Last Days (2006): Van Sant’s Fictional Musician Tale, Inspired by Kurt Curbain

Cannes Festival World Premiere–Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s fictional meditation on the inner turmoil that engulfs a brilliant but troubled musician, was inspired by the late Kurt Cobain, to whom the film is dedicated.

It is the third part of a trilogy of personal meditations on contemporary American lives that began with Gerry and continued with Elephant. The new film is not as visually arresting or formally elegant as the previous pictures. And it also lacks the urgency of Elephant, which, after all, dealt with violence in American high schools, a more significant social problem.

Grade: B- (** out of *****)

You don’t have to be an auteursit critic to detect thematic continuities among Van Sant’s three films. For starters, dealing with death, all three are bleak reflections on troubled youths that do not fulfill their potential due to untimely death. The cause of the deatn differs from film to film: In Elephant, it’s random and arbitrary, whereas in Gerry, it’s calculated and executed.

Moreover, all three films take place in limited settings. In Gerry, the two characters are in a single area, the desert. In Elephant, the high school is the only real setting, apart from some scenes that set in a house. In Last Days, the characters are also confined to a single house, though a good deal of the story takes place outdoors, in the woods and by the lake, where protagonist Blake is seen wandering in the beginning and at the end of the film. Like Van Sant’s former films, Last Days is an ultra-modest effort, with limited budget and small cast and crew, even by indies standards.

Michael Pitt (who previously appeared in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) plays Blake, an introspective artist-musician, who seems to be collapsing under the burden and weight of fame, professional obligations, and a growing feeling of isolation.

Last Days is Van Sant’s personal speculation on Blake’s last hours, which are spent in and around his wooded cabin. Blake comes across as a prisoner of his own home, a man who wishes to become a fugitive from his life. The two days depicted represent random moments of Blake’s life. His fractured consciousness is expressed by a tormented, inarticulate mind.

The film may be based on one of the shortest screenplays (basically a treatment). For long stretches of time, there is no dialogue, or sound for that matter. Blake’s incoherent rumbling and wandering in and out of the house are fused–or interrupted–by spontaneous bursts of rock & roll. However, for a film about a genius musician, there is not enough music. Moreover, Last Days appears to be unconcerned with the kind of music that Blake/Curbain composed and performed.

There are also stylistic continuities among Van Sant’s trio. Steering clear of mainstream cinema, he continues to experiment with an elliptic mode of storytelling, which, here, might frustrate even his loyal followers. Viewers are asked for patience and tolerance while experiencing Last Days. Indeed, it takes a long time for Van Sant’s layered images and nuanced sounds to cohere into a recognizable emotional landscape.

As writer and director, Van Sant opts for the kind of ambiguity that had characterized Gerry and Elephant, except that in this picture, it’s not clear whether he has a good grasp, or a clear take, on his central character.

Last Days, just like Gerry and Elephant, is inspired by current stories from the newspapers. Gerry was inspired by news item about two guys who got lost in the desert. Elephant was a way to look at the wave of school shootings, like Columbine, that happened in the late 1990s. Last Days was created after the death of Kurt Cobain, in 1994, which received extensive media attention.

Van Sant doesn’t use multiple angles and POVS to describe crucial events of the story. He allows that he didn’t have much information about his subject. Nor was he motivated to conduct research about his actual life. “I felt more comfortable just making it up,” says Van Sant. “I wasn’t really covering much time; the story was always limited to two days.”

Despite its factual source, Last Days is anything but a docudrama or an investigative report into Cobain’s highly-publicized death. Instead, the film uses Cobain’s death as a point of departure to tell a story with a personal angle on a familiar situation.

Van Sant benefits from the fact that not much is known about Cobain’s death. It allows him to use his subjective imagination and offer free and loosely linked associations.

As in Elephant, Van Sant refuses to offer a psychological explanation of the why and how Cobain died. The inspiration for Last Days was not the immediate event, but the ensuing question of what happened as a mass media event. Nor does Van Sant illuminate the precise nature of Cobain’s troubled mind.

Van Sant may trust his viewers too much, encouraging them to provide their own clues and interpretations on the events. The film is directed in such a deliberate pace that there’s plenty of time to do it.

Made strictly for the arthouse and global festival circuits, Last Days is an art film par excellence, one that’s even less commercial than Elephant, which won the 2003 Palme d’Or in Cannes. The best way to enjoy the film is as pure cinema–a sensory experience–based on Van Sant’s layering of different visual and sound elements.

Last Days is undoubtedly a personal film for Van Sant. Cobain died in 1994, barely a year after the death of River Phoenix, who had starred in Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, in 1991. While w


The eagerly-awaited American version (it’s not really a remake) of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” from the cult crime novel, finds David Fincher at the of his form, reaffirming his status as the most inventive and brilliant American director working in Hollywood today.


First published in 2005, shortly after Stieg Larsson’s death, the initial novel in the series, “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” introduced readers to financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and avenging hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson’s blockbuster “Millennium Trilogy,” a series of thrillers (all of which have been filmed), have sold 65,000,000 copies in 46 countries.


As a follow-up to “The Social Network,” the best picture of 2010, “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” lacks the immediate relevance of that film; after all, “Social Network” dealt with a contemporary phenomenon still in the works, so to speak, centering on real-life characters-celebs whom the public knew or was aware of.


But as far as utilizing the unique properties of the medium to tell a story in a compellingly filmic way, “Dragon Tattoo” is just as accomplished. The movie marks the fourth consecutive masterpiece from Fincher, a cycle that began with “Zodiac,” in 2007, continued with the “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and reached it climax with “The Social Network.”


