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Movie Review: Last Days – What Gus Van Sant Made of Kurt Cobain

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It’s interesting that no one can ever know all the facts of anyone else's life except for the person who lived that life, which is why biography is such hard work, and why filmmakers like Gus Van Sant can make films like Last Days with the caveat of “a fictional story based loosely on the life of Kurt Cobain.”

The trouble is, even if you asked a person himself to write his autobiography, you would not get an accurate story, because he would edit and cut and paste and paint a pretty picture for you because he would show you what he wanted you to see. In short, the person writing the autobiography is not a reliable narrator. In this case, Kurt Cobain would not have been a reliable narrator. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’d be among the worst narrators and would edit all over the place, portraying himself only as he wanted.

Shit. Who can blame him? Would not you or I do the same thing? Especially if I were suicidal, using drugs, and maybe even manic depressive (about which one should have no shame, but maybe just wants to keep private, as is one’s right), maybe I’d edit that out. Maybe you would, too. We are then, all of us, unreliable narrators of our lives. Hence, we have biographers and they do the digging. Good ones will paint a balanced portrait that may even accurately portray our life as it really was – from our point of view and and that of others.

But Van Sant proceeded and did a fair job, using the character Blake as a stand-in for Cobain, and he did a good job of capturing the last few days of what we can only speculate Cobain’s life was like. We know Courtney wasn’t there. I forget where she was, but I do know she wasn’t about. I remember her speaking to us, Cobain’s fans who had gathered, and as I recall, she had a mike or something and was telling us that he was an ‘asshole’ or something of the sort; but that’s it, and memory… well, I believe this is how it went down, but you tell me.

But the film…

The film opens with a disoriented Blake, as the main character (the fictionalized Cobain) is called, rambling through the backwoods near a stream during what looks to be a not-so-warm time of year, stripping himself naked of everything except his boots, and diving naked into a stream of cold water near a heavy waterfall. It looks ice cold. It looks like it could be a wake-up call, which perhaps he wants. Blake is trying to wake himself up, but it doesn’t help much. He’s trying to connect it seems, but failing at every turn, and it’s hard to watch.

Cut to the next scene and Blake is dressed, sitting in the woods in front of a fire, dressed in the Seattle grunge style Cobain was known for, his socks hanging on twigs to dry and his Converse All Stars resting on their sides to dry out since he wore them into the stream.

After this rather strange scene, Blake cuts a path through the woods to his house (why he was in the woods at all is a mystery, but maybe he just wanted to get away, or maybe he was just high as hell, or depressed as hell, and people will do strange things when pushed hard enough — this I know). Maybe the point is that there is no rhyme or reason. Or as Lewis Carroll would say, "Rhyme? and Reason?" Does there have to be any real reason to just take off for a solo camping trip? Obviously not. Sometimes we just do to get away from ourselves… and others… or our own shit. Whatever the case, of course it’s valid.

Maybe Blake just wanted to see if he could just feel, to see if he could feel alive again. Who knows? I don’t know whether Cobain really did this or not – as I said, this is fictionalized – maybe he did. It’s certainly conceivable, anyway, that he would do something to feel alive before taking his own life. That makes sense to me – one final effort to get the blood pumping, because we want to live. Nobody wants to die — not really. It’s only when we really give up, that we really, really, really give up and then usually it is because we give up on others who have given up on us, or the world that we perceive has given up on us, or we give up on it. Complicated.

It’s the contrast between the exterior of Blake’s house, his stone mansion, and his working shed (set outside the mansion) that is most interesting of all. This serves as the backdrop for the entire film, with constant pans back to the peaked and simple one-room shed off to the side that seems airy and light, but we know all too well what is going to happen there. Anyone familiar with the Cobain story knows what happens in that shed, so it’s hard to keep seeing it in the shot and not think of where this train is headed.

The exterior of the estate, of course, is beautiful and perfect. It is so well put-together and is all you would expect of a famous rock star, but inside, the walls are peeling with paint (as if he had bought it as a “fixer-upper” that he just never fixed, which is entirely possible). There are lots of conversations between others who seem to occupy the house – some must be band members and their friends or girlfriends or hangers on – it’s hard to say. What I do know is that Courtney Love or a Courtney stand-in is not there and in real life, was not there.

