Gus Van Sant

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6.0 Mala Noche (1985)
6.9 Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
7.0 My Own Private Idaho (1991)
5.5 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)
7.4 To Die For (1995)
6.2 Good Will Hunting (1997)
4.0 Psycho (1998)
6.4 Finding Forrester (2000)
7.2 Gerry (2002)
7.1 Elephant (2003)
6.8 Last Days (2005)
7.2 Paranoid Park (2007)
6.7 Milk (2008)
6.0 Restless (2011)
5.8 Promised Land (2012)
5.0 The Sea of Trees (2015)
5.4 Don't Worry (2018)

Gus Van Sant (USA, 1952) debuted with the homosexual drama Mala Noche (1985).

Drugstore Cowboy (1989) is a nice portrait of a drug addict, although not much of a thriller or a social analysis.

A young man, Bob, is lying down in a bed and tells us that he used to be a "dope fiend" (a drug addict) with his wife Dianne, his business partner Rick, and Rick's teenage girlfriend Nadine. The camera moves back and shows us that the bed is actually inside an ambulance: Bob is being taken to a hospital. A flashback shows the four walking into a pharmacy. While Nadine distracts the staff pretending to have an epileptic fit, Bob steals a lot of medicines. Then Nadine calmly walks away. They drive home and indulge in the most powerful drugs they have. A neighbor who lives across the street, David, knocks at the door. They welcome him with guns, fearing a dangerous visit. David too is a drug addict. Bob talks him into trading speed for morphine. Bob tries to cheat David but Nadine doesn't let him. Instead of being grateful, David asks how much speed Bob wants for sex with Nadine. Diane buries the drugs in the ground outside the house. She then tries to seduce Bob but Bob is focused on planning a bigger robbery in a hospital. Suddenly, cops break the door and start searching the place for the drugs stolen from the pharmacy. The detective, Gentry, knows Bob and Diane well, and is sure that Diane hid the drugs somewhere. By the end of the police search, the aparment is thoroughly destroyed. They decide to move to another apartment. Bob and Diane stop at the house of Bob's mom. She hides her pills in a hurry, afraid that Bob will still her medicines. Bob wants his clothes. Mom lectures Diane that they can't spend their lives doing drugs and robbing pharmacies. In vain. Meanwhile, Gentry and another cop are watching them: Gentry wants to catch them after a robbery so he can send them to jail for good. An elderly female neighbor notices them and knocks at Bob's door to report a sex maniac. Bob guesses that it must be Gentry. Bob figures out a way to get rid of the cops. He informs a violent neighbor of two creepy men wandering around the neighborhood. The neighbor arms himself and, when he sees a suspicious person climbing to the roof, shoots him and wounds him: it's Gentry's assistant. The next day Gentry shows up with other cops and beats up Bob. The four decide to move. They start driving across the state, sending their drugs ahead of them in suitcases transported by regular buses that they pick up whenever they reach a bus stations. Bob, Rick and Nadine rob a drugstore. When they return to the hotel room where Diane is resting, they discover that they stole very expensive drugs. Bob dislikes Nadine, who is clumsy and unreliable. Nadine dislikes Bob's condescending attitude. Bob feels that he is in a lucky streak and decides to rob a hospital. Rick and Diane ceate a diversion outside the hospital so that Bob can break into a room of the hospital. The diversion attracts most of the staff outside, but one nurse hears Bob breaking the safe with the drugs and he is almost caught. Bleeding from the forehead, he hides in a stall of the women's restrooms. Rick and Diane wait for him the whole night. Assuming that Bob has been arrested, in the morning they return to the hotel. Nadine, who has been excluded from the robbery, has overdosed and is lying dead on the floor. Bob returns to the hotel room when Rick is still in shock about the death of his girlfriend. Bob insults the dead Nadine and Rick almost hits him. Bob and Diane find a way to hide Nadine's body in the attic above the hotel room. The hotel's manager comes to inform them that they must check out because the whole hotel has been reserved for the participants of a sheriff convention. Bob puts Nadine's body in a bag and buries her in the forest. Bob decides to enroll in a drug withdrawal program and splits from Nadine and Rick. Bob takes a bus by himself, takes a room in a poor neighborhood, and enrolls in the program. There he meets Father Murphy, an elderly priest from his childhood, who too is a drug addict. Bob also finds a job in a factory. He has cleaned up. Gentry finds him. This time he doesn't come to harass him: he comes to warn Bob that Gentry's assistant has lost his job after being shot by Bob and wants to make Bob pay for it. Bob makes another enemy when he humiliates his old buddy David who is terrorizing a crying teenager who owes him money. His ex-girlfriend Dianne shows up, puzzled about Bob's sudden redemption. He offers her tea and tells her that he has a humble job Bob reveals that when Nadine died he made a deal with God to clean up if God helped him to bury Nadine and avoid the sheriffs. Bob invites Dianne to stay but she tells him that she has a new boyfriend: Rick. And they still live the old life of drugs and crime. She leaves him a packet of drugs as a gift. Bob gives the packet to Father Murphy, who is grateful. David shows up with another man and beats him up convinced that Bob is hiding drugs. Realizing that he will not get anything from Bob, David shoots him. Gentry arrives when the ambulance is taking the dying Bob to the hospital. Bob doesn't reveal who shot him. In the ambulance he is thinking everything that we saw in this film, and he hopes that he will survive.

