Monday, August 26, 2013

the Directors: Gus Van Sant

One of the best parts about watching a Gus Van Sant movie is being aware that you’re watching a Gus Van Sant movie. His best films are so distinctly spawned from the same man, that they remain a joy to rediscover time and again. Whether it’s through subtle humor, stark photography, bold material or raw execution, American independent cinema is seldom more accomplished than Gus Van Sant at his best.

Another distinguishing factor of a Van Sant film: he often chooses to shoot his characters from behind, following them on their journey. This is a very purposeful shot (one that I absolutely love in films), and lends a different perspective than if the camera acted as the character’s eye. Gus Van Sant doesn’t want us seeing his films through his characters’ worlds. He wants us to see it through his. Which, for better or worse, I will always welcome.

Mala Noche (1986)
Mala Noche is the type of debut film from a great filmmaker that feels exactly how a debut film from a great filmmaker should. It’s messy, occasionally nonsensical, and, most importantly, honest. It’s the unique vision of a man who, in just 78 minutes, makes it be clear that his vision demands to be seen.

The film tells the story of a gay store clerk, Walt, who longs for the affection of a Mexican kid his age, Johnny. When Johnny rebukes Walt’s advances, Walt settles for Johnny’s best friend, Pepper. From there, the film intermittently cuts in bouts of sexual tension, jealousy, revenge and regret. The purposefully distorted narrative is made all the more opaque via the film’s grainy, black and white cinematography and stylized editing. I can’t argue that Mala Noche needs to be seen by everyone, but, for fans of Van Sant’s vision, it’s a trip going back to the source. B+

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
I first took notice of Gus Van Sant as a result of Good Will Hunting. Upon being impacted by that film at an early age, I went back and watched all of his earlier work immediately. The best film I discovered was the drug-fueled head-trip masterpiece, Drugstore Cowboy.

Drugstore Cowboy affected me in a way I cannot explain better than by simply describing it as fucking raw. At that point, I had never seen a movie in which characters go about using drugs not as a means of recreation, but because they have to. That’s what the film taught me: that addiction is a disease, not a choice. But, this being a Gus Van Sant film, he often depicts the hell in Drugstore Cowboy with a certain amount of glee. As in, Matt Dillon and Co. enjoy boosting expensive and exclusive pills from pharmacies. They enjoy bullshitting the cops and entertaining ridiculous superstitions. They enjoy it all, until the disease catches up and proves that play time is over.

To watch Drugstore Cowboy is to witness a supremely talented filmmaker getting it all right. Qualms about Van Sant’s style may be fairly applied in a negative fashion to some of his other films, but certainly not this one. It gets it all right and then some. A+

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
At its core, My Own Private Idaho is a film about a confused kid trying to find himself. But the fact that the kid in question is played with such distinctive intensity by River Phoenix, the film as a whole has always deserved specific attention.

Phoenix plays Mike, a gay street hustler roughing it in Seattle, Portland, Idaho, wherever, all while battling a crippling narcolepsy diagnosis. People come in and out of Mike’s life, namely Scott (Keanu Reeves) a fellow working boy who Mike falls for, and Bob (William Richert) the amusingly incoherent leader of Mike and Scott’s hustler gang. It takes Mike a while to discover what journey he’s on, but once he settles on finding his mother and father, My Own Private Idaho becomes a despondent road movie, full of melancholic paths to nowhere.

This is a film that grows on me everytime I watch it. But because of its slow pace and dedication to character authenticity, it isn’t exactly an easy film to take. Still, to argue that there is another film like it would be utterly inaccurate. A-

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is about Sissy (Uma Thurman), a young woman born with abnormally long thumbs, which makes it very easy for her to hitchhike her way around the country (yes, this is a major plot point in the movie). She makes her way to New York, becomes a transvestite, meets a Mohawk (played by… Keanu Reeves), discovers drugs, sex, religion(s) and on and on. To be fair, if the film sounds ridiculous, that’s because it’s ridiculous on purpose; an intended romp hoping to speak about larger issues through farce. I give Van Sant credit for trying (I always give him credit for trying) but Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a failed experiment at best. D+

To Die For (1995)
Suzanne Stone wants to change the world through her cutthroat investigative journalism (i.e. being famous on TV). To do this, Suzanne (Nicole Kidman) uses her greatest asset to her advantage: she seduces a man with her sexuality and marries him for his money. Problem is, Larry (Matt Dillon) actually loves Suzanne, and never realizes that he’s a pawn in her scheme to make it big. When Larry kindly stresses his desire to start a family, Suzanne takes it as a slight to her career, and goes about having Larry killed.