But back to the house, because I find the dilapidated interior a good metaphor for what is going on with Blake/Kurt – the peeling paint, the fingerprints on the walls, the sullied walls, and in the staircase, the hollowed out corners from years gone by. (I’ve been told, on pretty good authority, that these were not merely decorative niches for statues etc, but served the initial purpose of leaving room for undertakers to move pine boxes up and down winding staircases without getting stuck, and, of course, the same for furniture. If you think about it, it makes sense. These things would not corner well, so cut-outs in walls would make sense.)

In Blake’s house, they may as well be part of a funeral home, for they hold vases shaped like those for ashes and long-stemmed dead and wilted flowers that nobody has bothered to clean out. In fact, nobody seems to have bothered to clean the house at all, perhaps not since moving in. Blake’s kitchen is a pit with white cabinets covered in grey fingerprints. The only food he seems to live on is a box of Cocoa Puffs that is prominently featured on the kitchen counter. The sink itself is filled with dirty dishes, but from who or what or when, I don’t know, since nobody ever seems to eat and Blake himself is rail thin (making even Kate Moss look overweight, or me, for that matter, which is a joke).

More, Blake’s so-called friends seem to enjoy staying up late, listening to the Velvet Underground’s banana album with Lou Reed blaring out "Venus in Furs," “… now bleeeed for meeee…” a line which is repeated over and over again. Did Kurt bleed for us? Is that the implication we are to draw from this? Because it’s not just coincidental that this song is repeated and that our attention is squarely focused and drawn to it. It is there for a reason and I’m trying to sort out why, and the only why I can sort out is that Van Sant is saying yes, Cobain bled for us.

Maybe he did. I don’t know. I never felt he bled for me. I certainly didn’t want him to. I never saw him as a martyr. I didn’t want him to martyr himself, and he certainly isn’t my personal Jesus Christ because I don’t have a personal Christ; I just don’t and that’s okay. I don’t believe anyone can truly save you except yourself. I do believe that others can help a bit along the way, but ultimately, kids, the onus lies with you and that’s the tough part. You have to be your own savior, much as that sucks, hard as it may be, you have to do operation bootstrap and, at times, that can be fucking hard and don’t I know it. I’ve not only been there myself, I’ve seen people go through it — people I love. Some have survived and others not.

Elliott Smith didn’t come out the other side, did he? I remember the summer he died and where I was on that day, but what a strange habit we have of remembering the worst days in history. Why is it we do not remember the best and where we were then?

I have also lost one brother to suicide. So that’s two right there who just pulled themselves out of the game, opted out when the going got tough. I do know this about my brother — he expected someone else to do the saving for him, which is just not fair. I know this part of the deal – I know it all too well and I wish like hell I didn’t, but I do.

Look — cruel as this may sound, but I know whereof I speak — if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t go about announcing it first and ringing up your friends. Okay, maybe the odd suicide here and there does. For the most part, though, suicides will just do it, with no warning, no advance notice because that would be something to prevent the very action they intend to take. They intend to succeed and that’s the very point. Telling would decrease the odds of their success – hence, why tell if you’re serious? You just do it. You don’t sit in your misery with your Rolodex at your bedside, talking the ear off of any one of your friends who is still willing to put up with this guilt trip because, believe me, this is intended to make someone feel guilty.

In the film, Blake isn’t talking about killing himself; maybe he’s too doped up. I don’t know. He’s wearing a woman’s black slip and army boots, so who knows where his head is at. Obviously, not anywhere approaching reason.

But Blake does show some strange reason when he does take deliberate action – when he does kill himself, for in this, and only in this, he is orderly and neat. He found a quiet and safe place. He choose carefully. He told no one. Suddenly, the knowledge of the fact that he’d be dead in a day or two or in a few short hours might have been incredibly liberating — this fact alone can afford one the opportunity to be happy again. The world is suddenly light again because the end is in sight. Ironic, isn’t it?

Blake never breathes a word to anyone, not about his suicide, not about anything, really – not to anybody. The only person he does talk to is, in fact, himself – perhaps the only person who understands. It’s comical when the sales executive from the Yellow Pages arrives at the stone mansion about renewing the “automotive shop” advertisement Blake must have placed a year prior. (Did he? And if he did, clearly his circumstances have changed.)

