Paranoid Park (2007)
Director: Gus van Sant
Cast: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Jake Miller, Taylor Momsen
My Rating: 7/10.
In Short: Silent, Moody, but Emotionally Evocative
In the early 2000s, acclaimed director Gus van Sant decided to change his filmmaking path a bit. After the mainstream success of films like My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting, he decided to change his style and head towards a more ‘indie’ cinema approach as he began work on his “Death” trilogy. Me, being the independent cinema lover that I am, was absolutely thrilled with the three films he produced; though many denounced them as boring and pointless, I saw the point of them and I was not bored for even a fraction of a second. After finishing this trilogy, and directing a short film for the anthology Paris Je T’Aime, van Sant returned to indie cinema with a film that was similar to his Death trilogy but also distinctly different.
Paranoid Park, like 2003’s Elephant, employed a cast of mostly unknown teenage actors, and managed to see to it that they played their roles creatively and realistically. Elephant was a huge success, and the actors in that were fantastic, but honestly, I must say I was not all that impressed with the acting in Paranoid Park. Sure, it’s realistic and believable, but at times, particularly in the lengthy soliloquies, it seems forced and obviously read from a script into a microphone. That said, however, Paranoid Park is certainly not a bad film, and here’s what I thought of it.
It is an intriguing and well-told story of a teenager (Gabe Nevins) who becomes responsible for the accidental death of a security guard. The story unfolds in a non-linear timeline; there is no particular order for the scenes, and for van Sant, this approach surprisingly works, and the film is a confession of sorts, wholly from the point of view of the main character, Alex.
There are times when we can see a lot of the modern films about teenagers in it, but Paranoid Park refuses to become littered with cliches. The teens in this film are real kids, who are not trying to act necessarily, but are just being themselves, and this works incredibly well in painting an unexeggerated and truthful picture of the struggles of the teenage existence for so many.
Of course, the majority of teens don’t get caught up in murder investigations and questioned by police, so I applaud van Sant for depicting the pressure placed upon Alex by the death so well and flawlessly. There is a scene which I love; arguably the film’s best directed, edited, acted, and written sequence in which Alex is standing motionless in the shower with his head in his hands. Now what van Sant does here is pivotal. Without getting Alex to say a single word or even breathe, he communicates to the audience all the hundreds of emotions that are running through his head at this crucial time. Anger, sadness, fear, regret, pain… all of these are clearly visible, and its not wholly because he has his head in his hands and is silently sobbing. Van Sant does strange things with the lighting of the scene, as well as the soundtrack. He includes the sound of nature, birds chirping and such, as well as a constantly ringing sound which slowly escalates. He also changes the lighting sporadically so that the scene goes from incredibly bright to very dark within a matter of seconds. This all builds to an amazing crescendo, one of the best examples of building tension I have seen in cinema.
The style remains the same throughout the whole film; van Sant includes a modern, electro soundtrack that’s very soft and moody, reminiscent of a dozen quiet albums silent teenagers blast into their ears on sunny days – at least, the ones that aren’t listening to loud punk rock or death metal.
Much of what is shot in the film is shown in slow motion, time distorted by Alex’s troubled, frantic mind. Although he manages to remain mostly unenergetic, unenthusiastic and dull for much of the run time (see also van Sant’s Last Days), it is clear that there are a million thoughts running through his head, and that saying it out loud as the film’s narration, or writing it down on paper and then burning it, is the only way he can get it out of his head and focus on something else. There is a thankfully not graphic sex scene between Alex and his girlfriend, and the whole scene focuses on Alex’s detached face. He’s not aware what’s happening around him, and he doesn’t care, and actor Gabe Nevins manages to communicate this perfectly to van Sant’s dazed but focused camera.
Paranoid Park was voted by Cahiers du Cinema as the best film of 2007. While I think it is far from that, it is certainly an exceptional piece of independent cinema from that year, and a more than decent film for Gus van Sant, emotionally isolated like much of his previous trilogy, but also brimming with special, well choreographed imagery and actors who can communicate so much without saying a word. The people in Gus van Sant’s movies almost seem to float rather than walk.