Gorgeous, lyrical, and absorbing, Gus Van Sant’s latest film, 2007’s Paranoid Park, should appeal even to those who despised his so-called Death Trilogy—comprised of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005). Although I happen to be a fan of those three films (Gerry, in particular), they do sometimes feel more like formal experiments than anything else; it’s Van Sant exploring his influences, evoking and at times simply ripping off Michael Snow, Chatal Akerman, and especially Bela Tarr. Paranoid Park, however, is a film teeming with life. Whereas Elephant observed the lives of adolescents from a distance, suggesting a kind of realism (exemplified, of course, by his use of nonprofessional actors and lack of, well, plot), this film is closer to one of Robert Bresson’s 60s masterworks. Not quite Balthazar (1966), but probably Mouchette (1967). Van Sant continues to use mostly nonprofessional actors, but here he is creating a rarefied aesthetic object—as well as a work of fiction, so when people describe Paranoid Park as “Crime and Punishment with skateboards,” they’re not completely off the mark.
The story, adapted by Van Sant from Blake Nelson’s book, concerns the thoughts of a 16-year-old kid who was involved in a terrible accident resulting in the death of a police officer. Out of this rather dramatic situation, Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle fashion a lusciously expressionistic work of art; mixing magnificently lush 35mm sequences with footage shot on gritty Super-8, the film would be a joy to watch even if it weren’t half as engrossing. Van Sant’s use of music here is also his most ambitious to date; the soundtrack includes artists as varied as Fellini’s favorite composer Nino Rota and indie tragic hero Elliott Smith. All in all, Paranoid Park may be the director’s most accomplished film.