Blake does listen, but says nothing. It’s not that he’s impolite; quite the opposite – the salesman is comfortably seated in a great room on a grand sofa, but Blake is almost curled up into a fetal position, unable to deal with the world – and I know this kind of depression because I’ve seen it and I’ve been it. It’s howling and horrible and you’d do just about anything to get the McFuck out of it — including taking your own life, and as I said, I’ve known one too many people who have. One is enough. One is too many.

Sure, part of the depression – a major part could be attributed to manic depression, or now bipolar illness, or maybe even drugs (though we never see Blake use drugs that I can recall). Cobain was not, at the time of his death, taking lithium or any other drugs that are used for manic depression, leaving himself untreated – a dangerous thing for someone in his situation, given the givens. A manic downswing combined with heroin would cause a major downswing. I would guess the best of us would wind up in the fetal position.

Other visitors to the house include two boys from the Church of Latter Day Saints in their neatly starched short-sleeved shirts and plastic name tags and fresh-scrubbed faces. These two are also invited in, but by others living in the house who carry on a long conversation with them and seem reluctant to let them go. And what contrast these two apple-cheeked boys, all Ivory Snow, are in contrast to the filthy interior of not only the house, but of the minds, which indeed, seem more and more sordid, of some of the other band members.

No, not Blake. Blake does not seem sordid. Blake remains an innocent – just lost, like a child, likely in a manic state, depressed clearly (hypomanic, not hypermanic), and probably shooting up, which explains his most-of-the-time almost catatonic state. What is interesting about the scene is the contrast between the innocence and almost sparkly cleanliness of boys and the dim and dingy house, the contrast between which I am sure is no accident. Moreover, the band members, unlike most people, seem oddly reluctant to let the two church boys go, which seems to sorta freak out the boys, and if they are freaked out… well, enough said.

It’s interesting that throughout the film there is, if you listen, the sound of church bells ringing – a full peal – ever so quietly in the beginning as Blake sits outside of his house, but each time a bit louder, such that by the end, before he enters the shed for the very last time, you hear the church bells full-on. This is when you hear the bell and realize for whom it tolls. It’s done well, and it’s subtle and you have to really be paying attention, but it’s there. Bells have always served as “a calling” – usually a calling to worship, but to Blake, obviously, a different kind of calling and a way out of what is not a good situation for him. Obviously, here there is deep sorrow and, perhaps for the first time in the film, we really see a close-up of Blake’s blue pool-like eyes, which, in fact, do seem filled with sorrow.

We know how this is going to end. We know because we were there when Cobain died. We remember it all too well.

The shed is shot from different angles, the door opened, then Blake’s (Cobain’s) body limply on the floor next to a gun. Soon, the body is taken away, police milling about here and there, others, all of the expected people, and it all seems so very sterile – no pomp or circumstance. We are all so very ordinary in our death. We all go out the same way; no matter how dramatic we try to make it, our final exit is dead boring.

It’s hard to say Blake/Cobain took the ‘easy’ way out because we know from what he wrote in his journals how much he suffered, so do we blame him for wanting out? Maybe I’d opt out, too. I can’t say. As they say, walk a mile in my shoes. I’ve used that line, too, and I mean it.

As Paul Westerberg says, “You be me for a while and I’ll be you…”


Thanks for listening.

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • anabelll

    i like your article. it feels like i’ve watched the movie through it.

  • hi Anabel,

    I hope that’s a good thing… thanks for the read and commenting… It’s a good film. If you liked Nirvana and followed the Cobain story at all and know a fair amount, then I’d recommend it. Sad, but pretty well done, i thought.

    Thanks –

    Sadi R-P

  • The film (Last Days), was the worst film I ever saw in my life. Focusing on 3 days of depression doesn’t show how the person gets there. How can a person relate? You can’t understand a lot of what people say in this film. You don’t understand how he got to that point. I think the mood was right, but a person can’t relate to it if he doesn’t see the contrast of what lead up to that point. No, I can’t beleive this film ever got off the ground. I think I could do better!

