Gus Van Sant’s multiplex days already feel like a distant memory: one imagines the director working on Paranoid Park, looking back on Finding Forrester with a shudder and gaining the strength to cut in another five minutes of wordless 16mm skateboard footage. And although this new film is more straightforward than either Last Days or Gerry, it still bears the hallmarks of a filmmaker on a mission to escape convention.
Shot, like Elephant and Last Days before it, in Van Sant’s home base of Portland, Oregon, the film focuses on skate-obsessed teenager Alex and his involvement in the accidental death of a train yard security man close to the eponymous hangout. Deliberately oblique and open-ended, the fractured narrative is constructed through snippets of Alex’s memory and his written recollections of that night’s events. The script, adapted from a novel by local author Blake Nelson, feels loose and improvised, and engagingly natural. But the structure is uneven – Van Sant’s decision to hold back full revelation of the story’s key events is a sound one, and ensures a level of surprisingly intense, simmering tension throughout the first two acts of the film. The crime itself is revealed in a sequence of extraordinary horror, and the immediate aftermath is stunningly realised and utterly overwhelming. But once the shock has worn off the tension inevitably dissipates, and the final scenes struggle to maintain momentum: even at 85 minutes, the film feels a little overlong.
The actors, sourced via a casting call on MySpace, are largely non-professional, naturalistic and occasionally rather awkward. As Alex, Gabe Nevins is essentially asked to carry the film – he appears in practically every scene, the entire story told through his eyes. He never seems quite comfortable in front of the camera, but it is this very uncertainty that makes the character sympathetic. Set apart from the adolescent world that surrounds him, Alex seems somehow helpless, conflicted about his parents, his friends, his sexuality and most importantly how to absorb and deal with the terrible events in which he becomes involved. Alex’s only release is skating: watching it, talking about it, doing it. The film regularly lapses into golden reveries of skate footage, roaming 16mm cameras tracking floating teenage figures around parks, streets, empty swimming pools.
Aside from this rough footage by Rain Kathy Li, the majority of the film is photographed by Christopher Doyle and bears many of his familiar hallmarks. Although the direction is all Van Sant, with long tracking shots of characters in motion, close-ups on pensive faces and unexpected cutaways, the look of the film is unmistakeably Doyle: richly coloured, warmly textured and highly evocative.
Perhaps the film’s most bizarre and notable characteristic is its aural landscape: natural and artificial sounds are used to sparing but brilliant effect, accentuating the paranoia inherent in the central character’s situation. And ranging from blippy electronic soundscapes to excerpts from Fellini scores via thrash metal, hip hop, trad country and two inevitable (and perfectly chosen) contributions from the late Elliott Smith, the soundtrack feels at times comically incongruous, at others bewitchingly appropriate. But it works wonderfully, contrasting or complementing the images in a way that is occasionally perplexing but consistently memorable: an apt description for the film as a whole.