Forget his shot-for-shot Psycho remake; what most likens director Gus Van Sant to Alfred Hitchcock is his tendency to concoct (melo)dramatic psycho-thriller scenarios as pretexts for the ogling of vapid, pretty, unlikely movie stars. Paranoid Park, about a skater kid trying to cope with his involvement in a railroad rent-a-cop’s accidental (and gruesome) death, is a provocative example. It resonates strongly and for some time after the last frame—as both a banner ad for Van Sant’s evolving cinematic prowess and a sort of red flag, too.
Scripted by the director, the film was based on Blake Nelson’s young-adult novel of the same name, whose linear story line Van Sant converts, sometimes literally, into a series of half-pipe flip tricks, dropping in and out of narrative cohesion and the Dostoyevskian solemnity Nelson took pains to evoke. Which is not to say the movie isn’t solemn. But for Van Sant, it’s a different sort of exercise: a slightly undernourished, darkly romantic valentine to his beloved hometown of Portland, Ore., and its underclass of itinerant youth, whom he is fully prepared to fetishize.
Lingering at the eponymous makeshift skate park nestled under a city bridge, the young narrator speaks fawningly of the “thrown-away kids” who built it and says he’d be content to just sit there and watch them all day. Obviously, Van Sant can relate. These kids may be directionless, he informs us, but how exquisite their meandering! Or as our narrator rather too poignantly puts it, over a hypnotic series of young men flying by on their boards in slo-mo, “No matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse.”
It’s well-established by now, but still worth pointing out, that there’s something about his way of watching beautiful boys that puts Van Sant more in Thomas Mann territory than Dostoyevsky. That’s not necessarily a complaint. It’s just that, coming on the heels of Elephant and Last Days, his respective takes on Columbine and Kurt Cobain, Paranoid Park implies a habit of violently traumatizing his fetish objects in order to gaze at their blanked, benumbed faces. Especially when you consider the vaguely predatory air of its casting process, by which Van Sant basically trolled for non-pro actors on MySpace.
Well, he got what he needed. Particularly Gabe Nevins as Alex, a shy, wide-but-empty-eyed kid falling through the cracks of his parents’ divorce, not quite feeling it with his cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) and taking advantage of a chance encounter to seek the approval of an older skater—a burnout and pretty obviously bad news—who says he’ll show Alex how to hop a freight train (and who knows what else).
Yeah, so, that last part doesn’t go so well. “Something happened to me,” Alex says, in what becomes his confession and the movie’s narration. His distinct flatness of affect, we come to learn (or, more honestly, to grant) is a result of his recent experience. Nevins appears by turns like an apple-cheeked lad from some Renoir painting and like Jack Nicholson’s freakily haunted little boy in The Shining, and that suits the movie’s purposes very well. If he seems half-asleep, Van Sant gently, if artily, insists, it’s obviously because he’s stuck in a weird dream.
So, you may notice there’s a lot of “cinema” going on here. The collagelike sound design by Leslie Shatz, for instance. That unacknowledged, off-camera scream in a police-interrogation scene—was it from another room, or in someone’s memory, or in someone’s mind? Or that sex scene, in which Alex seems thoroughly unmoved, and the sound of his friends frolicking outside by the pool plays over and over in a subtle but conspicuous loop. Maybe the poor kid is just trying to hear himself think.
The striking mash-up of 35mm, Super 8 and video cinematography, haunted by flash frames and other tricks of shifting exposure, is by Christopher Doyle—best known for shooting the movies of Wong Kar-wai—with help from Rain Kathy Li. But the vision is palpably Van Sant’s.
Yes, you might need a narcotic to properly appreciate Paranoid Park, or maybe it is one, but there’s no question that it’s a picture only this filmmaker could have made. Like Hitchcock and others, Van Sant revels in his familiar infatuations and obsessions. Do they make him an auteur or an annoyance? If it’s a point worth arguing, it’s a movie worth seeing.