Van Sant’s skillful marriage of form, tone and content is exemplified in the central incident at the core of the film (do not read on, not even the rest of this sentence after the parentheses, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know any plot details!), the bissection by train of a security guard. In Blake Nelson’s novel, the guard is knocked down and killed by the train during a scuffle, but Van Sant’s decision to restage the death as a bravura sequence of baroque violence, during which the guard is cut in half, living long enough to crawl pleadingly towards his accidental killer, pushes the film into a new zone of oneiric excess. In a film that constructs a strong tinge of naturalism, this moment, briefly going all Dario Argento on us, could easily have overpowered the surrounding drama, but instead it effectively lodges in the memory as a bizarre and imposing memory that will haunt our central protagonist forever, regardless of whether he eventually takes responsibility for it. (See here for more on the distinctions between book and film.)
Van Sant has suggested that this event, sitting temporally and dramatically in the middle of the film, represents all of the divisions and separations contained in the film – divorced parents, the gulf between adults and youth (Alex’s parents are seen almost entirely in long shots, and his mother’s face is never shown), and the binary oppositions of confession/concealment, guilt/innocence, conformity/individuality. The death of the guard doesn’t really need all of this symbolic freight: it is important enough that it stands as an extravagantly shocking fragment of time that stays as Alex’s personal secret and permanently separates him from others.
It’s a separation that Van Sant enforces with overwhelming bursts of ambient sound, extreme slow motion and compositions that isolate Alex or hide his face from view (even when we can see his face, it is often difficult to read – a blankness that emerges as troubled contemplation rather than listless unconcern), but also with his signature following shots, illustrated below with examples from Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park :
The shot from Gerry is no doubt a tribute to Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, with tumbleweeds standing in for Tarr’s flurries of litter. I thought perhaps that Van Sant was using this shot to suggest that he was observing, following and being led by his protagonists, rather than positioning them along pre-ordained lines of action. It’s certainly unsettling to have faces hidden, backs to the camera and destinations unknown. But, particularly in Elephant and Last Days, the impression of ineluctible lines of fate drawing people towards a mortal destiny is difficult to shake. Elephant‘s tracking shots bring the film’s scattered characters gradually into deadly coincidence, while in Last Days Blake’s wanderings in the woods are more circular, repetitive and searching. It seems that Van Sant has found a range of different meanings for nearly identical shots, and by the time we get to Paranoid Park, it has become part of a more varied visual syntax that comprises a picture of Alex’s conflicted state of mind.
There are problems with Paranoid Park. It is dismissive of Alex’s girlfriend, portraying her as needy, self-absorbed and desperate for social acceptance. By portraying her as a needling representative of the forces of conformity, Van Sant misses out on a chance for compassionate consideration of the forces that alienate, control and define her. It’s reminiscent of the crude, embarrassing moment in Elephant where a group of chattering schoolgirls casually puke up their lunches in a synchronised display of eating disorders that makes them easy targets for laughter rather than dismay. But I’d hate to see Paranoid Park considered the runt of the litter in Van Sant’s great run of fascinating, exploratory movies.