Most successful Hollywood directors work to develop a distinct voice over the course of their career. I could pick a Scorsese flick out of a crowd, tell you whether you were watching a Ridley Scott or Tony Scott production, and identify a Spielberg drama in three seconds flat. However, such is not the case with Gus Van Sant, an eccentric, Oscar nominated filmmaker who clearly suffers from split directorial personalities. There’s a drastic and unsettling divide between Van Sant’s mainstream projects and his Festival touted experiments in hyper-realism. I know there are quite a few folks out there who adore the director’s recent obsession with lingering cameras, unnerving edits, and scenes showcasing the mundane, but I’m not one of them. Personally, as much as I dig ‘To Die For,’ ‘Good Will Hunting,’ and his short in ‘Paris, Je T’aime,’ I would rather jab a pencil in my eye than watch more dull, meandering films like Van Sant’s ‘Paranoid Park.’
Based on the Blake Nelson novel of the same name, ‘Paranoid Park’ follows a young, 16-year old skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins) who is responsible for the accidental death of a railyard security guard (John Michael Burrowes). Initially in shock, the boy disposes of any evidence linking himself to the crime scene and tries to resume a normal life. However, Alex is quickly overwhelmed with remorse, haunted by his actions, and struggling with his part in a man’s death. When a detective (Daniel Liu) begins to ask questions around school and a key break in the case threatens to ensnare him, Alex must decide how to handle his shame and guilt, and face his future.
The story itself offers a fascinating opportunity to craft a profound character study, but Van Sant seems far more interested in documenting Alex’s dull routines and reactions than in focusing on the life-changing aftermath of the railyard tragedy. Like ‘Gerry’ and ‘Elephant’ before it, ‘Paranoid Park’ is littered with trivial, mind-numbing scenes that add little to the plot. Van Sant shows us minute after minute of slow-motion skateboarding, follows Alex as the boy slowly and silently walks across fields, and limits his dialogue to the monotonous musings of a boring protagonist and the witless observations of a half-dozen dreary supporting characters. The director does capture the ordinary, depressing lives of each person he tosses on screen, but I could get the same effect following a stranger around the mall. I never considered Alex worth my time, I didn’t feel invested in his heartache, and I certainly didn’t care whether he was caught or not. In fact, the only thing that kept me plowing through the film was a simple desire to find out what happened to the boy in the end (surprise, it’s nothing spectacular).
Is it all for nothing? Not quite. Visually, ‘Paranoid Park’ is an interesting blend of realism and camera technique that, at the very least, gave me something interesting to think about while I was waiting for someone to open their mouth and speak. Christopher Doyle and Rain Li’s cinematography beautifully captures the essence of each scene, enhancing the mood and the emotional core of the characters. I also have to admit that the events surrounding the security guard’s death brought me out of my coma, the immediate aftermath of the crime was intense, and the scenes involving Liu’s detective managed to hold my attention more than the rest of the film. Alas, these high points weren’t powerful or substantial enough to convert me to the fold.
As it stands, I’m really looking forward to reading the message boards once this review is posted. I’m dying to hear from people who enjoyed ‘Paranoid Park’ and read their explanations of why I should have cared about its characters more than I did. Admittedly, I may have missed the point entirely -- after all, the judges at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Cannes Film Festival found something to love. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that I couldn’t wait for the credits to roll. If you were a fan of Van Sant’s slow-burn exploration of high-school violence in ‘Elephant,’ ‘Paranoid Park’ will probably be right up your alley. For me, I can think of at least a thousand better ways to spend 85 minutes of my own boring, monotonous life.
To my surprise, ‘Paranoid Park’ is burdened with a bit of aspect ratio controversy. In a Letterman Digital Center interview, Van Sant explained that the film’s original and intended aspect ratio is 1.37:1, rather than the more commonplace theatrical presentation of 1.85:1. Even so, the director seemed fairly ambivalent about how the film should be seen. If anything, I wish Tartan would have offered both versions on the disc so viewers could chose between the director-preferred and theatrical presentations.
Aspect ratios aside, ‘Paranoid Park’ was shot using 35mm and Super 8 cameras, as well as a slew of intentional visual techniques that rely on odd exposure levels, errant haziness, and intermittent drops in video quality. As a result, Tartan’s 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer doesn’t offer the sort of high definition experience newcomers might expect. Sure, resolution, texture clarity, and black levels look impressive considering the film's low-budget, independent roots, but the palette is dull and drab, the picture suffers from source noise and softness, and contrast is inconsistent and unstable. Likewise, fine detail generally looks sharp and refined, but so do the film’s spiking grain levels and problematic shadow delineation. The good news is that unintentional artifacting, crushing, and compression issues are nowhere to be found.
As it stands, I don’t think ‘Paranoid Park’ could look much better than it does here. Fans of the film should be more than pleased with Tartan’s efforts and consider my score a warning to the uninitiated, rather than an implication that the transfer suffers from any major technical deficiencies.
This UK import of ‘Paranoid Park’ features both a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless mix. I couldn’t detect a difference between the two, and honestly, it didn’t really matter. The film itself is packed with intentionally degraded audio elements, hisses, and ambient discrepancies. To make the experience more disorienting, the tracks don’t exhibit a healthy soundfield, any immersive properties, or transparent pans. Van Sant apparently wanted to experiment with the film’s audio as much as the video, making it difficult to tell if the two tracks actually suffer from any technical problems. Thankfully, LFE support and high-end stability provide some aggressive effects and impressive soundtrack leveling. The railyard scenes sound particularly good, briefly allowing the listener to ignore the various prioritization and dialogue clarity issues sprinkled throughout the rest of the film.
Like the video, the issues I encountered with the audio tracks can be attributed to Van Sant’s directorial decisions, rather than a problem with Tartan’s presentation. I’m confident that anyone who enjoys the film will probably shrug off its strange sonics and embrace the director’s all-inclusive experimentation.
Unfortunately, the disc’s special features (a documentary, featurette, and theatrical trailer) are encoded in standard 576/50i PAL definition and can’t be accessed in most domestic Blu-ray players. Rest assured, however, that the film itself is region free and plays without any hassle.
If you’ve never watched ‘Paranoid Park,’ get your hands on a copy before purchasing this risky import. Not only is the movie a love-it or hate-it affair, the Blu-ray's stylized video transfer and audio package don’t offer a solid high definition experience. Still, if you enjoyed Van Sant’s minimalist character study or the other arthouse entries in his canon like ‘Gerry’ or ‘Elephant,’ you probably won't find a version of ‘Paranoid Park’ that looks or sounds better than this one.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.