While watching a film I sometimes pretend that I knew nothing about it beforehand, so that I can imagine how it comes off on its own terms, without preconceptions. In the case of Gus Van Sant's Last Days, we start with a blond, long-haired young man shambling through the woods, mumbling to himself. We can only catch a few words here and there (a pattern that will be consistent throughout the movie). After wading through a creek, he makes his way back to a large forbidding country mansion, where he proceeds to wander through the rooms in a fog-like stupor, smoking a cigarette, eating cereal, and continuing to mumble--while the film's impassive observational style gives every mundane detail of his day a quality of inconsequential absurdity.
There are other young people sleeping in the house--two men and two women--so it appears to be morning. Only gradually, as these people wake up and we overhear a couple of phone calls, does it become clear that our main character is a rock musician named Blake, and the others are his hangers-on.
Now, when I stop pretending, I will mention that Blake is based on Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for the rock group Nirvana, who died of suicide in 1994, and the story takes place on the day before he dies. Yet this knowledge actually does little to change one's impression of Last Days. Like Van Sant's previous film Elephant, which was loosely based on the Columbine school shootings, the historical event is just a launching pad for the director's wordless explorations of the thin line between life and death, and the deep places inside that are hidden even from ourselves.
Blake is played by Michael Pitt, and it's a performance of extremely intense physical expression. Rarely do you see an actor push himself this far into a character with such little dialogue (and hardly any closeups) to work with. The camera follows him, often looking over his shoulder, with occasional forays into the doings of other characters, while the soundtrack features an unsettling musique concrete score from Hildegard Westerkamp and sound designer Leslie Shatz. The brilliant photography by Harris Savides creates a dreamlike visual texture, presented in an unusual aspect ratio that looks almost like widescreen turned on its side. This is what they call a "difficult" film, with long shots and oblique fly-on-the-wall narrative strategies, and I found it rigorous, bracing and ultimately devastating in effect. It's Van Sant's most radical film to date, a portrait of a soul at the end of his rope, presented in a quietly subjective style designed to blast the viewer's expectations.
There are moments of grotesque humor, such as a scene where a yellow pages representative makes a call on Blake, who is nodding out in a black spaghetti-strap dress, or the scene involving a Boys II Men video, of all things, playing in its entirety while Blake collapses on the floor. Sometimes Van Sant will show us the same event twice from slightly different points of view, so we're not even sure of the time sequence. His focus on the visual surface of experience keeps the viewer's attention on the "now" moment, to disorienting effect, as in a scene where a private investigator (Ricky Jay) tells an extended anecdote about a magician to the young man driving him to look for Blake, while most of what we see are the reflections of trees passing over the car's windshield. One stunning scene has the camera pulling ever so slowly away from outside a small house on the property where we can Blake through a window, improvising on different instruments. Van Sant's method, avant-garde to say the least, increases the distance between our perceptions and the character's experience, until the pain and emptiness becomes palpable.
Addiction is the one word that is never spoken, and we never see anyone shoot dope during the film, but it hangs over every scene like a cloud. Sound, style and image are seamlessly woven into a mute portrait of despair. Suffice it to say that if you open your mind to the film, it can get inside your head and rumble around for a long time. I gave in to the strange and haunting mood of Last Days. This is a work of great formal discipline, an uncompromising meditation on death, and as such I expect many viewers might prefer to look away. And that's how it goes.
What happens when screenwriters try to craft a big "message" film, and they don't know the meaning of restraint? You get a film like Crash, directed by Paul Haggis and written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco. Crash is one of those multi-character interlocking story movies that have become all the rage lately. It takes place in L.A. and it focuses on the issue of race, and I give the film points for even trying to seriously address a subject that is assiduously avoided in most mainstream films. This picture features a detective (Don Cheadle) investigating a possibly racially motivated police killing, a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon) who is abusive to a couple of upper middle class black motorists (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) to the disgust of his rookie partner (Ryan Phillippe), the district attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock), the two black criminals who steal their car (Ludacris and Larenz Tate), and an honest locksmith (Michael Peña) who arouses the ire of a resentful Iranian store owner (Shaun Toub). And there's more.
Cheadle is good, Dillon makes a convincing racist, and some of the scenes are brave enough to pack a punch. But the screenplay doesn't know when to let well enough alone, and piles one damn thing on top of another until the film loses all credibility. In a misguided idea of even-handedness, for instance, we're asked to believe that the police department would deliberately ignore exculpatory evidence in order to prosecute a white officer for political gain (presumably with the black community?). A rescue from a burning car, with a bizarrely coincidental twist, is devised in order to create a redemptive epiphany, while discarding all pretense of realism in the aftermath. Even the film's final coincidence, which I suppose is meant to make us gasp, doesn't seem to be enough for the screenwriters, who add another gratuitous twist. Most of the characters are so two-dimensional that the actors might as well be carrying placards describing whom they're playing. The ending is a blatant rip-off of Magnolia --the difference being that P.T. Anderson actually has a personal vision, an eccentric one, to be sure, but a vision all the same, and so Magnolia works (for the most part) while this doesn't.
Crash wants to say something about how racial attitudes divide us, blocking us from experiencing our own humanity and our essential connection to others. This is a noble thing. But unfortunately the fear of offending someone produces a desperate, fence-straddling effect. By trying to paint everyone with the same brush, the film blurs all the characters' outlines, and the result is a mushy, meaningless mess.
©2005 Chris Dashiell