Youth and death meet again in Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," a gorgeously stark, mesmerizingly elliptical story told in the same lyrical-prosaic style that has characterized his latest films. Based on a young-adult novel by Blake Nelson, it's a study in angst and guilt made visible by the dreamy camera work of Christopher Doyle (and co-cinematographer Rain Kathy Li) and otherwise palpable by Van Sant's charged, simple direction.
The movie unwraps its mystery slowly and meticulously, in a roundabout, almost incidental way that mirrors its young protagonist's slow, stunned realization of his part in a horrible act. Alex Tremain (Gabe Nevins) is first seen writing in a notebook, recounting the story of what happened after his friend Jared (Jake Miller) suggests they visit a rough skate park on the east side of town, known as Paranoid Park. Soon, Alex is being pulled out of class by a detective investigating what may have been the murder of a security guard in a nearby train yard.
What follows is a story told out of order, flashing between spare, narrative sequences shot in 35-millimeter and dreamlike poetic sequences shot in Super-8.
That Alex knows more about what happened than he lets on soon becomes clear, but no amount of reticence prepares you for the grisliness of the incident. Rather than lead up to it with suspense, Van Sant creates a bubble of guilt and anxiety that envelops the character, tuning him out and sealing him off from the horror.
In one memorable scene, Alex breaks up with the beautiful but cruel Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), and the camera watches impassively as her expression changes from happiness to surprise to anger. She's talking, but he can't hear what she says. Her furious gush of words is drowned out by a carnivalesque Nino Rota number.
This is classic contemporary Van Sant. He keeps his eyes on the carnage long past the point where others would look -- or cut -- away. He stays with a shot until all expectations of narrative momentum have been exhausted and empathy can finally kick in.
"Paranoid Park." MPAA rating: R for sexual content, disturbing images, language. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. In limited release.