Movie review by Greg Carlson
Director Gus Van Sant continues his impressive run as one of the foremost cinematic explorers of Portland, Oregon in “Paranoid Park,” a very subjective character study based on a novel by Blake Nelson about a teenage skateboarder involved in the death of a railroad security guard. The movie is a feast for admirers of Van Sant’s signature voice. Beautiful cinematography, originated on 35mm and Super 8mm by Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, blends seamlessly with the director’s inspired music choices and Leslie Shatz’s elegant sound design to place the viewer inside the point of view of the story’s troubled protagonist.
The movie’s events are recounted elliptically, as scenes and images recycle and repeat in a parallel to the confusion cluttering the mental state of Alex (Gabe Nevins), the quiet skater who finds himself in dire straits following an evening in which a few bad choices lead to a horrific event. Van Sant’s staging of the gruesome accident is a moment of shocking, terrible beauty that works on many levels, including one as a severe memento mori. The filmmaker sympathizes with the naïve Alex without excusing him, taking a position that some viewers will no doubt find disturbing. It would be unfair to say that “Paranoid Park” suggests that young people are without a moral compass; Van Sant is interested in the ways that kids struggle mightily to figure out parts of the adult world.
In terms of style and sensibility, “Paranoid Park” is closer to “Elephant,” “Last Days,” and the classic “Drugstore Cowboy” than it is to “Good Will Hunting” or “Finding Forrester.” Van Sant cultists typically prefer the former set of movies to the latter, and “Paranoid Park” is filled with excellent music cues (including Menomena, Cast King, Elliott Smith’s nearly heartbreaking “Angeles,” which Van Sant used previously in “Good Will Hunting,” and several Nino Rota cuts from “Juliet of the Spirits”) that contribute to uncanny juxtapositions. Alex’s denial and avoidance find visual expression in the shallow focus images, which haunt many scenes.
Van Sant’s eclectic directing career has been engrossing to watch for more than two decades, encompassing studio-financed Hollywood fare as well as intimate, experimental pieces featuring untested amateurs in key onscreen roles. Something like a big deal has been made of the MySpace casting process used to select many of the performers for “Paranoid Park,” but Van Sant has often included non-professionals in his movies to great effect – several of the street kids in “My Own Private Idaho” come to mind.
The use of non-actors as a stylistic choice is nothing new, but Van Sant does it as well as any filmmaker since Robert Bresson. While many viewers might find lead actor Gabe Nevins’ lack of emotional expressiveness and technical polish off-putting, his presence works as an alienation effect that refocuses viewer attention on the manner in which the story is being told as opposed to the mechanics of the plot. Nevins’ Alex doesn’t need to be shown wrestling with his ethical quandary because Van Sant asks the audience to do it.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/19/08.