If there’s one aspect about Van Sant’s films that doesn’t get discussed enough, it is the man’s uncanny brand of humor. All of his films contain moments (if ever so brief) of very dry, and often very dark comedy. To Die For is the best example of this. The film is ruthless, shocking, and hysterical, without ever forcing its humor. As Suzanne, Kidman is as good as she’s ever been. The role helped launch her career to what it is today: an impressive filmography dominated by eclectic women.

I love how far Van Sant is willing to push To Die For, but, moreover, I love how the cast plays it with such gusto. A-

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting holds up. As an exercise in fluid storytelling, powerful acting, minimalist direction and seamless editing, it’s a film I can return to as often as I’d like, with no fear of having its impact lessened. As a movie lover, I’m most drawn to the very different dynamics Will (Matt Damon) has with the two most important men in his life, his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and his therapist Sean (Robin Williams). I can watch Will’s interactions with this two men ceaselessly, thanks much in part to the authenticity of Damon and Affleck’s original screenplay.

As a filmmaker, what most impresses me about Good Will Hunting is its first 20 minutes. Those minutes are nothing more than a collection of vignettes that establish our title character. We haven’t met some key figures in Will’s life yet, but we get to know him through beer-fueled interactions with his friends, pensive rides on the subway, inexplicable math equations completed for fun. It’s a faultless introduction to a very complex character. The film just moves so damn well. A

Psycho (1998)
In college, I wrote a thesis paper on Hitchcock’s Psycho compared to Van Sant’s Psycho. I was obsessive. I put two TVs next to each other, hit play at the same time and studied to see if Van Sant’s version was indeed a shot-for-shot of the original (it wasn’t). I listened to the dialogue to see if it was more or less the same (more or less, sure). I studied the mannerisms of Van Sant’s actors to see how they compared to Hitchcock’s, and so on. But after watching both films side by side a few times, I realized that watching them didn’t really tell me anything about them.

So, in an effort to discover Van Sant’s intentions, I listened to his director’s commentary, in which he admitted that the only reason he remade Psycho was to motivate younger audiences to seek out the original. And that’s when I realized: these two films aren’t meant to be watched side by side. The latter only exists so you can further appreciate the former. Job well done. D+

Finding Forrester (2000)
The naysayers argue that Finding Forrester is nothing but a cheap Good Will Hunting knockoff. Troubled kid from the streets (who is actually a closet genius) happens across a mentor who changes his life. There is a girl. There are neglected friends. There is a somewhat villainous male counterpart. And so on. And honestly, that criticism is fair to a point. But I wouldn’t call the film cheap, rather, extraneously familiar.

There are things to appreciate. Like Sean Connery’s final great performance, matched by Rob Brown’s fearless debut. F. Murray Abraham’s vengeful, elitist asshole carries as much weight as the film’s brief but compelling basketball sequences. And, of course, Harris Savides’ dark and reserved cinematography makes the film look a lot better than it may deserve to. Not cheap, familiar. B

Gerry (2002)
So here it is. After the success of To Die For and Good Will Hunting were followed by two disappointments, Van Sant went back to the source. He returned to American independent cinema and sought to tell the stories he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell them. The result was four consecutive films that collectively made less than half of what Van Sant’s Psycho grossed. But measuring these films by monetary gain is useless. What they’re worth in cinematic merit is far more important.

First up in Van Sant’s journey for (re)self-discovery is Gerry, a film starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon’s acting, as well as Harris Savides’ mesmerizing photography. The film is about two guys named Gerry who go for a hike and get lost. And that’s it. Two guys wandering around for 103 minutes, debating to go this way or that way, wondering when and if they’ll escape. The film uses little dialogue, extremely long takes and stark photography to very patiently tell its story.