Each of these four films bears the personal signature of Fincher as director-auteur and yet they are made in a very different style, one chosen to fit the particularly story they are telling. What’s most noticeable is the increased pacing of Fincher’s films. The speed at which “Dragon Tattoo” moves along may be twice as fast as “Zodiac,” for example, which is suitable to the nature of the tale.


The only problem with “Dragon Tattoo” is the familiarity of some audiences with the plot, characters, mystery, and resolution from having read the best-selling book and/or having watched the Swedish film, which came out in 2009, and by standards of foreign films did extremely well at the box-office (grossing north of $10 million in the U.S. and north of $100 million internationally).


A lot of people in the industry were surprised when Fincher chose Rooney Mara to play the lead; almost every young actress (including Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan) had wanted to play Lisbeth. Judging by her mesmerizing performance, Mara (who played Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in “Social Network”) was the right choice. Mara is simply riveting: When she is on screen, you cannot take your eyes off from her. Moreover, she not only holds her own in her scenes with a pro like Daniel Craig, but she outshines him (some of this has to do with the part she’s playing, which I think is better crafted than Craig’s by Steve Zaillian, who adapted the book to the screen.


The dark, seedy milieu of the tale, which Fincher smartly kept in Sweden, fits perfectly his dark (noirish) sensibility, which has been evident from his very first film, not to mention “Se7en,” his 1995 outstanding serial killer horror film. But Fincher trusts his instincts and doesn’t emphasize the pulp, sensationalistic aspects of the tale, which includes multiple murders, anal rapes, dirty family secrets, Nazism, misogyny, decadent corporation, and so on.  In the hands of another director, the story could have easily become sleazy and exploitational.


Throughout, Fincher conveys the idea that his two protagonists are severely flawed human beings, plagued by both inner and outer demons. To describe these two individuals as unexpected partners, or to use the concept of the “Odd Couple,” is an understatement.


In the fist half of the story, they are kept separately, and the narrative cuts back and forth between their stories. Needless to say, Lisbeth’s story is far more intriguing.


Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an appealing man in his forties, is a financial reporter determined to restore his honor and redeem his self-esteem after being convicted of libel, which happens in the film’s very first scene.


Before long, he’s engaged by one of Sweden’s wealthiest industrialists, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to get to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet. Vanger believes that she was murdered by a family member.


With plenty of time on his hands, Mikael moves to a remote, isolated island on the frozen Swedish coast, totally unprepared of what’s to come. Initially, his only companion is a cat.


Meanwhile, we get to know Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an ingenious investigator with Milton Security, who is only 24 but behaves as if she has had her share of life experiences.


In terms of both looks, personality, sexuality, and profession, Lisbeth represents a new type of screen heroine. Tall, slender, always clad in black, sporting a leather jacket and a very short ebony hair, and several piercings and tattoos, she moves so fast you can hardly keep track of her moves. (She is considerably helped by the superlative cinematography and editing).


Lisbeth is hired to do a “routine” background check on Blomkvist, a job that ultimately leads to her joining Mikael in his investigation of who had killed Harriet Vanger.


Lisbeth is not only the epitome of cool, she’s also extremely cynical for her age—and for good reasons. She has been physically and sexually abused but she doesn’t behave like a victimized girl. Au contraire, she knows her strengths and limitations in a male-dominated milieu, and prepares to strike at the first opportunity she gets against one particular oppressor.


Her modus operandi is to shield herself from the outside world, by minding her own business, that is, using as best as she can her extraordinary hacking skills, armed with invaluable single-minded focus that enables her to execute her tasks quickly, methodically, and and efficiently.


Lisbeth lives in a cold, grim, cynical world that has betrayed her so many times that she doesn’t seem to believe in anything. Did I mention that she is a lesbian (or bi-sexual), who, when needing sex goes to a local club, grabs her object of desire in her genitalia and within minutes brings her home.


In their work, the two “detectives” employ different strategies and methods. While Mikael goes face-to-face with the tight-lipped Vangers, Lisbeth plies the wired shadows. Joining forces, they begin to trace a chain of homicides over the past four decades, and the crime they begin to unravel is shockingly savage, even by standards of current American crime stories.


At first, their bond is limited to their professional work. Gradually, though, they forge a fragile strand of trust, and one night, Lisbeth, the more aggressive of the duo, forces herself onto Mikael sexually. Significantly, the act begins with her sitting on top of him. There is more sex in Fincher’s version than there was in the Swedish film, in which the intercourse was a one-time occurrence.


“Girl with the Dragon” Tattoo certainly merits its R rating, due to several scenes of rape and torture, frontal nudity, anal intercourse, child abuse, hardcore S&M, and brutal violence, all of which are in the book.


Fincher is an ultra-sophisticated filmmaker and so it’s expected for his picture to be both slick and sleek. The milieu is bleak, dark (or gray), which becomes all the more apparent to the brighter (yellow-toned) images of the flashbacks to the family events in the past and Harriet’s mysterious disappearance.


Richly densed in text and subtext, “Dragon Tattoo” evokes several movies about the acts of viewing and watching, not least of which Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece, “Blow-Up,” as photographs of the past play a major role in the narrative. Time and again we go back to a photo of the disappearing girl during a publuic parade, in which she is staring intensely at “something” or “somebody” (No more can be told about this crucial point in the mystery).


A longer review will be published later today.




Mikael Blomkvist – Daniel Craig


Lisbeth Salander – Rooney Mara


Henrik Vanger – Christopher Plummer


Martin Vanger – Stellan Skarsgard


Frode – Steven Berkoff


Erika Berger – Robin Wright


Bjurman – Yorick van Wageningen


Anita Vanger – Joely Richardson


Cecilia – Geraldine James


Armansky – Goran Visnjic


Det. Morell – Donald Sumpter


Wennerstrom – Ulf Friberg




atching the film, I kept thinking about Phoenix’s last days, or even last hours.