Gus Van Sant’s latest quasi-experimental offering, Paranoid Park, is not without some minor interest. Unfortunately, what is meant to make it of interest is the very reason I find it impossible to recommend the film.
I understand what Van Sant is trying to do. The idea is to illustrate that the seemingly aimless, shallow teens depicted in the film are, in reality, very deep indeed. They think long and hard about the big issues—even if they might appear to be merely hanging out with their skateboards and possessing no greater goal in life than hopping a freight train. There are countless shots of the film’s young lead, Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins), looking soulfully at the camera to attest to this. There’s also a muddy close-up of him suffering guilt in the shower—following his involvement in an accidental killing—that goes on so long I considered taking a nap during it. (I assume what he’s feeling is guilt, but we can’t actually see much.)
The principal problem is that I kept being reminded of Steve Zissou ‘s statement about dolphins in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004): “They’re supposedly very intelligent, although I’ve never seen any evidence of it.” Every time Alex opened his mouth during the course of the film, I sensed less and less any vestige of the depth Van Sant intended to portray. More and more, I found myself with the creepy feeling that what I was really watching was the director fetishizing and romanticizing the vaguely androgynous non-actor with the annoyingly nasal voice he’d cast in the lead. Worse, it felt like Van Sant was imagining a nonexistent depth in order to justify his own fascination with Alex and his companions.
The flaw lies in the whole approach Van Sant has taken to filmmaking of late. This non-actor casting business only goes so far, and it’s open to question whether or not it increases realism or merely makes the whole enterprise feel amateurish. (Though I’m sure Van Sant and his more ardent admirers would counter that the amateurishness is what makes it real.) That Van Sant recruited his cast through their MySpace pages is easy to believe. I must admit to some polite amusement over the prospect of him contacting these kids with e-mails reading, “Hi. I’m a 55-year-old filmmaker and would like to discuss the possibility of you being in my new movie.” Nevertheless, there’s something almost sinister about the way Van Sant cast the film and the film’s own plot. The story is set in motion when an older man tempts Alex—by promising beer and train hopping—into the situation that creates the film’s drama, which centers on the killing of a railroad security guard.
The drama is put forth by many as a compelling mystery, but I have trouble buying that claim. Even if the movie’s publicity doesn’t blow the mystery for you before you see the film, its fragmented structure is such that any question of whether Alex “done it” or not is lost part way through. In fact, the closest thing to a mystery in the whole film is whether or not Alex will do anything—and I don’t just mean accept responsibility for his actions, but will he do anything at all. Alex is undoubtedly the most stagnant lead character I’ve ever seen.
I’ve had people tell me that they dislike Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007)—or more correctly, Diablo Cody’s Juno screenplay—because teenagers “don’t talk like that.” If the other option is teenagers who talk like the ones in Paranoid Park, I’ll take the Reitman-Cody fantasy construction, thanks all the same. I’d far rather imagine kids emulating the Juno characters than adopting the vacant stare and inarticulate mutterings encountered here.
Now—having said all that—the movie is occasionally intriguingly made. The nonlinear structure, while not especially new, is at least more interesting than the film’s themes. Some of the cinematography is noteworthy, but I wouldn’t call the movie visually striking. By far the most remarkable aspect of the film is its peculiar soundtrack. The ambient droning music used early on (with barely audible mutterings in French in the background) is merely annoying, but the subsequent weird blend of pop songs, classical music, rap and Nino Rota’s score from Juliet of the Spirits (1965) is stirring—perhaps due to the sheer inexplicable nature of the mix.
Yet in the end, I felt more sympathy for the rail-yard cop, whose dying stare contained more life and recognizable humanity in a few seconds of screen time than all the close shots of Alex’s vacuous gazing throughout the film. And I don’t think that was the idea. Or maybe you simply have to have a deep-seated desire to ride a freight train—the appeal of which eludes me—to understand any of this. If you want to see the movie, hurry, because it’ll be gone by Friday. Rated R for some disturbing images, language and sexual content.