Whether or not you like the film depends entirely on how much you’re willing to put up with. Some may struggle through Gerry and label it as a film school experiment not worthy of your time. Others, like myself, deem it a courageous exploration of isolation, loss and regret. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that this is the world as seen through Gus Van Sant. A

Elephant (2003)
Elephant was the perfect film about a terrible crime made at the perfect time. It is a slow retelling of a Columbine-like high school massacre, in which the viewer can do nothing but watch in horror. Elephant spends its first act following several students around throughout the course of their day. We watch them walk the halls, go to class, eat lunch, and so on. Van Sant shows us these mundane details, fully aware that the boredom these characters are forced to go through will seem like heaven compared to what they face next.

From there, we meet Alex and Eric, two troubled kids who are planning something awful. It’s best to cease plot details there, because even though you know where Elephant is going, its blunt images (again shot through Savides’ lens) speak far more than my words ever could.

As an experiment in bold filmmaking, Elephant is a masterpiece. It does a very careful thing of avoiding the issue – any issue. It isn’t a critique on bullying, gun control, or adolescent neglect. It’s simply a horrific story that we watch unfold with sheer dread. The first time I watched this film, I sat silent afterwards for longer than the film’s running time. I was shocked, appalled, and utterly terrified. Simply put: Elephant is the best film Gus Van Sant has ever made. An important issue film that never makes clear what the issue is. A+

Last Days (2005)
In keeping with the distinctly obscure narrative of his prior two films, Last Days captures the final days of the life of a Kurt Cobain-type figure. With the camera often set from afar, we watch as Blake (Michael Pitt) walks and sleeps in thick woods, eats childish food, avoids those looking for him, sings occasionally, talks infrequently, until he vanishes.

Like Gerry and Elephant, Last Days tests its viewer’s patience. Van Sant isn’t concerned with showing snippets of a life, instead opting for extended, unbroken shots of the routine details that we spend the majority of our waking hours completing. There’s no grandstanding in this film, no extended speeches of hope, or exaggerated monologues of dread. Although it can strain your attention, it’s the kind of film I most enjoy watching Van Sant make. A perfect end to his unofficial Death Trilogy, one I can revisit and always gain something new from. A-

Paranoid Park (2007)
The narrative of Paranoid Park revolves around a horrible act that main character Alex (Gabe Nevins) has committed. After stakeboarding at a local park, Alex decides to ride illegally on a freight train with a friend just for the hell of it. But after a scuffle with a security guard results in the guard’s gruesome (and accidental) death, Alex hasn’t a clue what to do. In fact, the way he reacts is not unlike how a 16-year-old thinks he should react, based on what he’s seen in movies. Alex ditches his skateboard, goes home, doesn’t mention the crime, showers, throws away his clothes, and so on.

But none of this, mind you, is done with the sensationalism we’ve come to expect from standard Hollywood fare. Paranoid Park is as Van Sant as Van Sant movies get, which means little dialogue, zero explanation and nearly unattainable catharsis. The film, shot on the cheap in Portland, Oregon, using a cast of unknowns, remains one of Van Sant’s lesser-seen works, which shouldn’t take away from its slow-burning impact. A-

Milk (2008)
Every director has a passion project; that one film they promise themselves they’ll make by any means necessary. For Gus Van Sant, it was Milk, a narrative recreation of the life and times of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated by his colleague in the late ‘70s. Van Sant came close to getting the film made in the early ‘90s (with River Phoenix cast in the role that eventually went to Emile Hirsch), but in all honestly, I’m glad it took Van Sant as long as it did to get this film made.

