Every Gus Van Sant Movie, Ranked

Through a rich abundance of cinematic styles and genres, the indie and studio auteur never stops finding new ways to tell the same story.

Blink and you would have missed it, but Gas Van Sant’s latest movie slipped into theaters this July, adrift amid summer tentpoles and sharp indie debuts. The Joaquin Phoenix-starring biopic, detailing the life of a quadriplegic and alcoholic cartoonist named John Callahan, was greeted by a sort of collective shrug, a fate common to many of the movies he’s made following 2008’s Milk, a Sean Penn-starring biopic that had pushed its cast to the Oscars that season. The time in between has not gone unnoticed: “It’s been a while since the Milk director has been at the top of his game,” observed Vice at Sundance this year. But what exactly is it?

Viewed in the larger context of his career, the lengthily titled Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a far more satisfying movie. It is, in fact, quite similar to Van Sant’s 1986 black-and-white debut Mala Noche, their energies drawn from the real-life stories of otherwise forgotten Portland artists and the relationships they form with men, likewise outcast from normative society. Don’t Worry is not a great disability movie by any means—Van Sant can be read as either frustrated or ultimately bored with his subject’s quadriplegia— but it is a sentimental, queer drama hiding inside the arc of contemporary and vaguely prestigious fare, something that can be said of much of van Sant’s work. His camera sharpens in extended long shots of Phoenix’s body, lights bathe his developing friendship with a wealthy AA sponsor played by Jonah Hill, and the movie’s most gripping tension revolves around the subject’s feelings of betrayal at the hands of a night spent with a man he meets at a bar played by Jack Black. A nurse played by Rooney Mara briefly swims in to perform rote duties as a romantic lead, a role that Van Sant mostly sketches in the tone of a joke.

Looking at Van Sant’s movies in this light provides a kind of coherence often avoided in most discussions of his career, which tend to divide his films into collections of “auterist” and mass market productions, the work of an intimate indie filmmaker by day and a studio shill by night. This is only partially true. Mala Noche had struggled to find distribution, which van Sant would later blame on film festival competition with My Beautiful Laundrette, a British drama with a pleasant subplot involving a male shopkeeper in love with a punk who doubled as Daniel Day-Lewis’s breakout role. Van Sant’s romances—cast amid junkies, thieves and geniuses—lacked the humdrum neatness of these kinds of pairings, so it was not surprising that he turned toward using “straight” dramas to express them, often with heterosexual love interests sort of plugged-in by hack Hollywood screenwriters who were already well-equipped as students of finding ways to ignore women.

One does make do. Van Sant’s ability to plow through studio scripts or his own is never unremarkable and motifs emerge like disparate parts of a shipwrecked whole. Once a RISD painting student, Van Sant’s movies will pause to make room for sweeping landscapes. His subjects, often men with remarkable chins who would go on to be supersized stars, are shot with relaxed frankness, their bodies splayed forward like the talking magazine models that appear in his third movie My Own Private Idaho. As a collective whole, Van Sant’s movies portray a clear message: devotionals to human intimacy and a combative wariness of cinema’s tendency to alienate by exaltation. A sort of queerness is implicit, the answers always found outside and never a normative, nuclear life.

His movies deserve to be ranked because they each tell a version of the same story, a vision that Van Sant never rests in finding a formally different way to tell. In this way, they sample most genres of moviemaking, from the prestige biopic to the horror remake. Their respective successes or failures say much about the power style has to change or alter a fundamental message, and each one is a sort of experiment in the language of movies that shows just how much they can contain.


17. The Sea of Trees (2015)

The badness of Sea of Trees is a revelation. Most ‘bad movies’ suffer from a kind of miscalculated amount of camp which prohibits serious thought, allowing the edgy critic to occasionally recover said movie from the trash, a kind of glib Rocky Horror experience. Van Sant is, instead, uncompromising. The Sea Of Trees is a masterpiece of badness that demands to be at the bottom of this list, rejects rescue like a sinking ship captain who throws his raft back at you.