My Own Private Idaho (1991) is a picaresque film that tells the adventures of two unlikely knights, one belonging to a rich family and one belonging to a poor family, in their quest for the meaning of life. The rich one is trying to escape his father, the poor one is trying to escape the road of his childhood. They are both trying to escape from themselves. Their parable is set in the slums, among misfits and bums. They both become male prostitutes, the ultimate form of self-degradation. They both go back to their roots, they both take on the personas that they have tried to hard to deny.

A young hitchhiker, Mike, is waiting for a car to pass by on a long straight road in the middle of nowhere, Idaho. He drops to the pavement in a narcoleptic fit and has a vision of his mother caressing him during one such crisis.
Mike reaches Seattle and makes a living as a male prostitute, for both men and women. One of his customers is a man full of himself who gets excited watching him clean the apartment. Another customer is a sophisticated lady who needs three men to get excited. Alas, she reminds him of his mother, a fact that is almost certain to trigger a narcoleptic fit. The other two kids drag his body into the street. In the morning, Mike wakes up and is offered a ride by a German pervert, Hans. Mike refuses, but has yet another fit.
When he wakes up, Mike is in Portland. It turns out that Hans loaded him into the car and drove him to his friend Scott, another male prostitute, albeit a classy one, and Hans gave both a ride to Portland.
In Portland Mike and Scott share an abandoned building with other misfits, who are led by a legendary character, Bob, older than them. Bob is also a former lover of Scott, and Scott's mentor and tutor. It turns out that Scott is the son of a wealthy man, heir to a fortune. He and Bob talk as if they were reciting Shakespeare. One night the squatters, dressed like Tibetan monks, rob a group of kids. Scott and Mike have fun robbing them of the loot and then ridiculing Bob who ran away without fighting but tells the story of a heroic fight. The police break into the building looking for Bob, but Scott helps him hide. The police officers know who Scott is and politely tell him that his father is looking for him, although they caught him in bed with Mike. Later, Scott faces his father and denies all the accusations against him. Scott is clearly still interested in inheriting his father's fortune.
Scott and Mike steal a motorcycle and ride all the way back to Idaho. They get stuck on the same road that Mike was trying to leave behind. A police officer helps them fix the motorcycle. They reach the house of Mike's father. He feeds them and tells Mike about his mother: she ran away with a gambler when she was pregnant of him, Mike, and then one day she killed her lover at a drive-in. Mike's father even tries to convince Mike that the gambler was his real father, but Mike knows better.
Mike decides to follow a clue to where his mother might be. He and Scott ride the motorcycle to a hotel, where they are told that Mike's mother moved to Italy. Mike is disappointed, but Scott finds a way to continue the chase: the German pervert, Hans, is staying at the same hotel, and pays to have sex with them (still images of the three naked bodies) and to purchase the motorcycle. With the money, Scott and Mike fly to Rome and track down the farm where the woman fled. They meet a cute Italian girl, Carmela, who falls in love with Scott, but Mike's mother has already gone back to America. Scott and Carmela have sex all the time, while Mike is both desperate (he has lost his mother one more time) and jealous. Eventually, Scott and Carmela leave together to get married. Scott has received a telegram informing him of the death of his father: he is now very rich.
Mike prostitutes himself around the Colosseum, but eventually flies back to Portland, where he joins Bob's gang again. One day the gang spots Scott and Carmela, all dressed up, entering a fancy restaurant. Bob does not hesitate to enter the restaurant, thinking that Scott will share his good luck with his old friends. Instead, Scott asks him to leave, turning his back to him and facing Carmela, who is now his elegant fiance`. That night Bob dies of a heart attack while he is sleeping on the terrace of the abandoned building.
When Scott and a small crowd of relatives buries his father, the gang buries Bob not far from them. Scott's funeral is as formal as Bob's funeral is noisy and wild.
Mike travels back to Idaho. Same road, same fit. A truck stops and two men descend from it and steal his bag and his boots. A car stops a little later and takes him away.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) was an adaptation of Tom Robbins's novel.

