Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough, Drugstore Cowboy, remains as arresting as the day it appeared, a fever dream of a film that introduced audiences to a director intent on investigating the gritty lives of people living on the margins. The still-affecting My Own Private Idaho and the uneven Even Cowgirls Get the Blues prepared him for his first big studio effort, the deliciously satirical To Die For.
The unexpected popular success of Good Will Hunting, which landed Van Sant an Oscar nomination for Best Director, led to his inexplicable decision to remake Hitchcock’s Psycho and work within the overtly conventional trappings of Finding Forrester.
His Hollywood dreams seemingly satiated, Van Sant went back to what he does best — smaller-scale offerings (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park) driven by atmosphere and intimacy — before returning to the Oscar spotlight with Milk, a biopic of pioneering gay activist Harvey Milk.
Now comes Restless, an odd little film that melds Van Sant’s naturalistic aesthetic with a whimsy not apparent in his previous work. The narrative, courtesy of a script by Jason Lew, centers on a pair of teenage loners who become lovers: Enoch (Henry Hopper), a reserved fellow who crashes strangers’ funerals and plays Battleship with an imaginary friend, and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a good-natured cancer patient with a fondness for Charles Darwin and elaborate hats.
All of which is to say it’s another curious choice for a guy who continues to walk down his own unique career path.
“It’s pretty rare to find a screenplay that keeps you going,” Van Sant says when asked what drew him to Restless.
“So there was that aspect where it was like, ‘Oh, I finished the whole screenplay.’
“There were a couple of projects I was offered that were stories that I had either done before myself or else I felt they weren’t right,” Van Sant adds when pushed to further explain his seemingly random choice of projects. “There are scripts that come through that I don’t continue reading them after a certain amount of pages. That’s usually because the originality is missing for me. I’m not really someone that’s just going to do a Bruce Willis ransom movie, or whatever might actually be a really hot property in Hollywood, because it’s well written and it’s taut and it’s, like, exciting.”
Van Sant has long had an eye for fresh faces and for using already established actors in new ways. Add Henry Hopper, a delicate-featured actor who makes his screen debut in Restless, to the list of newbies.
“He seemed very complicated, and then also very pure,” Van Sant says of Hopper, who has a striking resemblance to his late dad, Hollywood icon Dennis Hopper. “He was also a really good actor. He had done a lot of stage work, and for a few different summers he had acted in a studio in Santa Monica, so he was really quite good at just sort of getting off the page and creating the character right in front of me, as was Mia (Wasikowska). They fit together.”
For a film that deals with death — Enoch’s parents were killed in a car crash and Annabel’s cancer is terminal — Restless avoids theological questions of any kind.
“I think, personally, that it’s all just speculation,” Van Sant says of what he thinks happens when one dies. “And the kids are like, ‘Let’s not bother with speculation. Let’s just have fun, let’s just screw around.’ I think that’s what the film’s about — it’s them taking advantage of the moment rather than speculating about what will happen later.”
If there’s one constant in Van Sant’s work, it’s his preoccupation with people — often outsiders from strained family situations — who are trying to find where they fit in the world.
“It’s an area you start to become familiar with and haven’t quite finished (exploring),” Van Sant says. “It’s a home base for a story. I guess John Ford would find a western as home base. It’s like, ‘Why keep doing westerns over and over again?’ But it’s a place where you can tell your story from.”
RESTLESS is available now as a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo.