Gus van Sant’s Death trilogy

Gus van Sant is known by many as a fairly mainstream director. But in the last ten years, he has shifted his focus noticeably from mainstream movies to indie and/or minimalist features, which has created a balance in his fan base by alienating mainstream viewers and inviting new indie ones. Perhaps most divisive among fans and haters is his Death trilogy, three films made between 2002 and 2005 that many audiences found dull, boring and pointless. I have reviewed the first two films of this trilogy on my site, and readers will know that I admire and love all three films. But here I’m going to bring them all up, examine them, and review them, so that I can shift away from them for a while. The first film, which I’ve mentioned in many, many of my posts, is Gerry (2002). The second is Elephant (2003). And the third is Last Days (2005).

Gerry (2002)

Gerry is a film Gus van Sant wanted to make for a while. He had worked with stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon before on To Die For and Good Will Hunting, respectively, and knew them well. They knew him well too. So the three of them sat down to write a script that turned into more of an outline, as a lot of what was shot was improvised, and there was very little dialogue or plot details.

Affleck and Damon are two young men, who refer to each other as Gerry (but it’s unlikely that’s their real name/s). As the film opens they are driving along a highway, sitting in complete silence as they travel. Beautiful music by Arvo Part plays in the background. This roughly 3-5 minute scene unfolds in very few shots. Van Sant was inspired by the films of Bela Tarr, and this is why many of the takes in all three of his Death trilogy films are long and unbroken. But this effect is particularly noticeable in Gerry, a 100 minute film that contains only 100 takes, some as long as 10 minutes, some as short as a few fleeting seconds. When the two embark on a hiking trip to see what is referred to as “the thing”. This is perhaps a metaphor for an ever-elusive object that all of us are searching for, if you want to examine it on an existential level, which is probably the best way to look at it. However, they stray from the path and quickly end up hopelessly lost, and will remain that way for the rest of the movie. That’s around 80 minutes. A good 50-60 minutes of this is nothing but the two men walking.

It may sound unexciting (and it is), but Gerry is one of those films that isn’t made to entertain. We might not value it because we can’t enjoy it, but nevertheless Gerry is an important film that deserves… not respect, but admiration. I admire it more than I do most movies. I admire what it achieves through sheer visuals. Take any shot of the film, and you can see the precision, dedication and vision put into it. It’s part of the reason this site is called Southern Vision – because films like this continually impress me with the way they’re made, and that the director is obviously a true visionary, a cinematic master. The longer I watched Affleck and Damon walk, the sooner it dawned on me the situation and stakes of their characters. When you are lost in a place as completely deserted as Death Valley, what else is there to do but walk? Van Sant has the smarts to present it realistically without adding any unnecessary or unlikely action, and the genius to present it as a series of stunning shots, full of rich cinematography and precise beauty.

There is one shot in the film that will forever stay with me; one of the top ten shots in all of cinema, in my opinion. It is a 360 degree turn around Casey Affleck’s face as he sits in silence. In the background, an indescribably affecting piece by Arvo Part (“Fur Alina”), plays, and as the camera turns so incredibly slowly, I felt so isolated, so alone; I felt exactly as Affleck’s character felt, distant and hopeless, simultaneously in awe of the lanscape around me and contemptuous of my inability to escape it.

It is for these reasons and more that I will forever value Gerry as a work of cinema of the highest order, a masterpiece meant to be experienced and felt, rather than enjoyed. It’s one of those few movies that enlightens and enriches me with its power.

Elephant (2003)

In the wake of the Columbine massacre, schools across the world were in shock, and the media industry was thriving on it. Reporters and journalists were searching for new angles to capture the story from, new ideas to drag out of it, and Gus van Sant was sickened by the way they treated it, as some circus, some exciting event. What particularly bothered him was the way they searched for explanations, tried to reason why it happened and what the killers’ motives were. Gus van Sant made a movie not to answer questions, but to criticise the people who thought questioning was important. In Elephant, there is no motive. There is only meaningless violence, without reason or cause. It is one of two great movies to examine violence in this way. The other is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.

In Elephant, the school day begins as normal. Van Sant uses long, unbroken tracking shots to follow students as they walk across the school campus. He observes normality in such a lingering and detailed way that the disarray that occurs in the last 20 minutes is made all the more jarring and disturbing. The tracking shots are long and seemingly uneventful, but critical and important. For those of us not knowing the ending, we see it as normal life depicted with truth and realism. For those of us knowing the ending, it is a puzzle as we attempt to decode who the killers will be. The latter is not a good way of looking at the film; there is no mystery. Those looking for an explanation need to realize the futility in explanations when the real reason seems so black-and-white: for these boys, violence is fun, and it will make them famous. In a campus full of hundreds, thousands of people, many of them unnoticeable sheep and some with the personalities of corpses, these are two boys searching for a way to stand out and be different. And with a taste for violence and access to weaponry, the solution is easy.

When violence does arrive, Gus van Sant makes sure the audience doesn’t get any satisfaction in it. I would not describe it as a “bloody climax,” because that implies an exciting action ending. Violence is often exciting in movies; it is horrifying here, and those of us who get an adrenalin rush in action movies when people are blasted away (i.e. most of us, honestly) will be absolutely abhorred by the climax of this movie. Even when one character who deserves to die is killed, it is shocking and disturbing.