To Die For (1995) is a mix of black comedy and crime thriller with satirical overtones and the format of a documentary... narrated by a dead person. The various flashbacks are basically the documentary that she wanted to make and that in her dreams would launch her into the world of Hollywood. The woman is a victim of the craze to become famous, to end up on television.

(Translated by DeepL from my original Italian text)

The story is told with a series of flashbacks, one by the protagonist (Nicole Kidman), one by the victim's sister, one by a prisoner, and one by her parents. All are telling her story in front of a camera. The woman, comely but a bit scatterbrained, Marylin Monroe-style, meets a young Italian-American, whose parents are friends of mobsters and own a restaurant. The two fall in love and marry. Married, the woman manifests a desire to enter the world of television. She gets hired as a secretary at a small TV station in the village and gradually manages to establish herself as the weather announcer. This is not enough for her: she tries to convince the boss to let her make a documentary about high school boys. She gets permission and begins to work arduously with three boys, all three of whom are somewhat misfits. She becomes friends with the fat girl, wins the trust of a half-psychopath. Her husband, however, is thinking about inheriting dad`s restaurant, and one day finds the courage to tell his beautiful wife that it`s time to set aside her dreams of fame. The woman seems to agree, but soon after arranges a meeting with the fat girl and the psychopath and is seduced by them under the girl`s eyes. He begins an affair in which she drugs him more and more with sex. One day she convinces him to kill her husband. He agrees and involves the fat girl and the other student. While she is doing her broadcast, the psychopath penetrates the house and chills the husband. The police suspect something, however, and keep an eye on her until they see her meeting with the psychopath. They seize his documentary tapes and discover allusions by the psychopath to his woman. Increasingly suspicious, they finally discover the truth. Punk breaks down and accuses her. She spins an incredible story and manages to get away with it, accusing her husband of being a drug addict who got into trouble. The man's family does not forgive her though, and a hit man makes her disappear under a blanket of ice. She disappears, and the fat girl is the only one at large who can enjoy the publicity aroused by the case. The dead man's sister, who had always hated her, skates on the ice where she is buried.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

(Translated by DeepL from my original Italian text)

Will Hunting is the janitor of a prestigious university. He comes from a background of orphanages and correctional facilities and has other young people from the petty bourgeoisie as his friends. He secretly studies mathematics and knows that he is a genius. One day he writes on the blackboard the solution to a difficult theorem that the university's ultra-premium professor has assigned to the students. After days of investigation, the professor finally manages to discover the mysterious genius. But Will lives in a violent world and has just been arrested for a fight, and he has a terrible criminal record. The professor offers him freedom in exchange for help in mathematical research. However, the judge also requires Will to see a psychoanalyst, and Will pisses everyone off until the professor asks for help from his friend Sean McGuire, a fellow student who has given up his career and glory in favor of a menial job as a psychology teacher. Sean gradually manages to befriend Will. So much so that he eventually defends his independent and rebellious spirit against the mathematician`s ambitious and structured personality. Will has found a girlfriend and may even have a respectable job as a mathematician. He seems to decide to lead a bourgeois life. His friends at the bar give him a gift of a cheaply assembled car. The psychologist ends his therapy and decides to make a change. The boy runs away with the girl.

Psycho (1998) was a pointless remake of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece.

(Clicka qui per la traduzione Italiana)

Gerry (2002) is a philosophical allegory that basically transposes Ingmar Bergman and Andrej Tarkovsky to the desert. There are only two characters (save for a few extras who play a few seconds here and there). They talk, walk and get lost. The "getting lost" is most of the film. The landscape is the third protagonist: a hostile, infinite, silent, empty desert. They are looking for something (that we never learn) and they lose their way. They cannot come back. As fear mounts, tempers flare. Very little happens. The landscape is what really happens. This is one of the slowest and most uneventful films ever made in the USA.

