Until we recorded the fifth episode of our podcast, I’d only seen two Gus Van Sant films: his infamous 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and his 2018 biopic of the late cartoonist John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. I thought the former was interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable, and the latter I thought was simply a good film. But I was never really drawn to Van Sant as a filmmaker. I’m not sure why. I’d heard high praise for some of his films, especially My Own Private Idaho, but I’d heard others panned into the ground. Maybe it’s just because he doesn’t have a public persona the way a lot of directors do: he’s a private enough guy that he doesn’t even have a personal life section on his Wikipedia and he doesn’t seem to have much appetite for self-promotion or even making calculated career moves.
Then I watched Good Will Hunting and it piqued my interest in the films of this mysterious man with a name that just about rhymes. So, I decided to watch them. All seventeen of them, over the month of August. I initially recorded my brief thoughts on each over on my letterboxd, now I’ve compiled them here, with some elaboration. I found very little advice on navigating Van Sant’s filmography when I started, so hopefully this can act as, if not a guide, then at least an example of how someone did it for others to follow or ignore as they see fit. You can hear my thoughts on Good Will Hunting on the podcast, but the rest of the gang is all here.
fRIDAY, THE 6TH
Drugstore Cowboy (1989) ★★★★★
Matt Dillon is angelically beautiful in this film, which just makes his character seem even more like Satan. He’s really good at making Bob feel internally complex even as he’s profoundly, unspeakably shallow. You can always see the churn of feeling within him on his face, often in the form of a quiet confusion as Bob struggles to understand why he even gives a shit about whatever is churning him. Heather Graham’s best performance, at least as far as I’ve seen. She perfectly embodies the mix of compliance and defiance that characterises the late-blooming teen rebel. Nadine is just a stupid kid, in too deep, trying to assert herself in the wrong company. There’s a tragic sense that she’s a character from a different story who got lost and wandered into a horror film.
I would have welcomed more Grace Zabriskie, but that’s always true. William S. Burroughs is surprisingly great as Father Murphy, far better than I expected based on stunt casting. I loved the use of tiny double-exposed cutouts on sparse backgrounds for dope trips, little hats and shit floating up the screen. It drew on the history of psychedelic animation in a fresh way that made the trips seem really bright, but also really cold. Beautiful, but not inviting. I also enjoyed how little the addicts in the film tried to explain, justify or proselytise for their addiction to other people or each other. Even at the end, Bob is just talking, not preaching. Fantastic music.
wEDNESDAY, THE 11TH
To Die For (1995) ★★★★★
Great film, funny in a very dry way, which makes the gut laughs hit even harder. The cast is insanely stacked. Weird how Matt Dillon looks much younger in this than Drugstore Cowboy. Ileana Douglas does not quite steal the film from Kidman, but she is excellent throughout and the exact right performer to close out the film. It reminds me in different ways of American Animals, Bully, In the Bedroom and most especially Gone Girl. It never approaches the transcendent heights of black comedy that Gone Girl does, and it is ultimately more withholding of its lead psychopath’s inner life. But it mines similar cultural veins around its portrayal of marriage, girlboss ambition and the threat of female sexuality as imagined by men. I would and have and will describe it as “what if Gone Girl was about the dumbest woman in the world”.
I loved the long game it played with its themes of ethnic prejudice, well worth the big punchline in the final act. Its contempt for WASPs is delicious. Joaquin Phoenix is already so fully-formed as a performer in this film it blows my mind. I don’t mean to imply he hasn’t improved since 1995, he certainly has, but his style, what you would call his voice if he were a writer, is right there in front of you from the get-go. He really grounds the finale with his last scene, gives it just the right dose of bitterness, gives it its sting. Apropos of nothing, Dan Hedaya and Kurtwood Smith should do a gangster film together, as the heads of opposing crime families. Throw in, I don’t know, Will Poulter or something as the up-and-coming soldato who’s caught in the crossfire of their power struggle and you’re sucking diesel. George Segal was impressively slimy as the sleazy NBC executive and I very much enjoyed David Cronenberg’s eleventh hour appearance. Just a good picture!
fRIDAY, THE 13TH
My Own Private Idaho (1991) ★★★★★
Roads, streets, fields. A tale of those who live in the places that the rich only pass though. This film got to me in ways I did not expect. There’s a bit when Mike and Scott are visiting with Mike’s brother and Mike puts out a cigarette in an old tuna can with the label ripped off and at that exact moment, I was flicking the ash from a cigarette into an old tuna can with the label ripped off. River Phoenix was a great actor. The sense of vulnerability and woundedness he gives Mike is the beating, beaten, bloodied heart of the film.
Sunday, the 15th
Mala Noche (1986) ★★★
Sometimes a film is about a type of guy. This film is about a type of guy – named Walt, in this case – who thinks his self-awareness about his own privilege means he’s not being a bad guy when he pressures a homeless undocumented guy – Johnny – and his friends to come over to dinner and then asks one of his friends if he can pay to fuck Johnny, right in front of Johnny, without asking Johnny. He sees himself as an enlightened observer of their lives in the most condescending way, so high above them he can’t even conceive of himself as an active agent in their lives. He sees Johnny on the street at the end and he can’t understand why Johnny wouldn’t want him to see him. He can’t imagine how anyone could see him as a malevolent force in their lives, even though Johnny had friends before he met Walt and now he’s alone on the street with nothing. I don’t think this is an uninteresting type of guy to make a film about, and there’s plenty admirable about Mala Noche, plenty I like. But it’s hampered by two things: the main character isn’t very interesting and the actor who plays him blows. I mean, all the actors blow, to be honest, but I don’t have to spend the whole film with any of the others. Still, there’s a lot of beautiful filmmaking in this, especially its sole sex scene.
Monday, the 16th
Gerry (2002) ★★★★★
If you want to watch a film about two guys called Gerry getting lost in the desert, this is the film. It’s incredible how many colours it has, never more so than the long single take of the Gerries walking that starts out in rich, purple darkness before gradually fading to a bright bone white as the sun rises. Is Gus Van Sant the master of time-lapse cloud shots? Every time I see one in his films, it’s like he’s composing the sky itself. The sound design is amazing, the way it grows more hostile as the characters’ situation grows more desperate, from the grating crickets to the howling wind as they pass through a canyon.
Damon and Affleck are very funny in a very natural way. There’s a genuinely ominous monologue about Affleck’s Gerry playing some RTS game where he conquered Thebes only for his empire to collapse because a volcano erupted and damaged a shrine to Demeter. His Gerry, the one who mostly leads, has a bright yellow star on his shirt, while Damon’s Gerry, the one who mostly follows, wears a blue shirt as a keffiyeh. There’s definitely something there about the Nativity story and salvation, but I don’t want to lean too hard on cultural subtext. Its visual poetry is the draw here. Affleck and Damon feel like they age five years on screen as the world swirls on around them, not giving a single flying fuck about them. They just have each other. One of my new favourite films of all time.
Elephant (2003) ★★★
I would have happily watched a film that just followed these characters through a day at high school in a naturalistic style with non-linear editing. But it starts to lose me once the shooting starts and it focuses almost entirely on the killers. Then comes the bit where the film’s sole black character is introduced, named by title card and killed minutes later without hearing him speak, learning anything of his life outside this moment (as opposed to all the white characters, including the killers) or even seeing his face clearly. It’s so bizarre. You could easily cut the entire sequence out of the film and it wouldn’t be slightly noticeable, so I really don’t understand why it wasn’t. I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty checked out by the last scene, watching still, but very much waiting for the end. I just don’t get the final act at all. It’s not an objection to voyeurism or exploitation or whatever. I just don’t get why, if you’re going to narrow the viewpoint in the final act, you would pick the least interesting characters in your ensemble – the killers – even allowing for the fact that most of the others die.
Last Days (2005) ★★★★
Once upon a time, a boy haunted his own house. This film would be perfect if it just spent all its time with Blake and followed him from the start to finish in chronological order with minimal diversion instead of also following his horrible drug friends, some of the least interesting characters Van Sant has pointed a camera at yet. The non-linearity seems to be to no end. Now and then you just go “oh, that was from earlier” but it never implies anything. The PI’s monologue about the guy who died trying to catch a bullet between his teeth is also extremely wank motion. But even so, what’s great about this film is truly great. Michael Pitt is wonderful as Blake. The scene with the Yellow Pages guy trying to get Blake – high, rambling, covered in mud and wearing a black dress – to renew an ad that was so obviously taken out by the house’s previous owner is amazing absurdist black comedy at its finest. When he comes back because he forgot his sample!? My God. And then, after the stupid episodes with the Mormon missionaries and the PI – stupid mainly because they centre on his horrible drug friends – Blake writes this cacophonous noise rock howl of pain alone with echo pedals. Amazing! It feels like a sister to Her Smell and even Love & Mercy a bit. Harrowing in the best way.
