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What Is Gus Van Sant Trying to Tell Us?

Perhaps no American filmmaker of the past 30 years is as hard to define as the ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ director. For every ‘Good Will Hunting,’ there’s an ‘Elephant.’ He makes hits, flops, enigmatic works of art, and mainstream entertainment. What’s really behind his chameleonic catalog?

Getty Images/Amazon Studios/ThinkFilm/Ringer illustration

Has any major American filmmaker had as a stranger career than Gus Van Sant? The release this week of the director’s new film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot—a comedy about the quadriplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix—keeps the question wide open. Versatility is one thing, but Van Sant has gone through so many different phases and personas that it’s hard to keep track: indie figurehead, New Queer Cinema hero, Hollywood pariah, Oscar nominee, Hitchcock doppelgänger, Cannes champion, Kurt Cobain eulogist. Some directors are difficult to pin down. Van Sant’s body of work simply refuses to stay on the table.

The sheer variety of Van Sant’s output is partially a byproduct of his longevity. Like his fellow ’80s trailblazers Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, he’s been working steadily for four decades, and that’s left plenty of time for unevenness. At the same time, Van Sant also seems driven to compartmentalize his own artistry, albeit in a way that’s less clearly “one for me, one for them” than Soderbergh’s early 2000s run after the success of Ocean’s Eleven and closer to the eccentric political commitment (and clumsiness) of Lee. “At this point in his storied career,” wrote Cinema Scope’s Mark Peranson in 2015, “Van Sant is best seen as a tone-deaf performance artist who makes films of wildly varying quality just to keep us on our toes. I can’t imagine he’s hurting for money.”

Van Sant’s early years are the stuff of legend: He had one of the most striking first acts in contemporary American cinema. 1986’s Mala Noche was a moody, humid 16mm masterpiece steeped in the kind of lyrical homoeroticism that rarely penetrated the mainstream consciousness; it was as though the director had arrived as a fully formed stylist with an eye for left-of-center characters and milieus.

After breaking through with the nervy drama Drugstore Cowboy and the poetic road movie My Own Private Idaho (one of the decade’s genuine game-changers and the best rejoinder to the ridiculous idea that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor), Van Sant risked his burgeoning reputation on an adaptation of Tom Robbins’s counterculture novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues only to see it flop badly. A few years later, he made a canny comeback with the vicious satire To Die For and followed it up with the skillfully impersonal Good Will Hunting. Van Sant then cashed in his industry chips for a scene-for-scene remake of Psycho, effectively alienating the highbrow and mainstream fan bases his previous movies had helped to unite.

In a review of Van Sant’s Hitchcock redux, Roger Ebert scolded Van Sant, comparing him to a child piano prodigy: “You can play the notes. Someday, you may be able to play the music.”

Rewatching the film 20 years later, I’d revise Ebert’s formulation a bit.

If Van Sant’s certified copy has a point, it’s rooted in a theory of dissonance—playing the notes a bit off-key to see if they still carry a tune. They don’t, but that’s not a totally bad thing. It all amounts to an interestingly glitchy, self-consciously millennial experiment in auteurist homage. For all the complaints citing Van Sant’s appropriative arrogance in restaging one of the most perfectly formed movies of all time, Psycho is as much an act of artistic humility as hubris.

By replicating Hitchcock’s camera setups and sound cues, Van Sant took his own sensibility mostly out of the equation (which he had also done in a different way in the strategically bland and fully script-driven Good Will Hunting). He also served himself up as the project’s sole lightning rod for criticism. The more that critics bashed Van Sant’s Psycho, the more they were obliged to give props to its inspiration.

Anyway, as unwarranted remakes go, I’d argue that Finding Forrester—a shameless do-over of Good Will Hunting starring Sean Connery as a reclusive genius author and Rob Brown as his protégéis worse than Psycho 2.0: a true mercenary sell-out that inspired the only good joke in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which shows Van Sant distractedly counting money on the set of an actual Good Will Hunting sequel. Watching Connery bark, “You’re the man now, dog,” nobody would have guessed that the line would become an early-2000s meme monster, or, more importantly, that Van Sant’s hack work was the precursor to a legitimate aesthetic breakthrough. “Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were actually deliberate moves away from the way I was making movies,” the director told Slant in 2003. “Gerry was the type of movie that I was always making or thinking about making.”

For me, Gerry is the movie that Van Sant was born to make: a deceptively minimalist comedy based loosely on a true story, with an aesthetic inspired by the severe, long-take style of the Hungarian master director Béla Tarr (whose influence the director readily admitted). The participation of a major movie star—Will Hunting himself—helped it reach exactly the kind of wide audience it was designed to baffle and/or beguile. “All roads lead to the thing,” says Gerry (Matt Damon) to his best friend, Gerry (Casey Affleck), as they set out for a hike through the desert. “Fuck the thing,” Affleck replies, a cryptic line that serves as this purposefully meandering movie’s mantra. The duo strays further and further from the path, to the point where a day trip becomes a matter of life and death.

In interviews at the time, Van Sant implied that the “thing” was Hollywood storytelling itself. But just as the film’s shifting, spectacular topography (shot brilliantly by the late Harris Savides in Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley) generates a limitless sense of space and possibility, Gerry remains wide-open to interpretation as everything from a modern gloss on Waiting for Godot to a meditation on masculinity to a satire of buddy comedies (which might have come through more strongly with Ben rather than Casey opposite Damon) to a poetic depiction of schizophrenia with the two Gerrys representing a single tortured consciousness. Regardless of one’s reading, the seven-minute sequence framing the Gerrys against a real-time sunrise is as hypnotic as any scene in 21st-century cinema, and it reinvented the director who had gone through the Miramax motions in Good Will Hunting as a genuine trance-former.