But I think the early sequences setting up the characters are far more interesting than the shootings; the camerawork is far more engaging, there is more dialogue and the introduction of characters allows us to make our own judgments on them, as well as forming those judgements by examining the way they react to the minutiae of normality. The casual attitudes characters have early in the film look terrifying when juxtaposed with the casualness of all the murders at the end. There is no killer screaming as he unloads bullets into a whole line of people. There is a person getting shot, and nothing more. Van Sant’s attitude toward violence should be commended. This is one of the most chilling movies I’ve ever seen.

Last Days (2005)

The music world was shaken in 1994 when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, Gus van Sant began to make plans to make a film about it, but this was delayed until 2005, and the plot was changed so that the film was about a fading rock star “similar to Cobain,” played by Michael Pitt in one of his earliest roles. It seems like a simple role for Pitt to play, but as the film unfolds we see the infinite layers of complexity in his performance.

His portrayal of a fading rock star named Blake is superbly realistic; we see him and recognize him as one of those musical geniuses who has faded into obscurity after battles with drugs and a fall from stardom. We’ve seen people like him before. But their lives, or perhaps more accurately their after-lives, their last days as they sink to the final depths, have never been portrayed with such stunning detail and believability as van Sant does here. As with the previous two films, the daily routine unfolds in painstaking detail. Visits from a salesman, Mormons, a private investigator and friends are the only real events in Blake’s life, and he tries as hard as he can to avoid them. He runs off into the forest to escape, and when he is at home he is doing one of two things: making music or mulling in his own self-indulgent sadness. He is really quite pitiful, and yet when the suicide finally does come, we feel guilty for endorsing it, and wish that someone had been able to help him. Van Sant elects not to show the man kill himself; the last shot we see of him alive is a closeup of him looking into the distance as heavenly bells and noises ring out, enticing him to die and arrive in… somewhere. Somewhere else beyond earth, where music blares loudly and Blake can find some sense of peace.

Though most of the time he is a complete mess, a bag of bones with little to no humanity left in him, van Sant does allow him to play music, and in one moving scene wisely shot in a single static take, he plays a remarkable song with his guitar, his last song before his exit from the world. Van Sant shows us him doing all that he does in a series of long takes that rarely cut. Some static shots are unbelievably long, and when they move it is with an incredibly slow pace, such as the long dolly shot which starts at the window of Blake’s music room and ever slowly moves away from it, as Blake’s mournful cry for help becomes more and more distant and helpless. He refuses to let people help him because he knows it would be pointless and that they would only be wasting their time. The camera very rarely gets too close to Blake, allowing him his distance and making us feel even sadder that he is so alone and without comfort. Blake realizes how worthless his life is, and even those that care about him aren’t surprised when he dies. One visitor reveals to us that he has a daughter whom he presumably doesn’t care about, and asks: “Do you tell her you’re a rock and roll cliche?” Yes, it is not just Blake who realizes his worthlessness.

But still we feel sad when he dies, and Van Sant manages to mix this sadness with a feeling of relief, as we know that he’s at peace; to add another twist, he also implies that Blake will have to atone for his sins and work before he’ll be allowed to rest in a peaceful place. This is implied by a shot of Blake’s corpse, from which we see his transparent spirit rise up and climb up to the sky – not float to the sky, as many spirits do in movies, but climb, bruised, naked and cold. Blake’s sad life has finally ended, and even if his death doesn’t leave as big an effect on the world as Cobain’s, we still hope that his sad passing will be recognized, and that people will have at least one fond memory of him.

Those are my reviews of van Sant’s Death trilogy. If you’ve seen any of the films, let me know what you thought in the comments below. Thanks!

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Posted on December 22, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I have never been a very big Gus Van Sant fan, though I’ll be the first to admit he certainly has some excellent films.

    Nice work!

  2. I had seen his films prior to these, but Last Days, Gerry, and Elephant, in that order, these are the films that either won me over or solidified me as a Van Sant fan.

  3. Gerry doesn’t sound like something i would like to be honest. Elephant i could get into however

  4. Never got around to seeing Gerry. Elephant and Last Days I saw when they came out. The former I thought was interesting in the way it passed between characters and repeated scenes from multiple perspectives, but in the end I don’t think it really added up to much. The latter just bored me to tears, I didn’t feel anything going on in it at all.

    • I think GERRY is the best of the trilogy, but I can’t guarantee you will like it. Still, you might as well see it just to finish the trilogy, and tell me what you think.

  5. Elephant is such an underrated film. I love it for its topic but more so the direction. Haven’t seen The Last Days. Will add it to my list. Cheers!

    • This trilogy just melts my brain with its brilliance. Did you know that it is called the Death trilogy, because each film focuses on death at the hands of a different person. GERRY is about death at the hands of someone you trust, ELEPHANT is about death at the hands of a complete stranger, and LAST DAYS is about the death at the hands of yourself (ie, suicide). LAST DAYS is incredibly moving, so I recommend you see it.

  6. I have come back to watch Elephant over and over, and Gerry twice. I agree totally with everything you said…looking forward to watching the other one soon.

  7. Put on headphones and truly listen to the suicide scene in Last Days. Door? Footsteps? What about Pitt’s eye movement? All of it could have merit or else simply be an unexplainable force. But that is what I like about Van Sant–his exploration of objectivity. He picks no particular side in the cause of Cobain’s death. Besides, physically dying isn’t what this film is really about.

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