The movie’s title politely alludes to the Japanese Aokigahara forest, notable for its suicides and, as many critics noticed, this made van Sant only the second filmmaker that year to set a widely panned drama in its midst, arriving in wide release eight months after the Natalie Dormer-starring The Forest. What drew Van Sant to the movie’s plot—penned by Chris Sparling of Buried fame—is obvious. The story of two men who get lost in a big forest is a mash of Van Sant’s earlier movies Gerry and Last Days, and he even throws in the dead wife plot device of Good Will Hunting (though this time she is given corporeal form by Naomi Watts via numerous flashbacks). Van Sant tries very hard to power through Sparling’s weird script, full of strange speeches that involve Matthew McConaughey delivering long recollections about how he used to refill his dead wife’s box of tea in the middle of the night. Another of Van Sant’s motifs involve intimate relationships between men that cross class or cultural barriers, which in Sea of Trees involves Ken Watanabe playing a sort of ghost that one critic likened to “basically the Asian version of the Magical Negro.” Watanabe actually spends a lot of time watching this disaster unfold in stunned silence, as if busy thanking some higher power that he is not in this moment Matthew McConaughey, crashing into the walls of human emotion like a motorboat driven by a blind man. I think I could write another 5,000 words about the masterfully bad moments that anchor The Sea of Trees, but not a single soul in the world would want to read them, and I think this is part and parcel of the movie’s uncompromising genius.


16. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

There probably exists a significant crowd who wished Van Sant would make nothing but movies like Drugstore Cowboy, movies about badasses with romantic swagger and emotional pain that engage just enough with the tradition of outlaw road movies to keep their attention. In fact, the arc of Matt Dillon’s drugstore-robbing cowboy, whose crimes are governed by a system of mysticism that eventually dictates he leave the business for good, is remarkably similar to that of Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. But while Tarantino and his imitators were never incredibly interested in what their Jules Winnfields did with their lives after leaving their diners, Van Sant always was. Half of Drugstore Cowboy deals with Dillon on the methadone program, facing the ordinariness of life and befriending a druggie priest, played by cult novelist William Burroughs. It is hard not to imagine that this was the story Van Sant wanted to tell all along.

It is this plodding insecurity that makes Drugstore Cowboy the weakest of Van Sant’s early period, with much of its first half working as a collection of indie cinema calling cards. (He can do drugs! He can do crime! etc.) Notably, Van Sant would never make another outlaw movie again, though its therapeutic second half can find easy kinship with much of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. He makes the genre feel hollow because, well, maybe it is. The real drugstore cowboy whose life the movie was based on was still robbing pharmacies into his 70s. That’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it?

Focus Features

15. Promised Land (2012)

Curiously, the worst script Van Sant has ever had to work with was co-authored by one of the writers of his most celebrated: along with John Krasinski, Matt Damon penned a corny political parable about fracking based on a concept by Dave Eggers. In it, Damon and Krasinski duel as oil man and environmentalist, fighting over a local bartender (Rosemarie DeWitt) and more importantly betraying each other’s hearts. To Van Sant, this is all very funny and Damon’s character even forgets to sleep with DeWitt when he beats Krasinski. Critics were less impressed by the cheesy sincerity that any Eggers-related product wears like a rubbery hazmat suit, and the movie failed to be nominated for any of the Academy Awards that its December release date had hoped for.

But Van Sant powers through, and if you ignore every word spoken in Promised Land, an underrated visual spectacle emerges. The aerial shots of the central Pennsylvania countryside are some of the most gorgeous in Van Sant’s career, shot in crisp Super 35mm lens by La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Underused but not unappreciated is the presence of Frances McDormand as a fellow oil company representative who sort of functions as the gabe in the movie’s central contest between Damon and Krasinski. She spends much of the movie in a nearby hotel room, kind of laughing about it.

Columbia Pictures

14. Finding Forrester (2000)

While Van Sant was torn down for his remake of Psycho two years before, it is surprising that he left unscathed from the largely forgotten remake of his own Good Will Hunting he made after. The movies are in fact so similar that instead of schooling a Harvard egghead on the economics of the lower colonies, Finding Forrester’s Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown, in his debut) schools a random bougie guy on the history of the BMW corporation. People were very easily impressed before the internet! And in lieu of being a math and theory whiz, Wallace is a literary (and basketball) prodigy, with Stellan Skarsgård and Robin Williams’s dueling attentions replaced by the singular Sean Connery, who plays a reclusive novelist based on J.D. Salinger. Salinger was, of course, known to use his reclusivity to chase college-aged women similarly falling upon his door. Connery is mercifully more chaste.

