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MOVIE REVIEW

'Last Days' moves slowly, but it is intensely moving

''Last Days" is director Gus Van Sant's meditation on the death of Kurt Cobain, and an extraordinary meditation it is. It's also a film in which almost nothing happens until the very end, and even that comes with an angelic sigh rather than a bang.

As with Van Sant's ''Gerry" (2002) and his Columbine film ''Elephant" (2003), the camera is allowed to run for staggeringly long swaths of time, with characters passing through the frame in a daze, going from somewhere to somewhere else. Conversations remain half-heard; scenes are replayed from different angles, or from the same angle. Depending on your stamina and/or worship of all things Nirvana, the effect can be enraging or mesmerizing, intensely sorrowful or a load of bull.

And yet ''Last Days" is more than a self-indulgent stunt, for buried within its grainy longueurs is an epitaph for one of rock's lost boys: a musician who responded to the world with a roar of pain and then, when that roar became another commodity in the pop marketplace, with druggy silence and death. A movie like this could have been made about any of our burned-out idols -- Jim Morrison, possibly; Elvis Presley, certainly -- but in its unstated cynicism, beauty, and self-pity, ''Last Days" fits the myth of Cobain like a torn pair of jeans.

It's not ''Kurt Cobain" up there on the screen, of course. For legal and metaphorical reasons (take your pick), actor Michael Pitt (''The Dreamers") is playing a character named Blake, a ghostly figure with stringy blond hair, wearing a variety of parkas and women's lingerie, and glimpsed mostly in long-shot, as if Van Sant were afraid of spooking him into flight.

The setting is a decrepit castle in the woods, where the housemates include a fellow band member named Scott (Scott Green) and his girlfriend (Asia Argento). A few hangers-on tramp through, as well as a traitorous ex-bandmate (Ryan Orion), a chatty detective (Ricky Jay), a mother figure (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth) who may or may not be a hallucination, and a Yellow Pages salesman (Thadeus A. Thomas). Blake is the reason they're all there, yet the great star inhabits a silent parallel universe. He's always at least one room away.

On the rare occasions when he can be pinned down, it's to be asked by a would-be musician (Lukas Haas) for help writing lyrics, or to be pep-talked over the phone by nervous label executives hoping he'll tour. Blake has clearly gone far beyond nervous breakdown into total incapacitation, but because he's a cash cow he's indulged, no more so than in the borderline-surreal scene in which the Yellow Pages salesman blandly tries to close his deal while ignoring the human wreckage before him. No one really sees Blake, anyway -- they see only what they need from him.

What keeps ''Last Days" from being a poor-little-rock-star saga is that Blake never asks for sympathy -- he doesn't ask for anything but release -- and that Van Sant's cool, watchful camera presides over his final winding down from a respectful distance. If the character once found release in fame, he now finds it only in music, and in its two most remarkable scenes, ''Last Days" lets Blake play a few stunted farewell lullabies. The first is a long wash of electric guitar, heard from outside the castle as the camera discreetly backtracks. The second is a huddled midnight keening, with the singer muttering a chorus that eventually resolves into the repeated phrase ''It's a long road from death to birth."

There's religious meaning there, and in the film's vision of pop star as pallid, tormented saint, but because Van Sant wisely doesn't push the allegory, it narrowly avoids hokiness. Kurt Cobain didn't die for our sins; he died because he was a terribly troubled drug addict who no one cared to save (they thought fame and money would protect him).

That said, his life -- and especially his death -- has acquired a meaning beyond its particulars. This is what Van Sant is addressing here, and once you settle into their rhythm, the seemingly endless takes become an almost documentary form of benediction. The last we see of Blake carries a punch that belies its near-total stillness. Those of us who've made it that far may be willing to let him go and turn back to the fallen world we know.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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