A long, steady shot follows a car that is driving up a narrow road in the desert. There is no traffic. There is no town. There is no life. Just the car advancing in the desert. Two young men are in the car, and they don't say a word. They park and start hiking. They call each other "Gerry". Soon, they are alone in the wilderness. Next morning the landscape has mutated into a white empty desert. They are looking for a "spot". They split, hoping to increase the chances of finding it. One of the two climbs a boulder and can't get down. The other one tells him to jump. He jumps and, miracolously, does not get hurt. Lengthy camera shots scor the static, silent landscape for a sign of life. They follow animal tracks, hoping that the animals are heading towards water, but soon lose them. They walk up sandy dunes, and into windy canyons. They are now completely lost. As fear sinks in, and hallucinations further hurt their morale, they begin to get on each other's nerves. They also walk at night, slower and slower. A giant white sun rises in a yellow sky. They finally find themselves in a huge, flat field of salty dust. Here they collapse and eventually start fighting. One of the two strangles the other. Ironically, they were close to the road: the survivor hears the noise of a truck and then sees the distant shapes of the vehicles on the highway. A family gives him a ride, and he watches the desert pass by.

Elephant (2003), inspired to real-life cases, follows high-school students around their school and their homes for one day. It displays Van Sant's fascination for young desperate pointless lives and the metaphysical contrast of those lives with blue skies and prairies (although here their presence is only hinted at). The actors are all high-school students, and they use their real names. Van Sant uses a bit of asynchronous narrative techniques in the vein of Memento and Time Code: the same scene is filmed by different cameras from different angles (following different kids) and the various versions are played at a different time. Eventually one realizes that the puzzle is a sequence of events that have been broken down in elementary constituents (each kid's personal experience on that day). The film continues Gerry's progression towards a minimalistic, almost emotion-less kind of film-making. The weakest part is the ending, Hollywood at its worst: it almost feels like a parody of countless action B-movies.

The movie opens with fast-moving clouds in a blue sky over electrical wires. A drunk driver hits a car but keeps driving until it runs on a sidewalk: it turns out the driver is an adult, and his son, John, tells him to stop and takes over. Elias is a photographer who asks two punks to take pictures of them for his portfolio. The school's principal is angry at John who shows up late, but probably knows the reason because he lets him go without any major lecture. Nathan plays football with other kids and then walks into the school, admired by three girls; but he has a girlfriend and they walk away together. John, who is crying in an empty room, gets a kiss from a kind girl, Acadia.
Elias and John meet in the hallway and Elias asks to take a picture of John.
John walks out of the school and sees two kids (Eric and Alex) dressed in military uniforms walk into school carrying loads of military material.
A flashback (we learn later that it is a flashback) shows a kid, Alex, persecuted by his classmates. He walks around the cafeteria and takes notes: he tells people that he has a "plan".
The ugly Michelle is reproached by the gym teacher because she always wears long pants. Michelle changes clothes while the other girls are showering.
John leaves the photo lab and runs into Elias: it's the same scene we've already seen, but this time we follow Elias instead of John. Elias walks into the library. Michelle works in that library.
The three girls who like Nathan (the same scene viewed from the girls' viewpoint) gossip in the hallway and then go to the cafeteria and start arguing about silly topics.
At home, Alex plays Beethoven at the piano, while his friend Eric plays with a violent videogame on a laptop. The Alex takes the laptop and browses a website that sells guns. (We learn later that this is a flashback). Clouds in the sky. Storm. Alex and Eric fall asleep during the storm. The following morning they have breakfast, watch a documentary on nazism, receive a package with the gun that they ordered, test it in the garage.
Michelle leaves the gym and walks down the hallway, passing John who is taking pictures of Elias (third version of the same scene), and enters the library, where she works (this scene precedes the one in which she is already working at the shelves). Michelle turns surprised by something.
Alex and Eric take a shower together and kiss. Then they discuss the plan. They drive to school with all their guns and explosives. They pass John and tell his to stay out of school (we've already seen this scene from John's perspective). John understands what is about to happen and tell kids to stay out. Alex and Eric enter the library and shoot Michelle (their entrance is what had surprised Michelle). They keep shooting people like targets, then walk into the restrooms and shoot the three gossiping girls. Benny, a black man, is not afraid: without a word, he walk towards the gunmen. Outside, John can hear the kids screaming and can see smoke coming out of the windows. Eric is staring at the principal who is begging for his life. Benny almost surprises Eric but Eric sees him and shoots him. Then he tells the principal to run, but only to shoot him in the back. Alex is still on a rampage too. The two meet in the cafeteria. Eric boasts he has just killed the principal. Alex kills him too. Nathan and his girlfriend are hiding in the freezer, but Alex finds them and recites a rigmarole before killing them.
Fast moving clouds in a sky that has become very dark.