People often point to movies like Finding Forrester as the nadir of Van Sant’s sentimentality, a designation that groups the movie along with the run of awful movies about white teachers heroically forming friendships with black high school students that saturated the latter half of the decade (Half Nelson, Freedom Writers). Notably, the script’s hapless appropriation of slang (penned by eventual Secretariat-screenwriter Mike Rich) ended up inspiring one of the earliest memes in internet history, that of Connery saying “You’re the man now, dog” in a very Sean Connery voice. But it is compelling that Wallace is forced to find support in the dusty confines of a reclusive novelist with a secret, after being shunned by both the movie’s main teacher figure (F. Murray Abraham) and unhelped by the movie’s token suffering girlfriend (Anna Paquin).

Fine Line Features

13. Elephant (2003)

Dogged pursuit of naturalism compelled ‘80s indie peers Steven Soderbergh and Van Sant to cast dark dramas among communities of non-actors in the middle of America, both within two years of each other. But where Soderbergh confined his indie experiments to the art movie crowd, Van Sant’s aimed Elephant squarely at mass communication by taking on the Columbine massacre as his subject, a gesture that won him far more seats in theaters and the Palme d’Or in 2003. (Cannes had bestowed Bowling for Columbine a similar award the year before.)

This makes Elephant a hard movie to assess; surely the retrospective legacy of Oliver Stone’s blockbuster World Trade Center would have suffered in the wake of a decade of further mass terrorist attacks. As such, the movie’s legacy is unhelped by another school shooter later using a still from Elephant as his website profile picture before killing seven people. Van Sant’s dramaturgical hand is masterful: we watch two students with guns begin walking toward the school early on, before flashing briefly back to another part of the school day, electrifying every minute with our tragically ironic knowledge. And these minutes are rich in the kind of intimate gestures that Van Sant has become so good at: an artist kid taking photographs of his peers, a soft-spoken boy working around his father’s alcoholism (the alcoholic father, in one of the few actor roles, was played by Timothy Bottoms, who had recently played George Bush in DC 9/11, one the first movies to be made about 9/11. This added to the appreciation of the movie in France.) Even the school shooters look vaguely sympathetic, living outsider lives of sexual and social alienation, playing what looks like a video game version of Gerry. A certain kind of person will argue that this is the real way to get a message across, balancing empathy and tragedy in open-armed compassion. But Bob Geldof already did that on “I Don’t Like Mondays,” didn’t he?

Sony Pictures Classics

12. Restless (2011)

When tragedy robs a young man played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis, he turns to the company of a Japanese military pilot who appears as a ghost (a plot devise uncannily similar to that of Sea of Trees!), followed by a dying girl played by Mia Wasikowska in a strikingly androgynous haircut. Filming teen romance gives Van Sant the permission to be very literal: the never-seen dying parents replaced by the dying girlfriend illuminates why so many of Van Sant’s characters enter his movies severed off-screen from their normative nuclear families, a kind of transference that repeats itself infinitely. His movies are never about finding soulmates, they’re about finding ways to rearticulate more primal relationships lost long ago.

Of course, the most arresting thing about Restless is that it screened at Cannes almost a whole year before John Green even published The Fault in Our Stars. Sure, Van Sant doesn’t really care about the dying at the center of it, and this kind of stagey emptiness annoys critics looking for something that feels important, especially as it regards the Japanese ghost going on about being a kamikaze pilot. But what he does care about is the moments before this meeting, the awkward silences of teenagers and a place to perform small gestures, to which the movie’s palette of faded colors fits perfectly.

Amazon Studios

11. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)

Don’t Worry functions, most immediately, as a return to form: Van Sant had penned the script, it was set in Portland and starred the brother of Van Sant’s brief muse, River Phoenix. Incidentally, it doubles as Van Sant’s first feature film to gesture toward the AIDS crisis. The movie is not unproblematic on its own terms: Phoenix’s John Callahan views his disability as a punishment for his abuse of alcoholism.

But like in all Van Sant movies, this a vehicle for a story about mostly male intimacy across social and cultural lines, from the betrayal that Callahan suffers at the hands of a fry cook he meets at a bar (Jack Black) whose drunk driving disables Callahan to the cohort of AA members that meet in Hill’s mansion. And like his heroes in My Own Private Idaho, Psycho, Good Will Hunting or Restless, he is tormented by the absence of parental guidance: in this case his mother makes an appearance in a drunken ghostly illumination. It is interesting that Van Sant has never made a movie about families related by blood, a style that seems to say that the only families that matter are made outside.

