In his latest youth-obsessed headtrip director Gus Van Sant addresses that age old question-would “Crime and Punishment” have been a better read if it had more skateboarding in it? “Paranoid Park” is based on a young adult novel by Blake Nelson which, in turn, offered a riff on Dostoevsky’s classic. Of course, I don’t for a moment mean to suggest this represents the full scope of the filmmaker’s contemplation. On the contrary, Van Sant seems committed to the proposition that lots of moody slo mo interludes might have improved the story too.
Much of the movie’s cast of non actors was recruited through MySpace. Among these is a wide eyed, tousled cipher named Gabe Nevins. He plays Alex, a Portland, Oregon 17 year old who has grown prematurely benumbed to existence. His parents are in the midst of a divorce. His cheerleader girlfriend is getting on his nerves. School is a dull dream he wanders through in a trance.
We observe him in a state approximating happiness and engagement with his environment only once really and this is when he visits the eponymous skateboard park on a fateful Saturday night. As he explains in voice over, the allure of the place has less to do with riding his board (his skills aren’t quite there yet) than with the affinity he feels toward the “train hoppers, guitar punks, skate drunks and throwaway kids” who illegally built the graffiti-dappled amphitheater in the concrete underbelly of a bridge.
It is not clear what attracts Alex to this milieu. His social circle is comprised of bright, upper middle class, reasonably well adjusted kids and he comes off as far too hobbled by inertia to fancy a walk on the wild side. This, however, is only the first of numerous paradoxes Van Sant will prove too preoccupied by technique to be much help in solving.
A grisly accident results in the death of a railroad yard watchman in the course of that evening. The young man certainly did not mean to commit murder. At the same time, he undoubtedly initiated the sequence of events which led to the guard being severed in two by a passing train.
Ostensibly, the film’s primary focus is the moral wrestling match which follows, Alex’s struggle to come to terms with his actions, but I’ll be honest: I wasn’t convinced anything that meaningful or deep was going on here. When a friend mentions that simply writing about something you’ve done can make you feel better, he decides to put the whole terrible business down on paper. It’s not a confession, though, just a self help exercise.
No, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” this isn’t. Van Sant is interested in morality infinitely less than mood. He’s so busy fussing over dreamlike soundscapes and montages in which boarders hover above the earth like baggy jeaned angels that he leaves gaping plot holes in the story. A homicide detective (Daniel Liu) visits with the school’s skaters, for example, to find out whether any of them were at the Park on the night of the crime. He tells them police know someone struck the security guard with a skateboard before he died and then threw it into the river. He tells them police have it and that it has the deceased’s DNA on it but, inexplicably, the detective doesn’t produce the board and just ask the kids to identify its owner. Half the students in the room would have recognized it as Alex’s. End of story.
Instead: Scene after scene of Nevins walking the high school hallways in slo mo. Instead: Alex penning his account-the movie’s framing device-fracturing and flip-flopping the narrative as if he’d just taken an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu appreciation course. Instead: A hypnotic soundtrack stringing together everything from Nino Rota and thrash metal to Elliott Smith and Beethoven. Instead: Montage after montage of airborne skateboarders shot in both Super-8 and 35-millimeter and at various film speeds. Larry Clark meets Warren Miller.
“Paranoid Park” has been hailed as Van Sant’s finest film and it certainly does have its knowing moments and nice touches. The chief triumph here, it seems to me though, is one of style over substance. The disaffected kids who shuffle through its universe have nothing to say, nothing to tell us. I’m not sure the movie has a whole lot more.