Van Sant kept working in the same mesmerizing groove for Elephant, which deliberately and provocatively evoked the Columbine massacre while still functioning as a kind of experimental film. Cast with unknown and nonprofessional teenage actors and produced for HBO, Elephant used the same kind of roving, real-time long takes as Gerry to generate suspense and dread instead of mystery, transforming the hallways of a suburban high school into the corridors of the Overlook Hotel.

Cheered by French audiences happy to support anything that resembled an anti-American critique—the casting of George W. Bush lookalike Timothy Bottoms as a hapless, alcoholic, Dubya-lookalike Dad in the prologue tipped the film’s political intentions pretty blatantly—Elephant won a controversial Palme D’Or in 2003. But in the States, Columbine still felt like an open wound, and the film played differently, with its aesthetic daring contextualized in some corners as a form of exploitation. What endures about Elephant—and indeed, what perpetuated its influence over a fresh cycle of auteur provocations, including Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama—is how its essentially speculative nature negates the need for direct, binding commentary on the historical events it depicts. Van Sant took his cue from the old parable about the three blind-folded men who, when confronted with a pachyderm, each touched a different part of its body and decided it was a different creature. The film thus floated a lot of vague notions about why Columbine (or something like it) could happen, resulting in a slyly strategized pile-up of plausible scenarios that either canceled each other out or suggested the unlikelihood of direct causality from any one source. If Elephant was a bit of a cop-out, that was also the point of the exercise: With equal measures of curiosity, opportunism, and empathy, the director admitted to the impossibility of “explaining” a spectacular, public, and paradigm-shifting act of murder-suicide.

This same hazy, amorphous confusion informs Last Days, which, like its predecessors, derives from actual events but refuses to play by the based-on-a-true-story-rule-book. It’s more of a fever dream than a docudrama. Where Gerry focused on a duo and Elephant tackled the group dynamics of an entire high school, Last Days is a film that radiates with a sense of claustrophobic solitude, stranding its Kurt Cobain manque, Blake (Michael Pitt), in a dilapidated house in the Oregon woods. “You’re a rock-star cliché,” says a visitor played by Kim Gordon, pegging Blake’s flamboyant yet intensely private self-pity. He gradually succumbs to a malaise that, like the killers’ motivations in Elephant, derives from a multitude of factors (drug addiction, artistic frustration, contempt for celebrity, romantic despair, sheer boredom), without ever being fully, satisfactorily sorted out.

Coming a decade after Cobain’s suicide, Last Days stately, puzzled reverence had just enough distance to feel like a tribute, while the touches of comedy around the edges of each immaculately crafted frame were reminders of Van Sant’s essentially playful nature. The hilarious, hallucinatory scene where a strung-out Blake sits slack-jawed in front of a television showing the music video for Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee”—which plays out in real-time, no less enveloping and irritating than the Gerrys’ trek through the desert—is one of the director’s best.

Since the integrated visual and thematic coherence of his so-called Death Trilogy, Van Sant has worked in a more unpredictable rhythm. He directed Sean Penn to an Oscar for Milk, which split the difference between accessibility and artiness, but his subsequent prestige projects, like the anti-fracking drama Promised Land (starring Damon) and The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey as a man who journeys to Mount Fuji’s famed “suicide forest,” landed closer to glossy folly. The latter, which barely got a theatrical release courtesy of A24, is like an accidental parody of a “poetic” art film—a Hallmark card that thinks it’s a haiku.

There’s more to like in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a film whose title perfectly encapsulates its gentle, crass jokiness—a tone that comes as a relief considering the severity of the subject matter. Paralyzed by a car accident that came as a result of somebody else’s bender, Callahan struggled with alcoholism while continuing his career as a cartoonist. Van Sant has styled the film (which is adapted from its subject’s 1989 memoir) as an examination of art’s ability to sustain even a despairing soul. This setup sweetly inverts Last Days, surrounding Phoenix’s Callahan not with futile well-wishers, but with a support network of friends and fellow 12-steppers (including, once again, Kim Gordon) who rouse him from his torpor. In Last Days’ magical-realist climax, a damaged soul gets liberated from its earthly prison; here, less pretentiously—and more humanely—it’s saved.

There are other resonances here as well: A structuring device with Callahan surrounded by a group of teenagers nods to the director’s skate-culture snapshot Paranoid Park, while the focus on the therapeutic process recalls Good Will Hunting, except less cloying and idealized. Jonah Hill isn’t going to win an Oscar for his excellent work as Callahan’s laid-back, sweetly devout AA sponsor, but he’s actually funnier and less sentimental than Robin Williams was in the earlier movie (interestingly, Callahan had suggested that Williams play him when Van Sant was first developing the project). There’s no catchphrase here like “It’s not your fault”; to the contrary, as played by Phoenix—who Van Sant helped mold with his early role as Nicole Kidman’s ardent high school suitor in To Die For—Callahan is largely responsible for (and mostly owns) his anger and bitterness. As a result, it’s moving and cathartic to watch him work through it. “I’ve been drunk since I was a fucking kid,” the artist sighs during a one-on-one session, and while critics haven’t showered Phoenix with the same kind of praise he’s gotten for his pathological case studies in The Master and You Were Never Really Here, his performance as Callahan shows that he’s still capable of affecting everyday portraiture. With its inspirational arc and straightforward visual style, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is one of Van Sant’s more conventional movies, and yet it’s weirdly the best showcase for his gifts in a while: He plays the notes, and the result is music.