Fine Line Features

10. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)

Mostly remembered for being loathed by audiences and critics with such passion that it never inspired the kinds of sarcastic audiences that, say, Showgirls still courts, Van Sant’s first flop merits more thought. It’s an old-school John Waters movie let loose, adrift in the sea of slacker violence and hard edges that ’90s hipsters craved. Its failure to connect with them is doubly sad, as it remains Van Sant’s only attempt to turn his sentimental compassion toward queer women, starring Uma Thurman as a bisexual and large-thumbed model and hitchhiker. If you pay him, Van Sant will do anything twice (see Finding Forrester), so shame on you ’90s kids.

The movie is something like a marriage of On The Road and One Flew Over the Cookoos Nest (an aging Ken Kesey even cameos briefly) and, in that sense, is very faithful to the ’70s pastiche artist whose novel it adapted. Van Sant uses that cartoonish sensibility to fill a road trip with lively surprises, from John Hurt as an insidious gay businessman named The Madame to a labor politics plotline that has more in common with Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You than anything else in theaters that decade.


9. Gerry (2002)

Because Ulysses is too damn long, most college students will choose Waiting for Godot instead, which is very thin. Consequentially, there is great (retrospective) appreciation for Gerry, a movie that, like Godot, only has two people in it. They are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, a casting choice that I personally like to imagine was made because Damon had refused to star in the version of Brokeback Mountain that Van Sant had initially optioned. Van Sant ended up shooting Gerry instead which, like Annie Proulx’s short story, takes place in the barren west and consists of two men spending long amounts of time with each other there. But instead of having sex, Damon and Affleck get aimlessly lost, and when Damon climatically rolls on top of Affleck, he chokes him to death, making the movie the first of Van Sant’s “death trilogy.” Touché.

What Gerry reminds me of most (sorry, Bela Tarr) is that Onion video imagining an ultra-realistic version of the Call of Duty franchise where “the majority of gameplay [is] spent hauling equipment and filling out paperwork.” As it turns out, Van Sant was influenced not by playing video games but by watching other people play old school Tomb Raider, captivated by how much game time was spent walking around. In this way, Gerry is a perfect antidote to today’s abundant action movie long shots, rich tapestries that attempt to provide the same thrill as those Renaissance paintings much admired by high school students. Why not just watch Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walk for six minutes straight?

Universal Pictures

8. Psycho (1998)

Contrarians consider Van Sant’s version of Psycho to be “realer” than the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock hit film. While they are wrong or maybe just tedious, ditto the conventional discourse that writes the movie off as “a high-budget, obsessive exercise in imitation,” “art forgery” or other variations of the word “experiment.” In a decade where a Who tribute-band called Pearl Jam played stadiums as some kind of collective joke, Van Sant’s Psycho is the quintessential movie of the ‘90s, a cover song coordinated on mass scale. As a rule, remakes insult critics and, twenty years ago, they tripped over themselves to explain why this one couldn’t possibly work.

Van Sant’s eagle-eye targeting of film snobs may be Pyscho98’s most obvious joy, but it also holds up as a kinetic act of cultural criticism, challenging the validity of its source material as much as it refashioned it. As Roger Ebert moaned at the time, Van Sant deliberately de-eroticizes Marion Crane, which reveals how much the original relied on the exploitation fare of watching pretty blondes get what that decade’s audiences thought should be coming to them. And in his casting of Norman Bates, Van Sant rewrites the character completely. Instead of a walking stand-in for the queer panic of the original film, Vince Vaughn’s version of Bates is as handsome and self-assured as any of Van Sant’s leads. Vaughn barely looks like he cares about the whole serial killing thing; in the movie’s one change from the original, Bates is shown masturbating before killing Crane, suggesting the whole thing is one elaborate kink, as chore-like as taking out the trash. Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, Van Sant’s costume designer since Drugstore Cowboy, originally thought the movie was to be a period piece and costumed the movie as such, giving it the dressing of a parody but played without winking. The ’90s were a decade of recovery from the paranoia complex of the Cold War, and in Psycho, it is a breakdown in human relations that Van Sant takes seriously.

