As in those previous films, Van Sant once again eschews story in favor of atmosphere. But Last Days lacks the beauty and sadness that made Gerry and especially Elephant so effective. Which is ironic, since Cobain's 1994 suicide had such an emotional impact on his millions of fans.
Van Sant's purposefully objective approach may be to blame: we are treated to numerous scenes of Cobain's onscreen counterpart "Blake" (played by Michael Pitt) wandering around the forested grounds of his decaying Seattle estate, muttering to himself like Popeye, while various "adults" come looking for him (Ricky Jay as a PI hired by Blake's never-seen wife, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon as a sympathetic manager type) and his no-account friends squat in his mansion. And that's basically it.
Blake's world is clearly bleak, empty, and deadening, but his story sheds no light on why Cobain was so important in the first place, nor on the hopelessness he must have felt before he took his own life. Going by this film, you'd think his death happened almost by accident - a random bad decision brought on simply by too many drugs. (Indeed, while nobody is shown taking drugs during the movie, everybody acts permanently wasted, particularly Blake, and his bloodless death suggests an overdose rather than a shotgun blast.)
Also at fault is Michael Pitt in the lead role. He cannot shake his pretty boy persona - with pouty lips more reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio than of Kurt Cobain - no matter how he tries to hide it under the stringy blonde hair and patchy beard. We've all seen photos of Cobain: the tense, haunted look in his eyes was captivating. There's no such depth in Pitt's mannerisms; the closest he can achieve is "vacant". Even the ersatz Nirvana song he performs in the film comes off as a shallow imitation of Cobain's real work.
Perhaps the problem is that Kurt Cobain was a true star - he had a unique, inimitable charisma that went far beyond his grungy physical trappings - and few actors can be expected to tap into his complex mystique. Nevertheless, I fear Van Sant chose Pitt for his Calvin-Klein-model good looks over the intensity of his performance.
Last Days has its merits - particularly its experimental sound design and elliptical editing - but finally it disappoints. It creates a mood, then fails to do anything with it.