Mark Kermode - Rock'n'roll suicide

Film - A self-indulgent Kurt Cobain biopic makes brainless viewing

Last Days (15)

Two great myths permeate the worlds of popular music and movies. One is that any musician who commits suicide must by nature be a fabulously tortured artist whose glittering genius can be measured by the man-ner of its passing. The second is that, if you point a camera at anything for long enough, the subject will somehow become miraculously imbued with "meaning". Both myths are exercised at great length in Gus van Sant's Last Days, a barely fictionalised account of the events leading up to the death of the Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Both are, of course, total and utter cobblers.

Characterised by its creator as the final instalment in a morbid trilogy also comprising the evocative Elephant and the tedious Gerry, Last Days mopes around for 97 toe-curling minutes as Michael Pitt mumbles and stumbles his way towards a dreary death foretold. His name may have been changed to Blake (presumably as in William) but the clothes, hairstyle, glasses and gestures are all clearly Cobain's own. Indeed, the one inarguable triumph of Last Days is a convincingly cod Stars in Their Eyes-style impersonation of a once-famous singer. But to what end? Pitt's drawl is so authentically incoherent that when I first saw this movie at the Cannes Film Festival, the only way I could understand what the hell he was saying was to read the French subtitles and translate them back into English. Sadly, it wasn't worth the effort, as nothing Blake (or indeed anyone) says in the entire film merits comprehension. Instead, we are left to marvel at the impending tragedy of a rock star gearing up to blow his head off in a shed, while various band members wander semi-clad in and out of rooms and the time scheme loops in and out of itself for no discernible reason.

Like Waiting for Godot-meets-Groundhog Day, Last Days is a film in which nothing happens not just twice, but loads of times. In one splendidly memorable moment, the cinematographer Harris Savides follows our hero out into the garden, and promptly becomes distracted by a tree, at which we stare for what seems like an eternity. It's a very nice tree, and marginally more interesting than Blake himself. But, hey, in the end it is just . . . y'know, a tree, maaan. Elsewhere, we peer through doors and windows and down corridors at dull, smelly people doing nothing of any consequence, but doing it very slowly. After 40 minutes of this self-indulgent drivel, during which time I was sure I could actually feel my teeth growing longer, I was on the verge of standing up and shouting: "Oh, for goodness sake - pass me the shotgun. I'll shoot the boring bastard and then we can all go home!" Luckily, the moment passed, and I was able to slip quietly into a soporific stupor.

More than almost any other director, Gus van Sant is an unreliable old coot. His films range from the populist (Good Will Hunting) to the pants (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues); from the brilliantly arch (To Die For) to the humourlessly arty (My Own Private Idaho). Crucially, van Sant seems to lack any form of bullshit detector, remaining blissfully blind to the woeful redundancy of, for example, making a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, or of doodling away his talents on suicide-glorifying garbage such as this. Despite being tailor-made for navel-gazing neo-Goths, Last Days lacks either the vibrant life or desperate anger that fuelled the band to which it owes its miserable existence. Anyone who ever sang along to the acerbically shouty chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", or saw Kurt Cobain wryly joking between songs on Nirvana's celebrated Unplugged performance, should be amazed by the lack of wit in this brainless baloney.

The death of Kurt Cobain has already inspired one truly lousy film, in the form of Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney, a dishonest, incoherent and rabidly misogynist work of sleazy exploitation posing as a "humorous" investigative documentary. Kurt and Courtney was vile rubbish; unbelievably, Last Days is worse. In fact, despite the highbrow critical drooling, I'd be surprised if I see a worse film this year. By comparison, those Andy Warhol Factory fiascos to which this owes such a dated debt look like action-packed, eye-popping blockbusters that set pulses racing.

"It's not a film about Kurt," Pitt has said, "it's a film for him." Gee, thanks. Stupid, pointless, fatuous, irresponsible and (worst of all) dull dull dull, Last Days is one of those movies that make you lose the will to live. Suicide may be painless - this is torture.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ground zilch: how Al-Qaeda defeated New York