Columbia Pictures

7. To Die For (1995)

After his Uma Thurman-starring queer epic was viciously rejected by critics, test audiences and real ones, Van Sant picked up a script about a woman who ends the movie dead at the bottom of an ice rink. In one of Nicole Kidman’s early starring roles (Van Sant cast her, partly, because she “wasn’t an extremely recognizable female lead”), she plays a TV-obsessed journalist who convinces her high school lover (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon) and is in turn killed by her in-law’s mafia connections. Despite being the movie’s central figure of gravity, Kidman’s character barely leaves an emotional mark on the heart of Van Sant’s world. In the mockumentary-style footage that narrates the movie, Phoenix’s delinquent character is interviewed serving a 30-year sentence for his involvement, but cannot remember what his seducer looked like.

A satirical murder drama set in the snowy hills of New Hampshire, To Die For is notable for presaging similar sarcastic movies about murder set in wintery locales like A Simple Plan and Fargo. To Die For has more of an earnest drama at its center than either of those, though it is the only tonal outlier in Van Sant’s work, his sole movie with a vacuum of sincerity at its center. Instead, it can be found in its outliers, in the charismatic charm that Phoenix exudes or the way Dillon returns to a Van Sant movie to continue to be sleepily seduced by comfort. That Van Sant also restrains from lending its story the farcically-styled outlines of My Own Private Idaho or Even Cowboys Get The Blues makes the movie’s repeated breakdown of normative romantic relationships feel tragic instead of campy.

Focus Features

6.  Milk (2008)

As someone constantly working inside the genre, Van Sant is among one of the more arresting architects of the biopic and has done much to restrain the grandiose-by-default genre by using slices of life to tell a story that evokes a whole and lived life. Most directors who have taken after his style have done so very literally, and the current fashion is to precisely excise singular slices of the great lives and pontificate on them, i.e. Selma, Steve Jobs or the upcoming On the Basis of Sex. Van Sant’s idea was always to show their lives in the same style as anybody else’s: collections of small events whose importance is left for an audience to decide.

If you skip the speeches, much of Milk plays like a star-studded version of his earlier movies, complete with its impressionistic style and its focus on the relationships between a privileged artist-intellectual (Sean Penn) and less privileged outcasts, this time from gay society (Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, James Franco)— David Denby likens them to “lost boys.” In fact, the film was among the first Van Sant tried to do in the major studio system, though creative disagreements in the wake his then-recent box office bomb Even Cowgirls Get the Blues had put his involvement off until he made more money. Most people hate biopics, so Van Sant’s determination to make them in his particular fashion feels strangely brave, an insistence on creating an outsider world for political heroes and junkie criminals alike.

IFC Films

5.  Paranoid Park (2007)

Like Elephant, Van Sant populated a high school movie with real high school students, cast this time via an ad placed on MySpace. A kid named Alex (Gabe Nevins) is drawn toward his town’s skater community, literal outsiders gathering at a far side of town. To impress one of them, he leaves his girlfriend and spends a late night between the train tracks, an equally literal signifier of social boundaries. Also like Elephant, an early scene of violence occurs—the two accidentally kill a security guard who discovers them there—and haunts the movie.

The movie is one of Van Sant’s purest expressions of yearning—the skate park that the movie’s title takes after is a sort of heavenly place dreamed about while in school—while dealing with the mundanities of straight life. That the movie rips it away from Alex almost as soon as he makes the dive suggests that the Van Sant film optimally lives in the space between self-consciousness and acceptance. Alex spends much of the movie writing down a confession, ready to turn himself in and turn himself away from the world he fantasizes about. At the end he burns it, tragically willing to live in that cycle forever.

Janus Films

4.  Mala Noche (1985)

Made on his own hard-saved dimes after working in advertising, it is fitting that Van Sant turned to his adopted hometown of Portland and the story of an unsung beat poet named Walt Curtis. Many of Van Sant’s interests are outlined here: biopics, artists living on society’s edge, the relationships between younger and older men, the wealthy and the impoverished and the queered spaces where they interact. Tim Streeter’s Curtis even delivers a long yarn about wanting to “experience the death” that persists in the everyday lives on society’s edges, a subject that Van Sant would explore further in the “death trilogy” he made in the early 2000s.