  • hi John:

    having been there myself (depression, dark – very)i know where you are coming from. There isn’t enough build up here to really show or demonstrate how he got into the state he is in. Also, my brother was chronically depressed and also shot himself (a suicide) so I know what you mean – the thing is, I think it’s so hard to define, as van Sant calls it, “Last Days.”

    I suppose in a way, at least for my brother, and like i said, i’ve been there, those last days are sort of like living through tissue paper guaze in which the world hardly reaches you – for me anyway, i just felt numb, as if I had been injected mind and soul with novacaine. My brother, for his part, acted almost ‘too normal’. He even said ‘goodbye’ to everyone (happily so) and told us he was going on a ‘trip” like a vacation, and that he wouldn’t see us for a while.

    Nobody even questioned it because it was the sort of thing he would do. He hid his depression all too well. I think many of us do. I know that I am a master at hiding it from my family because I don’t want to burden them, so i keep my depression held in a tight ball in a handkerchief in my fist. It’s hard.

    As i said, you would never have know with my brother. I know, always, he was depressive like me, but at that time, did I know he would do what he did? No. I would have stopped him if I could have – but the point is, i know this, that he didn’t want to be stopped. IT wasn’t a cry for help – he wanted to succeed. To ask for help mean to be saved and he didn’t want that. HE wanted to get it done, and he planned methodically. I understand this. A cry for help is a beast of a totally different nature. An actual attempt is a beast all its own – do you agree?

    It’s hard to say that the last three days are anything… who knows, right? I can’t say what Cobain went thru anymore than what my brother went thru. I can only point to my own situations and say what I have been through.

    In saying that, I did find some of Van Sant’s depictions accurate. The not really making sense things – the attempt to connect with just anything as when the Cobain character goes off into the woods (this i read as some attempt to just re-connect, tho i could be wrong).

    After, the sense of just giving up – of walking like the zombified dead. For him, no doubt, a good part of this was drugs i think (but i’m not positive but that’s what i’ve heard). Not so with me – but i was certainly zombified by grief. Like the living dead, i was a hungry ghost, just wandering the house, never leaving, hardly speaking to anyone. I didn’t connect and could not connect at all. I think Van Sant captured at least that.

    I do get where you are coming from and as a depressive as well you have my understanding and always empathy; it’s hard for someone on the outside to know what really goes on inside your or my head. I think you and I could perhaps relate more (or perhaps not) tho i have a feeling we could. Maybe Van Sant’s failing in this sense was that he has never really been there himself… in this way, he can be good, but just not the right person to really capture the dark mood or Cobain during the last days of his life…

    make sense?

    i hope you write back -i think we have a fair amount to say and i’d value your take.

    be well,

    sadi r-p

  • Oh, John, your comment somehow was posted twice… I noticed your first sentence “it was the worst film I had ever seen in my life.” Really? God, i can think of a thousand worse films. The reason it may have struck as bad, or not accurate in many ways is that it may have, as it did for me in some ways, cut closer to the bone so to speak – do you think that is why?

    I’ve written a lot on depression. I have temporal lobe epilepsy which comes with depression and a high rate of (sadly, successful) suicides. I do know where you’re coming from, I think… I’d like to hear more.



  • anyone who’s seen this movie

    I want an hour and a half of my life back!!! This movie moved me so much I had to write. And by moved me I mean moved me to serve my duty as a human being to tell everyone how phucking god awful horrible this movie is. Wait, can you really even call it a movie? An hour and a half of my dog sleeping and farting from time to time has a tremendous amount more substance then this piece of shit! I hope the maker of this film takes a hint from kurt and does away with himself proper.

  • #6

    I get what you’re saying – listen, nobody can get into Cobain’s mind, or anyone’s mind. I reviewed because it was sent to me to review so i did my my duty.

    Your comment is well taken but the end part is harsh and you must mean it that way. I’m sorry you feel that way: suicide is never a good way. Listen, you might just attack me for even this which would be a wretched thing to do so i hope you would not –

    my own brother committed suicide – they anniversay of which is January 26th, so coming up soon, and a hard time. Was it a big wuss-out? Yes. Was it cowardly in som ways? Yes, i think it was. Do i blame him after all we went through and bearing up to that? Not one bit. IT’s hard to bear. As i always said, He stole my trick – bastard.

