Nobody does young male angst quite like Gus Van Sant. And over the course of more than twenty years it’s a landscape he returns to again and again throughout his filmmaking career. While some films are more successful than others, when evaluated as a body of work, Van Sant has painted an increasingly complex and irreplaceable portrait of moral and sexual ambiguity, coming-of-age amidst painful contemporary circumstances and above all, the evolving nature of masculinity during the last few decades.
Whether he’s chronicling the prescription pill popping robber Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy, casting River Phoenix as the narcoleptic gigolo who shares a Dustin Hoffman Midnight Cowboy-like affection for Keanu Reeves in the Shakespearean tinged My Own Private Idaho, or dealing with Joaquin Phoenix’s lust turned obsession with Nicole Kidman’s “bubble headed bleach blonde” in To Die For, he seems most comfortable with evaluating the lives of loners and outsiders.
And while he had his biggest hit with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s breakout Oscar winner Good Will Hunting, despite filming the thematically similar yet equally fascinating and overlooked Finding Forrester starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown, and Anna Paquin (with the only misstep being Connery’s ill-advised tagline of “You the man now, dog!”) he refused to play by the rules. Following up the more mainstream fare of both Good Will and Forrester along with the experimentally strange shot-by-shot color remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Van Sant returned to art house territory for what he refers to as his “Death trilogy.” Beginning with the Cannes Palme d’Or winner and unflinching Columbine-like Elephant (which Tom Hanks has cited as one of “his top five all-time favorite films”), he continued the thread with Damon and Casey Affleck’s wandering docudrama-like Gerry and the Kurt Cobain inspired Last Days.
However, old habits die hard and death continues to play a part of his most recent work Paranoid Park which won one of two awards it was nominated for at the Cannes Film Festival as well. Additionally, those who intend to check it out will do best to avoid watching the film’s spoiler heavy trailer and most major film reviews which reveal virtually every twist and turn of the subtle film’s plot.
With this in mind, I ask that you forgive a rather vague set-up to Park, but essentially it’s an artistic mood piece about the internal workings of a character as opposed to a standard by-the-numbers hero’s journey. This should come as no surprise since we all know by now — just as there are no legitimate villains — there are no heroes in the works of Gus Van Sant as all characters, even those involved in death, seem to reside firmly in the gray area in between.
And yet although its effects seep through every frame, it’s life and not death that’s the central focus of Park. No, rather like Michael Cuesta’s phenomenally brilliant and equally underrated Twelve and Holding, Paranoid Park shows how precarious life can be and the way we’re all affected by an unexpected passing; however instead of Cuesta’s young group of suburban tweens, Van Sant remains true to his favored demographic of the high school age.
Based on Blake Nelson’s novel and set in Portland Oregon, Park centers on its skateboarding lead character Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) who finds himself somehow involved in a death, of which the circumstances are revealed throughout the artistic tapestry woven by Van Sant in its roughly ninety minute running time. However, true to his age and Van Sant’s determination to keep things realistic in doing more than any director in recent memory in accurately portraying the struggle of males during their teens, Alex is also dealing with the disintegration of his parents' marriage. Couple this with the added pressure that arises when the subtly orientation-conflicted Alex finds that it’s he and not his virginal girlfriend — the pretty and popular cheerleader Jennifer (Gossip Girl’s Taylor Momsen) — who wants to put the brakes on their decision to go all the way, and you’re quick to understand that beneath the surface of the deceptively blank-faced gaze of Nevins’ Alex, lies a veritably figurative sea of angst.
And indeed, it’s hard to watch without — as an adult — wanting to somehow reach through the screen and intervene. For, when Alex is called to the principal’s office fairly early on into the movie and in a slowly paced walk choreographed to Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” which would no doubt have been left on the cutting room floor of most major film shoots, Alex’s true delicate nature is revealed and ironically, we understand that — despite the lyrics — he’s the one we desperately want to help.
Swan’s music is just one of several intriguing selections, along with a quintessential Van Sant inclusion of the late, great Elliot Smith (who virtually filled Good Will Hunting’s memorable soundtrack) as well as tracks from Beethoven, Frances White, Ethan Rose, and more predominantly numerous works from composer Nino Rota’s fascinating score for Federico Fellini’s experimental Juliet of the Spirits.
While in anyone else’s hands, making overwhelming use of classic Italian cinematic compositions may have been seen as pretentious, it works to tremendous effect here, helping to add to the film’s air of mystery as well as Paranoid Park’s strange melancholic sense of beauty, frustration, and compassion. Not to mention, when laid over the breathtaking cinematography by one of film’s truest modern day magicians, Christopher Doyle (who shot Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love as well as Philip Noyce’s Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence), it seems to form the ideal creation of yet another subtle Van Sant masterwork that emphasizes ambiguity in favor of easy answers and utilizes a near docudrama feel. Perhaps most significantly, above all, Paranoid Park remains true to not only his favorite theme but the one he excels in like no other craftsman — namely, depicting the portrait of a young man just trying to get by in the twenty-first century.