Friday, the 27th
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) ★★
When I finally worked up the patience to watch this film, I hoped for two things. I hoped it wasn’t shite, and that if it was shite, it wasn’t boring. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a shite, boring film. What most impresses me about it is how weird it gets while not only remaining boring, but getting actively more boring. Tom Robbins, who wrote the novel the film is based on, narrates with all the charisma and dynamism of Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Maybe the biggest waste of a cast in a film I’ve seen. Performances are almost all incredibly dry and low-energy, but never enough to be funny. Lorraine Bracco is the only person who feels like they’re acting with enough energy for the weirdness of the script. John Hurt is giving it a shot, but not only is he not getting there, the direction in his scenes is so flat and lifeless, any momentum he risks building dissipates immediately. He only manages to punch through once, when he amazingly oversells Sissy’s back hand. I don’t have time to dig into all the weird race stuff, but Keanu Reeves’ brownface deserves comment for being so orange it might actually be not racist anymore. I am amazed at how much I disliked a film that features a gang of lesbian cowgirls. It just completely lacks the conviction of its own strangeness.
Saturday, the 28th
Paranoid Park (2007) ★★
I’m not really sure what was gained by the non-linear narrative here, given how completely transparent what happened is and how little the film is either willing or able to dig into the denial. I’m kind of blown away that this seems to be the most well-regarded of Van Sant’s films between Good Will Hunting and Milk. It would be easier to forgive the performances if the filmmaking was there, but apart from some scenes during the revelation of the crime, it’s pretty underwhelming visually. I wouldn’t call the slice of life stuff padding, exactly, but it definitely felt stretched beyond capacity. It should have focused in on the crime stuff. Just kind of a misfire.
Sunday, the 29th
Milk (2008) ★★★★★
I don’t generally care for Sean Penn as an actor, but he did a beautiful job in this. It sticks to the most obvious narrative path through Harvey Milk’s life, to its benefit. The film wouldn’t have its vividness and urgency without documenting his long struggle to get a foot in the door for the gay movement in parallel with the rising homophobic backlash of the seventies that helped to forge the religious right into a political force. It’s the dynamic that gives the story its forward momentum, stops it going all messianic by grounding Harvey’s choices in shifting political conditions. Not a saviour, just a man trying to do his best for his community. I’m very, very glad that Van Sant didn’t do any non-linear shit this time.
Monday, the 30th
Restless (2011) ★★
Henry Hopper’s voice is giving a decent performance as Enoch, but his face is not even in the cast. I’ve never seen someone have such a rich voice and just be completely inanimate otherwise. Maybe it’s supposed to be thematic or something, but it isn’t, it’s just bad. Mia Wasikowska crafts a good character out of a thin script, maybe the only one that isn’t a cutout. Her performance is handily the best thing in the film. The whole film is so dour it feels like an early Sufjan Stevens song could drop at any second, but in the event, that only happens three times. Nothing wrong with dour, but it’s a tough mood to sustain for more than a few minutes. It’s just so flat, hardly any peaks and valleys, just, oh, I’m glum, oh my, how glum. The sex scene is incredibly bizarre, like, it’s supposed to be this big moment, but then it’s just them kissing above the shoulders for two seconds and then boom cut to next morning. Also, why the hell is he haunted by the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot? Why is the kamikaze pilot’s entire reaction to learning about the nuking of Nagasaki just sitting in a bathroom on his own and looking sad for five seconds? Why was Enoch apparently deliberately keeping it a secret from him? All these questions and more await you, if you have the patience. Enoch taking a sledgehammer to his parents’ grave ruled though. Give me more of that energy.
Promised Land (2012) ★★★★
Just a great little mid-budget drama of a kind you don’t see so often these days. Even when the script is too didactic, and throughout the clunky final scenes, Damon’s performance is always great, the backbone of the film. I don’t know, I just think he has a special gift for playing morally-tortured white guys, what can I say. I think he and Gus should make another movie soon. They clearly have a great collaboration, and I hope it continues. The rest of the cast is also pretty great, especially (no shocker) Frances McDormand. There’s a very warm sensibility to the acting from all involved, I liked it a lot.
