An exercise in atmospheric plotlessness

Paranoid Park

Is there a clinical term for the poetic ennui that afflicts the young protagonists of Gus Van Sant films? It goes beyond depression or melancholia. It’s the kind of wan, anhedonic, walking-in-slow-motion, adolescent misery that could only be the product of a once-major filmmaker who has intriguingly lost his way.

Van Sant’s early films were uneven, thrilling and shot through with great promise. His middle period (beginning with the execrable Oscar winner Good Will Hunting) veered between disgusting, stupid sentimentality and a latent desire to eat his own bankable foot (Psycho). In his most recent slate of films, Van Sant has become sort of a Portland-based Robert Bresson, devoting himself to a series of small, aesthetically severe art films (the next period, presumably, begins with this December’s Milk).

Starting with the admirably unwatchable Gerry, Van Sant’s films have eschewed story and character development and obsessed instead on endless tracking shots, emotional inscrutability and skinny, sexually ambiguous youths too disconnected to deal with life’s miseries (repeated stand-ins for River Phoenix, perhaps?). His last two films—Elephant and Last Days—have been his best in years, but they were given focus and perspective by tying themselves to lurid headline-makers (the Columbine massacre and Kurt Cobain’s suicide, respectively).

That brings us to his latest film, Paranoid Park, barely released earlier this year; would you believe me if I told you that it’s his most ramshackle film of this recent bunch? A sort-of sad, sort-of latent homosexual skater teen accidentally kills a security guard (in a grisly sequence involving a freight train), then feels mixed-up about it. Further elucidation of the plot would be impossible.

The cast of Paranoid Park is peppered with unknowns and Portland real-lifers, and the local-color authenticity and nonsequential structure keep your interest, but it ultimately feels like an exercise in atmospheric plotlessness.