movie become steadily more and more becalmed. At times, everything stops as we’re asked to just listen: a static shot of Pitt playing a song on acoustic guitar (one of his own), one of his hangers-on listening to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” Pitt slumped catatonically against a door while a Boyz II Men video plays on the TV. As with Gerry’s decision to frequently film only motion and get the viewer to shift his/her priorities into first and foremost the appreciation of abstract motion, Last Days finds itself completely given over to the power of audio at certain points. (Music nerds will also want to argue about whether or not the black-glasses-wearing geek played by Lukas Haas (who tells a rambling story about going on tour in Japan, hooking up with a girl and then spurning all her attempts to contact him again, and then asks Pitt to listen a song he wrote about her expiating all his guilt) is a vicious, dead-on, and completely irrelevant parody of Rivers Cuomo and his overrated Weezer album Pinkerton, or not.)

Also back in Last Days—present in Gerry, but absent from Elephant—is a welcome dose of unexpected humor. Watching Pitt square off with a confident but completely out-of-context Yellow Pages salesman is high comedy, and even as Van Sant tells the saddest of stories, he pulls off a rare trick: Like, e.g., Badlands, this is a story of tragic dimensions that feels utterly uplifting. Van Sant doesn’t do “out of context”: any scene with unexplained elements is sure to be returned to again and shown with what came before it, or remixed sound that lets us hear what we missed the first time. Van Sant shows us the whole, lulling story, and in doing so creates pure cinematic poetry. Last Days won’t be for everyone, but it makes—finally—a strong case for Van Sant as a true original voice in world cinema.

—Vadim Rizov

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