The Sea of Trees (2015) ★
The Sea of Trees is such a bad film, I am going to spoil it now to disabuse anyone who reads this of the notion of watching it. Matthew McConaughey is an American who goes to Aokigahara in Tokyo (widely known as the “suicide forest”) to take his life. Before he can go through with it, he sees an injured Ken Watanabe stumbling through the forest, clearly confused and distressed. He tries to help him find his way out but things go wrong along the way and then Matthew McConaughey gets rescued without Ken Watanabe. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to his marriage with Naomi Watts, which is rocky until she gets a tumour in her brain, but then the tumour is non-malignant and gets removed, but then on the way to another hospital for recovery, her ambulance gets pancaked out of nowhere by a big truck while Matthew McConaughey is behind it, talking to Naomi Watts on the phone. After Matthew McConaughey gets out of hospital, he goes back to the forest and discovers (long story short) that Ken Watanabe was actually the ghost of Naomi Watts in disguise the entire time.
It’s one thing to shoot that final act, but quite another to actually put it in a film. I am amazed at how many times it kept going after a scene that would have been dumb, schmaltzy and embarrassing enough as an ending, only to heap more ending on. The flashbacks felt like they were from a different, even dumber, even schmaltzier, even more embarrassing film until the final act lapped them a hundred million times with one of the worst endings of any film I’ve ever seen. Why does Gus Van Sant have two unrelated films about a guy being haunted by the ghost of a Japanese man and how is the one with a barely-animate Henry Hopper in the lead more compelling than the one with Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts? Jesus Christ. Also, Danny Elfman should have to compensate me financially for that score.
Tuesday, the 31st
Psycho (1998) ★★★
One of the most annoying things about how people talk about this film is that they only ever analyse the deviations as a deliberate artistic choice, not what was kept from Hitchcock. Van Sant gets lambasted for, e.g. changing the keyhole scene to have Norman wanking, but where he sticks to the source material, it’s basically treated neutrally, or even as if the credit skips right past Van Sant to Hitchcock. But by far the worst performance in the film is William H. Macy’s attempt to transpose Arbogast directly into the late 90s. It’s true that it’s very hard to talk about this film without talking about the original, but there is so much more to talk about than the differences, or whether one is better or worse. One being better or worse is a given, and not a particularly interesting area of discussion. Obviously Hitchcock’s is better, it’s one of the best films ever.
But I think Van Sant’s is actually quite admirable as an experiment, and pretty enjoyable as a film. Vince Vaughn was a bad choice, but not so apocalyptically bad as people make out. Take his Norman on his own terms instead of comparing it to Perkins’. Heche is just great, I don’t know what people are on about when they call her bad. Its whole neo-noir visual sensibility works really well for the story, but the rhythm of the edit is off and the addition of sound collage to the OG score makes the film too noisy at times. But it gets noisiest during the worst scene, the big lecture at the end about Norman’s psychosis, so, you know, every cloud. Honestly, it’s bizarre that Gus Van Sant hasn’t made a thriller since this, he has all the tools.
Finding Forrester (2000) ★★★★
I always say I’d only watched two Gus Van Sant films before Good Will Hunting, but in truth I saw this in bits and pieces on the TV many times as a youth, just never the whole way through and never as an adult. I was not expecting much from my memory, but I was happy to be surprised. It never exactly blows your hair back or anything – there’s usually some plodding cliché that interrupts its momentum and forces it to reset – but it’s always solid, often quite good and occasionally flares into moments of true beauty. The scene where Jamal flips through Forrester’s photo album took my breath away. “You’re the man now, dog” is still an absolutely insane line though.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018) ★★★★★
I liked this even more than when I first saw it. It has a frankness and irreverence that honours the comic sensibility of Callahan, albeit channeled in a more dramatic direction. Her appearance in this and in Last Days makes me think Kim Gordon should do more acting. It’s wild how Jack Black completely steals this film with two scenes, but he’s totally electric in the first and so human in the second. I love every scene of John just punching his wheelchair down the road, not a care in the world, even at the risk of wiping out in the middle of the road. I’m impressed, here and in Milk, by Van Sant’s ability to direct a conventional biopic with a skill and grace that makes the old ways feel lively again. He’s a hell of a director, one of my favourites now. I’m excited to see what he does next, even if it has a non-zero chance of being crap.