The Films of Gus Van Sant
My Own Private Idaho
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
To Die For
Good Will Hunting
Psycho (August 5/18)
Gus Van Sant's oddball, shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, Psycho follows Anne Heche's Marion Crane as she impulsively steals $400,000 from her boss (Rance Howard's Mr. Lowery) and makes a quick beeline out of the city - with the narrative detailing Marion's fateful exploits after her arrival at a roadside motel run by Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates. There's ultimately little doubt that Psycho fares best during its Marion Crane-focused opening stretch, as filmmaker Gus Van Sant mines an impressive amount of suspense from this portion of the picture - with Heche's better-than-expected (and thoroughly sympathetic) performance heightening the decidedly tense atmosphere. And although Van Sant does an effective job of generally capturing the feel and tone of Hitchcock's obviously superior original, Psycho progresses into a midsection that doesn't entirely work, somehow, and lacks the intensity that one might've expected - which ensures that certain moments designed to pack a visceral punch aren't able to do so, ultimately. (This includes, of course, the fate of William H. Macy's Milton Arbogast.) Vaughn's decent yet fairly underwhelming turn as the iconic Norman Bates surely plays a key role in the movie's less-than-successful execution, while Van Sant's decision to pepper the proceedings with off-kilter elements ultimately adds little to the movie as a whole (ie the infamous shower sequence contains a couple of baffling inserts that only detract from its inherent effectiveness). The end result is a cinematic experiment that has its moments, certainly, but ultimately doesn't hold a candle to its vastly-superior inspiration, which does leave the viewer wondering exactly what Van Sant set out to accomplish when he embarked on this ill-fated journey.
Gerry (January 27/03)
As Seinfeld is to television, Gerry is to cinema - it's a film about nothing. Two friends (both named Gerry) head to the desert for a hike, stray from the recommended path, and soon find themselves lost. Over the course of 103 minutes, we watch as the two walk (a lot), have random conversations, and occasionally extricate themselves from tricky situations. At times, Gerry feels as though it's been crafted to serve as a cinematic endurance test - the sort of film that buddies will dare each other to sit through in its entirety. With its lingering shots of the vast desert landscape and minimal dialogue, director Gus Van Sant goes to great lengths to ensure that we feel just as lost as the two central characters. Equally obtuse are the Gerrys - as played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, these figures are never really developed beyond the superficial (we learn that Damon is the more dominant of the two because he admonishes Affleck for crying, but that's about the extent of it). Still, the film remains oddly compelling, mostly due to director of photography Harris Savides' absolutely breathtaking cinematography. If nothing else, Gerry serves as a feature-length travelogue of the American West. The few instances where the two characters have to work out a problem, such as when Affleck finds himself trapped atop a large boulder, are a welcome respite from the almost interminable walking sequences (one such scene goes on for six or seven minutes, and consists of the two hiking side-by-side - without actually saying a single thing to each other). But there's no denying that Van Sant has crafted a film that's utterly unique. Though it's been made with a tenth the budget of most Hollywood films, it's certainly more interesting (if only on a purely visual level) than the majority of cliched mainstream product.
Elephant (November 4/03)
After going mainstream over the last few years with movies like Finding Forrester and Psycho, Gus Van Sant seems to be making a concerted effort to move in the other direction. Gerry, released earlier this year, was a plotless examination of how two men react to becoming lost in an expansive desert. With Elephant, Van Sant continues to experiment visually but has churned out a film that's not nearly as bizarre and obtuse as Gerry. Elephant transpires over the space of a few hours one fateful day at an American high school, where a couple of put-upon students are about to go on a Columbine-esque rampage. We meet several other students, including a popular jock and a sensitive photographer, as Van Sant's camera glides through the halls of this nameless institution. The first thing one notices while watching Elephant is how visually striking the film is. The majority of the movie has been shot using a SteadiCam, and there are numerous uninterrupted takes that go on for several minutes. Perhaps because they require meticulous planning, the inclusion of such long shots are becoming more and more rare in contemporary cinema (thankfully, there is a select cadre of filmmakers keeping this technique alive, including Paul Thomas Anderson and Brian De Palma). But Van Sant embraces this aesthetically pleasing style, and peppers his film with many instances of dreamy camerawork. The audience is lulled into a celluloid reverie, which makes the brutal reality of the last 20-minutes even more crushing. Put it this way: Even if the film's content were lackluster, Elephant would still be worth a look if only for the memorable visuals. It's in the film's contents that Van Sant falters, though. First and foremost, he's hired a cast that's comprised almost entirely of amateurs (Matt Malloy and Timothy Bottoms, as the principal and a parent, are the most notable exceptions). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the majority of these kids manage to bring a palpable sense of realism to their performances. But few of them manage to escape the confines of the stereotypes Van Sant has placed them into, mostly because they just don't have the skill required to do so. Elephant's most glaring flaw, then, involves Van Sant's tendancy to include overly simplistic elements, as the majority of the film's characters can be effectively described using one or two words (ie the popular girls, the shy recluse, etc). The killers fare even more poorly, as we see the two teens playing violent video games and watching a documentary on Hitler - which is, one assumes, meant to explain away their deviant behavior. Having said that, Elephant is nonetheless a remarkably intriguing look at a modern day high school - not to mention one of the most interesting movies on a purely visceral level to come around in a while.
