Often blossoming from difficult circumstances the love stories in Van Sant’s films hold to a notion of breaking free from a sense of being trapped, be it be society or addiction, external oppression (literal and imagined) or from a lifestyle the characters find themselves in. What always interests me about his films are the instances of love appearing often without being looked for, sometimes unspoken but always naturally occurring and always, crucially, believable.
From the starkness of his early work with My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, through the unfulfilling Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to the darkly funny To Die For Van Sant’s exploration of the impact of finding another person in the world whose view and care changes something significant in our main character is something that stands out, and more often than not is at the heart of why his films works as they do.
Here are a few of the key relationships in Van Sant’s filmography, if we’ve missed any let us know in the comments.
But first here’s the exclusive clip from Restless to get you in the mood.
Mike and Scott – My Own Private Idaho
Van Sant’s third film made good on the promise of Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy and features phenomenal performances from Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix who find each other as Phoenix’s Mike washes up on the shores of Portland. Both suffering from difficult relationships with their parents the story is as much about those who take the path mostly travelled as much as it is about freeing oneself from their perceived fate.
In searching for his Mother Mike inspires Scott to travel with him and in doing so shows him that the life he has chosen in denial of rather than in deference to his Father (the town’s rich Mayor) is a moment in time, and one day he’ll wake up and it’ll be as if it was a dream.
Careful performances, with a stunning dreamlike quality in places, with the sad story of its own.
Suzanne and Jimmy – To Die For
It’s a comedy, but it has a very dark heart. The mid-90s was the perfect time for the fame-hungry protagonist in the dazzlingly terrifying form of Nicole Kidman’s Suzanne Stone and her hunger for the spotlight, though necessarily over the top here, can still be felt in today’s world of talent shows and seemingly endless TV auditions.
Through seduction and coercion Suzanne drags the luckless Jimmy, a well placed Joaquin Phoenix, into her murderous plot as her husband, she decides, needs to go once he begins talking of his career-destroying family plans. It’s a tough line to walk, but thanks to a breakout performance from Kidman and Phoenix’s bullied unease the final twist of the knife from Van Sant is a delicious piece of irony.
Will and Chuckie – Good Will Hunting
It was a toss up between this relationship and that of those played out by Robin Williams and Matt Damon. Clearly we spend more time with those two as the therapy unleashes the changes within the genius of the film’s title but it is the casual ease and genuine sense of their strong bond between Affleck and Damon which tips this for me.
Their close relationship is obvious on screen but it takes a considerable talent behind the camera to bring their script and its key moments to life. It is a film which sees Van Sant handling the drama with an almost invisible touch, allowing the rich story to play out. The change in fortune and attitude of Damon’s character happens slowly and in fragments but there is no finer moment in the film than when Affleck’s Chuckie turns up to Will’s apartment one morning, the same as every day, to find it empty and Will gone for good, finally escaping his life. Affleck realises, looks down and smiles and that smile gets me every single time. Van Sant tells their story perfectly and though people decry it as mawkish and unlikely I’m a champion for it.
Alex and Eric – Elephant
In a dramatic change of pace from the Oscar nominated GWH, Elephant is the most impressive of Van Sant’s ‘Death trilogy’ and its impact comes from the dreamlike quality often found in the director’s work being used to incendiary effect as the dark day of Elephant plays out.
Any film which echoes a real life tragedy runs the risk of causing offence and upset, but the strength of Elephant is that it offers no commentary, it doesn’t have to answer any questions because it poses none. The doomed love story of students Alex and Eric begins and ends without change or catharsis, it simply is. Van Sant offers us no clues to the reasons for the tragedy which unfolds, even as the two boys begin getting ready for their killing spree, but the haunting quality of the film is that the answers we seek after a tragedy are as unsatisfying and unsettling as the questions.
It’s a beautiful film, cold, dark and depressing but mesmerizing.