Had he made it prior to 2008, he may not have had Sean Penn on board to play the lead, and play it so flawlessly. He may not have had Savides to capture ‘70s San Francisco with the over-exposed, cold lens that seems necessary. Hell, he may not have even had Josh Brolin to convincingly fill the role of Milk’s assassin, Dan White. And perhaps, because he was forced to wait so long, Van Sant was able to recreate the film over and over in his head, stripping away the unessential, and leaving the preachy rhetoric out of it. Milk isn’t defamatory, nor is it accusatory. It’s simply a story. A story of a man who sought to change things, and did. This film is a passion project come to light in the best possible way. A-

Restless (2011)
In Restless, a young kid who spends his days crashing funerals and talking with his best friend (who is a ghost), comes across an equally odd young woman, and they form a relationship based on mutually bizarre affections. In many ways, Restless is about as close to a young love story as Gus Van Sant will probably ever make. It’s odd in the director’s standard way, but, sadly, not very interesting. Henry Hopper (son of Dennis Hopper) and Mia Wasikowska put in good work as the film’s leads, but I rarely cared about where they were going, or why. Credit Savides for making the film look amazing, and writer Jason Lew for not always sticking to the obvious, but Resltess doesn’t nearly feel as powerful as it wants to be. C-

Promised Land (2012)
This film was doomed from the start. Promised Land was pitched as Matt Damon’s directorial debut. He penned the script with fellow actor John Krasinski, and the two hoped to make a splash with a concentrated, important message movie. But when Damon’s plate became full, he asked his friend, Gus Van Sant, to come on board as director. The result is the Gus Van Sant film that feels nothing like a Gus Van Sant film. The film, for what it’s worth, is about a hotshit energy company employee (Damon) eyeing a big promotion. All he has to do is travel to one more small town and buy the natural gas from the citizens who own it.

For starters, the script is tired, and contains a host of clichés we’ve all seen before. There’s a pointless romance subplot that adds nothing to anything (which, frankly, is above Van Sant) and the movie ends with as heavy handed a message as I’ve ever seen (which Van Sant is certainly above).

Promised Land is a film that feels like a favor gone wrong. I’m not at all sure what Van Sant has planned next, but I long for a return to form. Something small, something bold, something patient. Something distinctly Van Sant. D+

In Summation
Drugstore Cowboy
Good Will Hunting

My Own Private Idaho
To Die For
Last Days
Paranoid Park

Mala Noche
Finding Forrester


Just Plain Bad
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Promised Land


  1. Gus Van Sant is definitely one of my favorite filmmakers though I think his last film was a real disappointment and I really hope he goes back to making more experimental features. His mainstream stuff is OK but he needs to do stuff that means something. Not developing projects with Taylor Lautner. Oh, and here's my list of his best work w/ a few segments that he did for a few anthology films.

    1. Nice picks. I hope he makes his way back to experimental films as well. Is he actually developing a project with Lautner? Please tell me that was you being funny.

    2. I had heard of that project as well, it was supposed to be about an underground boxing/fighting sort of thing. I keep hearing/reading things of Lautner being involved and then not (he's said he only wants to work on interesting scripts and with interesting directors - so his first movie after Twilight is Grown Ups 2...). I'll see it just because I like Van Sant but Lautner's involvement is still hazy from the looks of it.

    3. Wow. That just... does not sound like a good idea.

  2. I love Van Sant but even I am not foolish enough to watch a film w/ Taylor Launter. The shithead can't draw a fucking dime let alone act. All I've seen him do is smile and just look constipated whenever he just tries to act. I don't give a shit if he's got a black belt on karate or whatever he does. I can kick his fucking ass and I would be honored if I got to break that stupid smile those dumb little bitches love.

    1. Ha, Jesus. Well I agree with you on one point: I can't foresee myself watching a movie starring him.

  3. Ooo good post and great director. My favouite Van Sant movie is To Die For, even though I haven't seen it in ages. It was just so funny and weird and Nicole Kidman delivers one of my favourite performances ever in it.
    I also love Good Will Hunting and Milk and I was totally mesmerised while watching My Own Private Idaho and Elephant.
    Drugstore Cowboy, Gerry and Last Days have been on my watchlist for ages now. Really must get to them.

    1. Thanks! To Die For is great, and Kidman is priceless in it. I highly recommend Drugstore Cowboy, and it's best to watch Gerry, Elephant and Last Days in very quick succession. Great stuff.