The movie’s stream-of-consciousness impressionism would also come to define Van Sant’s approach to subjects, expressing the day-to-day in a series of moments, phrases and closely shot expressions. Van Sant would take this approach toward working with Oscar-winning stars and the lives of rockstars, and it would work because it resisted the epic lilt of the official historian, who stages moments that are meant to make the argument for the movie’s own consequentiality. “A gringo like me has an easy life,” Streeter ruminates briefly, a self-aware throwaway that underlines Van Sant’s own self-awareness.

HBO Films

3.  Last Days (2005)

The final of Van Sant’s movies about death, it is possibly his most relentlessly bleak. Unable to relate to the human intimacies that Van Sant has given himself to chronicling, a stand-in for Kurt Cobain (Michael Pitt) walks, where else, but to the grave. The apathetically removed long shots that define Van Sant’s run of indie movies about death make the most sense here: we never catch Cobain jamming to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but we see what Cobain looks like when he’s done. Van Sant uses the space of his shots to frame the radical alienation of stardom, hidden behind rockstar hair. It’s the image Cobain saw of himself on TV screens and magazine covers, a figure whose face can barely be parsed, a blur that jumps up and down. “You’re suddenly enlisted in a world that you weren’t part of before. What you had before was just your body,” Van Sant told The Guardian during the movie’s Cannes debut, comparing Cobain’s life to his own early ‘90s ascent.

Fine Line Features

2.  My Own Private Idaho (2005)

One of the most daring triumphs of the second wave of American indie filmmaking, My Own Private Idaho is an ultimate contemplation on growing up and selling out that embodies the outwardly contradictory directions of Van Sant’s career and, yet, is exactingly coherent. The son of a wealthy scion (Keanu Reeves) cultivates a relationship with a poor narcoleptic (River Phoenix) and an older street gangster and former lover (William Richert), both hustlers, living a kind of fantasy life that teeters on collapse. It is the central anxiety of the era, populated by the first sell-outs of ’80s counterculture, cashing their chips to the hungry post-Cold War marketplace. In this way, Amy Taubin calls the movie’s final scene, where Reeves buries his dead father and dead lover simultaneously, “a mini-allegory of the economic polarization of America that was already grotesquely evident during the Reagan–Bush I era.”

Some plug Reeves’s character as a stand-in for Van Sant himself, an upper middle-class filmmaker whose movies slummed with the stories of impoverished outsiders. Reeves’s decision to leave the hustling world when he inherits his father’s money, in turn, seems to presage Van Sant’s own decision to take on studio scripts and compete for Oscars. Yet, unlike Reeves, who can barely stand to look at the compatriots he betrays, Van Sant would continue to pursue the same subjects undeterred.

Miramax Films

1.  Good Will Hunting (1997)

Two queens fall for a young lad from the other side of the tracks. Ultimately, he will leave them to be with his boys because they always do in these romances, perpetually repeating the heartbreak of otherness. In an overwritten and overhyped script by stars Damon and Ben Affleck, Van Sant found a complimentary inversion of My Own Private Idaho: Damon and Reeves’s characters both on the precipice of turning 21 and having to decide where to steer their lives. Despite how seamlessly the movie fits into the larger narratives of Van Sant’s work, Many mentions of Good Will Hunting call his directing “anonymous,” helped, perhaps, by the eventual superstardom of the movie’s two leads.

In a recent retrospective on the movie, Luke O’Neil is wary of celebrating Good Will Hunting because of the current reputations of those stars, the now-infamous Harvey Weinstein who first bought their script, and the masculine Boston street culture that it paid homage to. But that’s fine. Take that away and the movie might as well take place in Providence, Rhode Island, for all I care. Van Sant makes this movie, turning the preposterous narcissism of the writing into embers of feeling that he directs its stars to catch with their tongues. Even the movie’s ignored girlfriend (Minnie Driver) turns her role of providing the movie’s token straightness into a torch that none of the line of ignored girlfriends who followed, from Anna Paquin to Rooney Mara, could quite fill in the same way. Why do all the good ones prefer to confide in the dusty rooms of their professors? Intimately staged and perfectly cast, Robin Williams’s exuberance was toned down to the rumble of conversations between strangers at a bar, while Stellan Skarsgård’s attempt to sound more Franco-German gives his voice a strange, suggestive lilt. The movie is a masterclass on everything Van Sant uses movies to do: create intimate auras miles away from the normative world. In its exuberant final scene, where else can Will go but off-screen, toward home?

Andrew Karpan: @donniedelillo movies are not magic but skin and bone.