Gus Van Sant's so-called "Death Trilogy" may have culminated two years ago with crowning achievement "Last Days," but to judge by his latest film, "Paranoid Park," the entropic weight of mortality is still very much at the center of the filmmaker's concerns. Moving beyond the Death Trilogy's Bela Tarr-grafted stories of self- and other-inflicted violence, Van Sant now tinkers with his trademark stylistic oddities, nonlinear narrative devices, and thematic ideas to fashion a heterogeneous, experimental grab-bag that even for him and his death obsession becomes seemingly familiar and evocatively strange.
And also just as often only strangely familiar and seemingly strange. By "Last Days" Van Sant had mastered the Tarr template and in the process made it his own; with "Paranoid Park" he's starting to reinvent himself yet again, but just as "Gerry" was an interesting but awkward first attempt in creating significant distance from late Nineties commercial efforts like "Good Will Hunting" and the remade "Psycho," so may "Park" ultimately prove a transitional step into gradually more assured territory. No longer content to remain at arm's length from his brooding protagonists as in the Death Trilogy, here Van Sant plunges (though not completely, as there's still a layer of depth that refuses to be permeated) into the troubled subjectivity of teenage skate brat Alex (amateur actor Gabe Nevins, who along with the film's other young actors auditioned via myspace), who accidentally causes the death of a night watchman while hopping a train. In representing that subjectivity, Van Sant's arsenal of aesthetic tricks, including a few carryovers from his "My Own Private Idaho" days, yields wildly disparate results: at its worst, "Paranoid Park" plays like an affected, artified "reclamation" of hackneyed Warp Tour-era skater poses, with endless repetitions of grainy super-8 and languid slo-mo shots indulging Van Sant's prurient gaze and naively intending to impart the dreamworld of romantically disaffected youth.
But at its best, "Paranoid Park" (as adapted from Blake Nelson's novel) perfectly captures the alienation of not just another grumpy high schooler but an adolescent in the grips of true moral crisis. Coming after the Death Trilogy's detached minimalism, many of the sensorial images here are downright startling. The highlight is an extended shower scene ten times scarier than "Psycho"'s failed recreation: after the accident Alex hangs his head in a slowly altering darkness (Christopher Doyle's underlit, shallow-focus cinematography is nowhere more effective), water pinning him down rather than absolving, as a high-pitched squeal and bird chirps crest uncomfortably on the soundtrack. Feverish soundscapes, constantly modulating in relation to environment and character, have recently become Van Sant's forte, and in "Paranoid Park" he creates oddly natural concurrences between high school hallways and Billy Swan, shopping malls and Nino Rota (as lifted from "Juliet of the Spirits" and "Amarcord"), freight yards and Beethoven. Alex's alienation is given terrific expression in the musical motifs associated with friends and possible enemies: ominous electronic compositions for an investigating detective (Dan Liu) and the skate punk (Scott Green) who seduces him into the fateful train hop; the ironic muzaky jazz of Fellini for adoring, pimply-faced friend Macy (Lauren McKinney) and demanding valley girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen); hardcore cacophonies for callous best friend Jared (Jake Miller). Van Sant has even learned a bit about the way teenagers speak and interact, at least compared to the wholly unconvincing schoolhouse absurdities he pawned off in "Elephant." Though he often remains a cherubic blank, Alex is given tender and humorous dimension by scenes effectively conveying the ambiguous place he occupies in the high school hierarchy as an upper middle-class Portland child of divorcing parents, too weird for rich bitch cheerleader Jennifer but too privileged for the "throwaway" street kids Alex worshipfully observes at the titular skating park.
If this all sounds more atmospheric than existential (unlike "Last Days", which balanced both), that's because it just might be. The film certainly tails off with an resolved "unresolved" conclusion that's by now an indie cliche, and without a stronger presence for a lead actor (Nevins's conflicted inner monologue after the accident carries no sense of urgency) it's difficult to harbor real empathy for Alex, even by Van Sant's circumventive, anti-psychological standards. But "Paranoid Park" is still a thoroughly exciting exploration of cinematic possibilities, and punctuated as it is by accomplished consciousness-approximating tracking shots and melancholic renderings of autumnal gloom, it more than occasionally makes for a haunting one.