Last Days (2005) is one of his most psychological films.

The teen film Paranoid Park (2007), an adaptation of Blake Nelson's novel (2006), is another impressive psychological portrait. It's a crime thriller of sorts, told from the viewpoint of the criminal and in non-chronological order.

The camera follows teenagers that are skateboarding, up and down the curves of the skatepark. It then follows one of the kids who walks the dog towards the beach. Alex sits on a bench and writes a page of his diary about the day that his friend Jared invited him to try Paranoid Park for skateboarders. He writes that some days later, while in class, he was called to the principal's office. A detective asked him questions about his family life (so we learn that his parents are divorcing, he has a little brother and a girlfriend called Jennifer) and then inquired about his whereabouts the night that a security guard who died under a train. The detective says that the security guard was hit by a heavy object and therefore it's not accident but a murder, and also a witness saw someone throw and object off a bridge, and that object is a skateboard, and DNA analysis connects it to the murder. We then see home videos of kids skateboarding around town.
Then we see Alex in his room, still writing his diary. He writes that he and Jared did go to Paranoid Park, but he writes that it was not the night of the accident. He writes that he likes the fact that the park was built by the skaters themselves, a colorful crowd that mostly consists of hardcore freaks. He writes that Jared wanted to go back to the park and Alex had a problem: his girlfriend Jennifer was still a virgin and wanted to meet and Alex knew she wanted to have sex. Alex told his mom that he was going to spend the night at Jared's place, borrowed his mom's car and drove around town. But Jared had other plans and left Alex alone. Alex went to Paranoid Park by himself and watched the skateboarders while thinking about his life at home, with his father already out of the house and a girlfriend he didn't like much. An older kid, Scratch, approached him and invited him to "ride" a train (illegally). So Alex rode a freight train with Scratch (which we are not shown) and got so dirty that he threw away his clothes.
Then we see Alex one evening skating around town and meeting his friend Macy at a cafe, where they discuss that he broke up with Jennifer. Macy notices that Alex is worried about something.
We then see Alex on a date with Jennifer, who is complaining that he spent that evening with Jared (which in fact he spent alone).
Then we see Alex surprising Jared with a new skateboard.
Then we see Alex at the beach, getting up from the bench and walking back home. He keeps writing in his room. Then we see Alex watching the news on television about a security guard killed by a freight train. He is clearly scared. Then we see him at the library reading the local newspaper. Then we see him in school being called with all the skaters to the principal's office. They meet the detective in charge of the investigation, the detective we saw before (so this scene predates that scene). The detective shows them pictures of the security guard cut in half by the train.
We now see what happened when Alex went with Scratch to ride the freight train. They jumped on it near Paranoid Park. The security guard saw them and attacked Scratch with a big flashlight. Alex hit the security guard with the skateboard. The security guard fell backwards into the tracks just when another train was coming. That train cut the security guard in half. Scratch ran away. Alex stood there and saw the security guard cut in half, still alive for a few seconds. Then he walked away and we hear all the different voices in his head telling him what to do or not to do. Then he threw the skateboard off a bridge and walk to Jared's house where he disposed of the clothes in a garbage bag. Alex, still in Jared's house, tried to call his father, who was staying at a beach house owned by Alex's uncle. Then he just decided to hide the whole matter. We now know that Alex is the murderer. The following morning his mother confronted Alex about the phone call he made in the middle of the night to his uncle's beach house, which was recorded on that machine, a phone call made in the middle of the night, but Alex denied making it. His mother also noticed that his skateboard was missing. Alex then went out with his virgin girlfriend Jennifer and had sex with her in her bedroom without really enjoying it, just because she wanted it to boast with her best friend; but the following day he was mean to her and broke up with her (we don't hear what they are saying, we just see her shocked and angry expression).
We see Macy and Alex meeting again after they met at the cafe. Still worried that Alex has something on his mind, Macy suggests that Alex simply writes it down as a letter to her: that's the diary that Alex has been reading to us.
Alex ends the diary and burns it.

Then came the biopic Milk (2008), Restless (2011), Promised Land (2012), and the mediocre The Sea of Trees (2015) and Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018).

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