Click here for review.
Milk (November 5/08)
Though it doesn't pack quite the same emotional punch as its non-fiction predecessor, Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk nevertheless proves effective at telling the inherently fascinating story of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), spurred on by the realization that he's wasted his life, impulsively moves to San Francisco's Castro District with his boyfriend (James Franco's Scott Smith) and subsequently decides to run for public office after becoming involved with a myriad of social initiatives. Director Gus Van Sant has infused the early part of Milk with a number of egregiously ostentatious visual choices that effectively keep the viewer at arm's length from the material, with the filmmaker's experimental proclivities often threatening to drown out the movie's myriad of positive attributes - including the uniformly strong work by a supporting cast that includes, among others, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and Josh Brolin (the latter is particularly effective as Milk's nemesis, Dan White). The flabby midsection ultimately gives way to an expectedly engrossing stretch revolving around Milk's infamous Proposition 6 battle, however, and there's little doubt that the movie finally becomes the compelling drama one might've initially envisioned. It's stirring stuff that effectively allows the viewer to overlook the rampantly uneven vibe, with the end result an effort that's never quite as powerful as its lead performance.
Promised Land (January 5/13)
Written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, Promised Land follows natural gas representative Steve Butler (Damon) as he arrives in a small midwestern town intending to buy huge chunks of land for his billion-dollar company - with the film detailing the conflict that arises after an environmentally-conscious crusader (Krasinski's Dustin Noble) begins scaring the locals with fracking horror stories. It's rather unfortunate to note that Promised Land eventually becomes as one-sided as its premise might've indicated, which is a shame, certainly, given the strength of the movie's initial stretch - with Damon's expectedly superb work heightened by a strong supporting cast that includes Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Hal Holbrook. The inclusion of several captivating early sequences - eg Steve's coffee-shop encounter with an avaricious politician - perpetuates the film's compulsively watchable atmosphere, although there does, perhaps inevitably, reach a point at which the narrative begins to demonstrably run out of steam (ie the second half of the film is just crushingly uneventful). It doesn't help, either, that scripters Damon and Krasinski begin to emphasize elements of an almost eye-rollingly unsubtle nature, with the grossly simplistic trajectory of Steve's character arc (ie his eyes are slowly-but-surely opened to the perils of fracking) standing as the most obvious (and problematic) example of this. And although Damon and Krasinski offer up a decent last-minute twist, Promised Land is, in the final analysis, thwarted by a heavy-handed, energy-draining execution that effectively cancels out its positive attributes and cements its place as a hopelessly biased polemic.
The Sea of Trees (August 4/18)
The Sea of Trees follows Matthew McConaughey's Arthur Brennan as he arrives in Japan intending to commit suicide within the country's famed Aokigahara forest, with the character's efforts immediately stymied by the sudden appearance of an injured man (Ken Watanabe's Takumi Nakamura) trying to find his way to safety. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant certainly does an effective job of initially luring the viewer into the deliberately-paced picture, as The Sea of Trees boasts a seriously striking opening stretch that seems to promise a languid yet haunting drama - with this vibe lasting right up until Arthur spots Watanabe's wounded character. The movie, past that point, segues into a fairly uneven narrative that transpires both in the forest and in flashback, with the latter detailing the series of events, involving the rocky relationship between Arthur and Naomi Watts' Joan, that ultimately leads McConaughey's damaged protagonist to the title locale. It does, interestingly enough, become clear that The Sea of Trees is at its best during those flashbacks, as McConaughey and Watts' strong work elevates these somewhat run-of-the-mill sequences and ensures that they remain a highlight within the exceedingly erratic proceedings. The movie's watchable atmosphere takes a steep nosedive as it enters its palpably anticlimactic final stretch, which, when coupled with an absolutely ludicrous conclusion, effectively ensures that The Sea of Trees ends on as underwhelming and unsatisfactory a note as one could possibly envision. It's too bad, really, given the strength of McConaughey's solid work here and Kasper Tuxen's often breathtaking cinematography, with the movie's myriad of positive attributes, in the end, unable to compensate for a screenplay rife with overt deficiencies.
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot (August 18/18)
Based on a true story, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot follows 1970s cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) as a car crash leaves him paralyzed from the waist down - with the loose narrative detailing John's subsequent efforts at going sober and cleaning up his life. There's certainly no denying the inherent familiarity of the movie's well-worn storyline, and yet, for the most part, filmmaker Gus Van Sant does an effective job of putting an erratic yet often engrossing spin on the material - with the captivating opening stretch, which details the events leading up to John's paralysis, certainly ensuring that the picture gets off to an exceedingly promising start. It's equally apparent, however, that the decidedly episodic bent of Van Sant's script paves the way for a somewhat hit-and-miss midsection, with the film's meandering atmosphere generally alleviated by both the uniformly superb performances and a smattering of admittedly compelling sequences (eg John makes amends with the figure responsible for his life-altering injury). Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, then, comes off as a actor's showcase that fares better than most, ultimately, as Phoenix's consistently mesmerizing turn as the sympathetic protagonist goes a long way towards compensating for the movie's periodic missteps - which cements its place as one of Van Sant's best and most entertaining efforts in quite some time.