A few weeks ago, I went to the local art-house cinema in Royal Oak, Michigan, to see Gus Van Sant’s Restless, starring Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper, and the sensitive indie-girl du jour Mia Wasikowska. The movie is in many ways a conventional love story: awkward boy meets awkward girl; they both have secret traumas that they eventually reveal to each other; they support each other emotionally when the rest of the world is unable; they have a fight; and then, by the end, they come to a greater acceptance of each other. But one director’s trite structure is another’s fresh material. If Van Sant had made nothing but offbeat romances, Restless might have been boring. But he is one of the most experimental filmmakers we have, and his decision to helm an ostensibly ordinary love story is, itself, anything but ordinary.
Van Sant’s career has been distinguished as much by the divergence of his films as by the coherence of his style. His cinematography is gritty, his characters oddball, and the bleak circumstances in which they find themselves are leavened by humor. Van Sant attended the Rhode Island School of Design, but it wasn’t until ten years after his graduation that his film career began, with the black-and-white Mala Noche, about a Caucasian male shopkeeper’s unrequited love for a male Chicano migrant worker. Van Sant’s next two films took on controversial issues with equal frankness. Drugstore Cowboy showed drug use in a candid light, free of the hysteria of political correctness, and My Own Private Idaho portrayed the lives of young, gay street hustlers in an even-handed and courageous way. After this trio, Van Sant embarked on an eclectic series of films: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (universally panned), To Die For (mainstream compared to his other work), Good Will Hunting (a huge critical and financial success); a Psycho remake, done shot for shot (a brave concept, though many crucified him for daring to re-create Hitchcock’s original); and finally Finding Forrester (criticized for being too similar to Good Will Hunting). Then Van Sant did something that few directors (or artist of any sort) are able to do: he completely changed his style.
After seeing Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies and his seven-and-a-half-hour-long Satantango, Van Sant developed an entirely new approach. Many of Tarr’s films are distinguished by scenes with no dialogue and very few cuts. Starting with Gerry, Van Sant began to use much longer takes and looser narrative links, and he often cast inexperienced actors in the primary roles. He wanted to make the film in the camera, to be loyal to what happened on set, rather than making the film in the editing room. Gerry’s script was initially developed by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, but eventually they cut most of the dialogue, inadvertently helping to design the quiet mood that would reign in the films Van Sant did immediately after. Van Sant went on to make Elephant, the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, a beautiful and enigmatic look at the mystery of teen violence; Last Days, which examined the unknowable final four days of Kurt Cobain’s life; and Paranoid Park, which drew on what were, by now, Van Sant’s classic motifs—youth, emotional isolation, yearning for connection, death, and Portland.
These four films have been called the Death tetralogy because their spare plots are all vitalized by death. (As was his next film, Milk, which was bookended by an audio recording of Harvey Milk’s will and final words.) Restless, then, is a film about death that comes at the end of a string of five previous films about death. There are familiar elements here. There is a quirky young man. There is the setting of lush Portland scenery. There is the costume design, as cool as cool can be, and the characters’ sorrowful past. But here Restless departs from the Van Sant’s other recent work. It uses a great deal more dialogue—and it uses this dialogue to explore a heterosexual relationship. (Van Sant has examined homosexual relationships in several films—Mala Noche, Idaho, Milk, and Elephant—but only Good Will Hunting focused on a heterosexual relationship.) In Restless, the star-crossed, outsider couple is brought together by the presence of death in both their lives: the death of the boy’s parents, and the girl’s impending death, from cancer. This story line, unfortunately, makes for a stock script. Each plot point is hit perfectly, as if created from a template. But Van Sant has worked with untrained actors, and he handles the script as if it were an inexperienced performer, appropriating the tragic love story and letting it be what it is. He frames the routine narrative with his unique aesthetic, and, as a result, manages to refashion it, less by imposing himself on the material than by walking hand in hand with it. In the end, Restless isn’t a movie about the acceptance of death but, like all of Van Sant’s films, a celebration of the glory of youth in the face of a cruel world.
Restless came out within a week of its cinematic foil, Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh, a very good, very gay movie about a love doomed by unlucky circumstances. This is the movie that one might expect an iconic “gay filmmaker” like Van Sant to make. The two lovers in this film come together almost immediately—they have a one-night stand in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The film fizzes with obvious chemistry: one man is demure, smiley, cuddly; the other sharp, talkative, and adventurous. Like many films before it (Shortbus, My Beautiful Laundrette, Trick), Weekend attempts to portray a beautiful, true-to-life gay relationship, sex scenes and all. But it also surrounds the lovers with a hostile world. Most scenes in public involve at least one jeer or threat, from persons on-screen or off; and the two characters talk openly about the difficulty of living a gay life in public. My date thought that the movie verged on the preachy; but for me the unfriendly world only enhanced the intensity of the lovers’ connection. The power of this film is in its simplicity, its dependence not on what is said but what goes unsaid in the behavior of the lovers: people are people, it shows us, and two people in love is a beautiful thing.
James Franco is an actor and a writer.