    That said, it just is’t the way.

    Look: this may sound cold, but i don’t care anymore. If someone wants to take their own lie, they will. They will NOT sit around talking about it and whining about it and if they do, my response is, “don’t waste my time; just go do it, because i can’t be bothered anymore.” I say this because if they really wanted to, like my brother, they would not tell a soul (as he did not), they would quietly patrol the hallway of their methods, go about it and boom, one day they are dead with no advance warning. NO cry for help. That is suicide. The rest is a cry for help and that’s good – damn, give that person help, but the best help you can give them is to say that you will not listen to this suicide talk anymore because it is simply not a valid option.

    My brother did it. He sucks. I love him, but he sucks. It was not a valid option for him, and therefore, it is not a valid option for me – and by the way, that was what he always told me so when I say this theory, know that it does not come entirely from me. It comes for th most part from him.

    As for Van Sant – nobody can do a suicide justice. There is no justice. There is no end to the grief. There is no closure. There is no true comprehension and there is no moving on. That day will be remembred every year for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, suicides have a strange way of living, ironically, forever.

    Van Sant missed a lot of these subtlties but then, maybe he didn’t set out to make them? I don’t know…

    But your point is very well taken. I hope you give mine some thought as well and understand and take it in the spirit in which it is intended, which is good and intended to help, not hurt. I have been, am thre, wil always be. This makes me no expert, but it does help provide some insight.

    Be well,


  • Frank

    Worst movie ever!!!

  • nevermind

    whats the name of kurts song in the movie? that he is playing and singing?

  • Kt

    This was a quintessential Gus Van Sant movie and,as with all his films, you either get them or you don’t. He has a particular vision in filmmaking reliant highly on music, lighting, landscape, and the movements and characterizations of his actors to carry of his overriding message rather than spelling his thesis out in script and special effect. In this case his style most effective. Silence in a Gus Van Sant movie is almost more important than whatever words might be said. It’s poignancy echoes.

  • c

    I totally agree with the comment from ‘Anyone who’s seen this movie’. People close to Kurt stated that he was NOT suicidal in the days before his death. Was he simply hiding his depression well? His real life actions clearly indicated ONLY THIS: that he no longer wanted to be a MONEY MAKING MACHINE and he wanted a DIVORCE. His real life actions never indicated that he was suicidal but others who would suffer from decisions he was on the brink of carrying out purposely perpetrated the MYTH that he was suicidal and went to a lot of trouble to make the public believe that myth. There is a LOT of evidence to support the theory that he was murdered. I feel that the movie ‘Last Day’ is a total waste of time. I do not believe for one second that the character of Blake even remotely resembles Kurt in his last days. NOT EVEN CLOSE. I would encourage fans to NOT see the movie except for one scene, when the male nanny and his cronies suddenly decide to leave the house in the middle of the night for no reason. The details of the Cobain case are available online including all of the police reports. One word people, research.

  • c

    Has it ever occurred to anyone that in the alleged suicide note, Kurt refers to his stomach problem yet in an interview that can be seen on YouTube he states that doctors had finally put an end to the pain caused by his mysterious stomach problem and that he had been pain free for a year (I don’t know the interview date but could find out). Have a clue my friends, that note was written LONG before his death. Probably was stolen from his desk along with the pen and saved for the day it would be passed off as a suicide note. The writing at the end of the note has been exposed by handwriting experts as not being Kurt’s (EXPERTS, plural). The writing was put there by someone after they had practiced Kurt’s handwriting. Once again, the note was written LONG before his death and was never intended as a suicide note but as a letter to his friends saying he was leaving the music business. The note was written perhaps years before his death, before his stomach problem had been resolved. It’s a devastating fact that he was worth more dead to a lot of people for many reasons: he was quitting the music business, he was getting a divorce where a pre-nupt was in place, he as writing someone close to him out of his will.

  • c

    Why would you address your suicide note to your imaginary friend then go on to speak to your fans for an entire page and then only address your wife and daughter merely as an after thought, a P.S. oh by the way? You wouldn’t. You simply wouldn’t and neither did Kurt.