Last Days

Gus Van Sant's fictionalized account of Kurt Cobain's final hours is the third in his series of achingly slow, youth-oriented tragedies, following Gerry and Elephant.

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 fictional stand-in "Blake" (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 plays a PI hired by Blake's never-seen wife; Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon plays 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 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 Cobain's shotgun blast.)

Also at fault is Michael Pitt in the lead role. He cannot shake his pretty boy persona – his pouty lips more reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio than of Kurt Cobain – no matter how he tries to hide under stringy blonde hair and a patchy beard. We've all seen photos of Cobain: the tense, haunted look in his eyes was riveting. 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 is a shallow imitation of Cobain's work.

Perhaps the problem is that Kurt Cobain was a 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 in its experimental sound design and elliptical editing, but it finally disappoints. It creates a mood, then fails to do anything with it.