  4. Great post! Love your 3 masterful picks. I'd add Gerry and Paranoid Park to round out my top 5, but my favorite would probably be Gerry (just ahead of Good Will Hunting).

    1. Thanks man! I love all of those as well. Gerry is such a unique film. A difficult one, but one I love all the same.

  5. First, this post reminded me how much I love Good Will Hunting. That was a movie that changed a lot of things for me. I was 19 and it simply captivated me. It's so quietly excellent.

    Second, and more pressing, is how few Van Sant films I've seen. In fact, the only others I've seen are Psycho and Finding Forrester.

    Elephant seems like required viewing

    1. Good Will Hunting had a very similar impact on me as well. I think I was... 12 when I saw it though. But still, I love that one.

      Elephant is... wow, powerful and gut wrenching. It knocks the wind out of you.

  6. Great post! My favorite on the list, from among the ones I've seen, is Milk. Adding Elephant to my Netflix queue now.

    1. Thanks! Milk is fantastic, I love that one. Elephant is a must. A tough go, but necessary.

  7. I thought that I had only seen one movie by Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) but it turns out I've seen To Die For and Finding Forrester, all of them I appreciate. I'm curious to see Gerry as I like Casey Affleck as an actor. Great post, Alex, your film knowledge always astounds me :D

    1. Aww thanks Ruth, what a nice thing to say :)

      If you like Casey, I think you'd like Gerry. He's... I dunno, silly, kind of. But he also plays desperate so well. Hope you have a chance to check it out soon.

  8. So Promised Land is really bad? I generally have a big soft spot for middlebrow Matt Damon movies with blatant left wing messages.

    I'll hunt out the better ones on this list, as somehow the entirety of Van Sant's body of work has evaded me. Elephant sounds the most interesting. Surprised at the high rating for Last Days, as this is the only time I've really heard about it previously - .

    1. Promised Land is not so much bad as it is extremely boring. I'm down with messages movies as well, but this one is like "Oh... come... on." It's really quite silly.

      I'd be curious to hear what Kermode has to say about Gerry and Elephant. Last Days is very similar in tone to those two. Interesting to hear him call it the worst film of 2005, maybe he didn't see The Pacifier or Son of the Mask or Alone in the Dark...?

  9. i really liked his short in paris je t'aime as well. one of the more solid ones.

    1. Same here. The end of that segment perfectly capture Van Sant's humor.

  10. I've only seen about half of these. My favorite is To Die For. I love the dark humor in it and it was the first film that really showed me Kidman could act.

    And who can forget Van Sant's acting in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back as the director of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season? It's a tragedy it never made it to the screen. :-)

    1. "Jesus, Ben, I said I'm busy... I'm busy."

      That's one of my all time favorite director cameos. Brilliant.

      I love To Die For much in part for the reason you mentioned. It proved to me that Kidman had game.

  11. This is going to be pretty embarrassing to admit but I've never seen a Gus Van Sant film :/ I guess I should start with Good Will Hunting.

    1. I'd actually start as far back as you can and make your way down. Drugstore Cowboy is a great one to begin with.

  12. Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite films from my childhood. Finding Forrester was good but too long. I'll see soon Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For and Milk.
    Sea of Trees sounds great. The cast, the set, the story. We'll see.

    1. I think Sea of Trees sounds really good too. Quite excited to see it. Van Sant has always been one of my favorites.

  13. Revisiting some of your older posts, I'm struck again by how similar our opinions are on a lot of films and filmmakers that are widely forgotten or disliked. Gus van Sant has always been one of my favourite filmmakers (even though his recent work has not been among his best), and the low-key indie four film stretch from Gerry to Paranoid Park is one of my favourite stretches in any filmmaker's discography. Might I suggest a Directors post on Jim Jarmusch at some point? A lot of my favourite van Sant films remind me of him, and I think he's one of the finest American filmmakers of the last 50 years.

    1. I really appreciate you going back and commenting on some of these old posts. Your comments always got me so damn jazzed! I'd love to do one of these on Jarmusch, but I would have to rewatch all of his stuff. Some of his movies have never really hit for me, but I wonder if I saw them at the wrong time. I think his work would have grown with age for me.