Perhaps as penance for his lost years in Hollywood, which demands a lot of audience hand-holding for formulaic narratives like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Gus Van Sant's last three features have been blank slates, open spaces where viewers are free to think for themselves. This minimalist approach crystallized most elegantly in Gerry, because its premise of two guys lost in the desert was so simple and self-contained that it didn't beg for deeper commentary. Elephant, on the other hand, referenced the real-life horror of the Columbine massacre with an oblique beauty that would be offensive, were the film's tone not so poetic, like a tender memorial for fallen youth. Van Sant again considers an era-defining tragedy in youth culture with Last Days, his sad and unconventional reverie on the events leading up to Kurt Cobain's suicide, but the airy disconnect seems oddly inappropriate for something as intimate as biography. Maybe it's part of the point, but Van Sant's Cobain surrogate remains frustratingly unknowable, already a figure fading from view.
In some respects, this is the portrait Cobain might have wanted, a quiet, contemplative affair that takes him away from the chaos and clamor of rock-star life. Speaking in an inarticulate running mumble that recalls Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, Michael Pitt (who bears an uncanny likeness to Cobain) opens the film looking like the walking dead, having just escaped his latest stint in rehab. Pitt retreats to a well-worn forest estate, where hangers-on and bandmates mooch off his wealth and fame, but don't seem to fret over his dire condition. For his part, Pitt skulks around the premises in a heroin stupor, only coming to life when he flees from human interaction, or, in one touching scene, when he picks up an acoustic guitar and suddenly finds access to hidden reserves of passion.
As with the other two movies in Van Sant's triptych, Last Days observes the events from a cool remove, deliberately underplaying the drama that percolates on the surface. Much of the film is devoted to the mundane: Pitt ambling listlessly in the woods, Pitt parading around in a silky black dress, Pitt pouring himself a heaping bowl of Cocoa Krispies. It's an unexpected and delicate approach to the Cobain story, which seems destined for some future kitchen-sink melodrama that captures none of his complicated spirit. But Van Sant doesn't seem to have much on his mind, and the film lacks the austere beauty of the other two movies, in spite of a few entrancing moments. In the end, it feels like a life aestheticized, not examined.