Gus Van Sant's last three films—Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days—were, shall we say, "demanding" works. (Several people I know use other terminology.) All of them patiently defied the quick-cut edits and poppy dialogue of contemporary cinema, but while they're widely regarded by many critics (myself included) as Van Sant's best films, it's rare to meet anybody who enthusiastically gushes over these glacially paced meditations. The trailers for Paranoid Park, on the other hand, make his latest look like a fairly conventional art-house murder flick—and compared to the ambient shuffle of Gerry, I guess it is. But Paranoid Park's still a Van Sant joint, and the director's proclivity for long, artful shots, naturalistic action, and dialogue-free sequences is firmly intact. Where most films are filled with characters who take turns saying things that only advance the narrative, Van Sant is more interested in emotional tonality and the full-disclosure voyeurism of uninterrupted, wordless scenes.
Paranoid Park is pure Portland, and the city has never looked more appealing or authentic on film. Sure, hometown glimpses may be cheesy points of pride for rubes, but hearing the songs of Menomena and Cool Nutz, catching regular spots like Half & Half and the Lloyd Center Ice Rink, and seeing KOIN news anchor Ken Boddie read fictional news with all the right street names and graphics is undeniably fun.
Gabe Nevins plays Alex, an introverted, middle-class skater who gets caught up in the murder of a train yard security guard. The film hypnotically follows Alex as he attempts to go on with life as if nothing ever happened, and we see him, at moments, almost succeed. Sleepwalking through classes, romances, and even police questioning, Alex mentally and spiritually detaches from his everyday existence, just as Van Sant's characters have done in films from My Own Private Idaho to Last Days.
Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li's cinematography here is stunning, and the languid direction works with the film's naturalistic performances to strike a pretty perfect balance between Van Sant's polar levels of accessibility. Paranoid Park is more demanding than almost any movie that will be released this year, but it's also more rewarding, and has since lingered in my head like a haze, long after I've left the theater.