TRANSCENDENCE AFTER DEATH: THE CURIOUS EVOLUTION OF GUS VANSANT’S DEATH TRILOGY
I was always somewhat intrigued by Gus Van Sant’s career - as in, how did the guy
ever go from making Drugstore Cowboy (1989) to Good Wil Hunting (1997) to Milk (2008)? As
such, being presented with such an enigmatic and varied director, I naturally decided to
attack his filmography from what may be its most uncharacteristic, most inaccessible point:
the so-called “Death Trilogy.”
Sounds ominous, right? And I suppose that, by most standards, it really is: the Death
Trilogy is a series of (you guessed it) three films centered around themes of (you guessed it
again; this is all quite self-explanatory, really) impending death and mortality. From Gerry
(2002), where two men lost in the desert wander aimlessly until one kills the other; to
Elephant (2003), which is centered solely around a school shooting; to Last Days (2005), which
charts the, ahem, ‘last days’ of a rock celebrity about to commit suicide; the early 2000s
evidently weren’t particularly kind to Van Sant. Then again, were the early 2000s really kind
to any of us?
While they are all thematically connected - on a surface level, at least, because
“death” is such a wide-reaching subject that I cannot, in good conscience, call it that strong
of a link - what really unifies these films is their oppressively nihilist/realist style, a forced
naturalism that leaves many audiences wondering why they’re spending so much damn time
just staring at people wordlessly walking through mediocre environments. Scenes are listless
and borderline arbitrary, set design is non-existent, the audio is often scrambled, and the
entire experience, generally, feels incredibly like a big-budget film trying its darn hardest to
come across as a found-footage VHS tape - which is more or less what is actually happening,
Within this realm of forced, morbid realism, however, Van Sant takes care to add
some intriguing artistic flourishes. Much of the audio may be indistinct for the purposes of
forced realism, sure, but it’s also fucked by Van Sant’s steadfast insistence on inter-splicing it
with the occasional avant-garde soundscape (aka random ambient noises tempered with
some smooth jazz, basically) or weird, distorting sound effect. The eerie Californian desert
in which Gerry takes place is its own type of magical flourish as well, as is the strange
mimicry of Last Days’s central protagonist, the Cobain look-alike played by real-life rock
musician Michael Pitt. Not to mention the whole Christ ascension thing that happens at
the end there (spoiler alert), where Pitt’s transparent spirit is seen calmly getting up and
leaving the shed in which his lifeless body is lying. Tempered with the appropriate avant-
garde soundscape, of course, which in this case is a whole lot of birdsong that is later
overtaken by choral singing.
All three films end in this similar manner, actually. Where Pitt’s suicide in Last Days
brings him into his Christ-like transcendence, so does, seemingly, the massacre perpetrated
in Elephant or the charged murder of Gerry; one is heralded by a similar birdsong-and-music
deal, while the other by a series of poetic time-lapses (quite a shocking choice, when you
remember the amount of dull desert-wandering that has been occurring for the previous
hour) and a shot of the rising sun. Both, furthermore, then take a moment to acknowledge
the true star of the show: a classic 1990s shot of the open blue sky. Feel free to assign
whatever meaning you wish to that one, by the way, because though it’s certain that such a
shot of the sky is spiritual in some sense, it’s also so ubiquitous that, at this point, it’s
impossible to say what it really means. It’s the perfect kind of symbolism for this sort of film
- affecting, if only through its overwhelming vagueness.
All three works, then, are not so much about death, which is an incredibly broad and
overreaching theme, but about the transcendence that supposedly follows immediately after.
I guess “Transcendence-After-Death Trilogy” just didn’t roll off of the tongue that well,
though. Overall, it’s a strange type of existentialism, with Van Sant breaking free of the
morbidity of his narratives and the nihilism that his overly mundane approach coats them
in. It’s also why I love a lot of ‘90s violence-oriented cinema: it finds a unique, poetic kind of
power and beauty in that self-destruction.
While I’ve tried my hardest to make this seem like a cohesive trilogy to all of you,
however, it’s actually quite a disparate one. I mean, we go from a surrealist trek through the
California desert to a school shooting to a weird, imitation-biopic (but not actualy a biopic.
You have to be careful about these things) about suicide; does that seem at all cohesive to
you? Artistic choices be damned, these are three radically differing settings and situations,
and sometimes I get somewhat irritated that they’re grouped together like this at all.
But yeah, okay, thematic death, transcendence, doesn’t that make it all okay? Well,
actually, I would argue that the thematic narratives of these three works are quite different
and telling as well. Simply breaking down the plots of these stories makes that evident:
Gerry is about a man who kills his friend without expecting it, Elephant is about two boys
who kill a lot of students on purpose, and Last Days is about a man/rock symbol who kills
himself, also on purpose. So while death and transcendence feature in all three, they’re
aimed at different actors in each instance, within varying degrees of pre-meditation. My
point is, basically, that there is a huge difference between committing a planned, school-
wide massacre and killing your buddy because the two of you are dying in the desert.
A really huge difference, actually. Gerry is more reserved, both in terms of stylistic
choices and the circumstances of killing, as if Van Sant was yet unwilling to commit to this
whole gloomy “Death Trilogy” thing. Who knows why that one guy killed his friend? Was he
going mad? Irritated? Hoping to put him out of his misery? The film leaves it ambiguous,
and so the beautiful shots of the Californian desert sky that follow are ambiguous as well.
All that Van Sant was likely motivated by, really, was a desire to find some sort of ascension
and morality in the wake of an ambiguous murder, preceded by a near-Biblical amount of
Then, a mere year later, comes Elephant. This time, Van Sant overcommits: the
murder is pre-meditated, and multiplied across an entire student body, and underscored
with the brutal sentimentality of making the audience get to know all of the victims first
(half of the film is just tracking shot after tracking shot following various students going
about their usually quite miserable days, and the other half is all carnage). Already quite a
hateful and destructive premise, the film is twisted further by that crucial moment of
transcendence, which comes when one of the killers is left alone. What can that scene, in
which a young teenager calmly hauls an assault rifle into a corpse-laden cafeteria while
ambient bird-noise overtakes the airwaves, mean? What can be said about the last lines of
dialogue in the film, in which he taunts his two remaining victims before we cut to that blue
sky? Any ambiguity here is imposed by the audience themselves, in hopes of not coming to
the conclusion the film is offering them: that perpetrating mass death will take you higher,
that within such an act lies some kind of spiritual power. That transcendence follows not
simply the occurrence of mass death, but the taking of that occurrence into your own hands.
It’s an utterly ugly conclusion, one that I hate deeply. How can the gentle, ambiguous
ending of Gerry at all be placed on the same par as this, which clearly hopes to draw beauty
from mass tragedy? Whatever fascination Van Sant had with death has been multiplied,
overcharged, and sent towards disgustingly immoral and destructive means. The well of
negative emotion from which he has been drawing from has been inadvertently revealed,
and boy, is it ugly.
Which brings us to the third, and final, feature - Last Days, my personal favorite.
Because here, here Van Sant finally turns the violence inwards, acknowledging the self-
destructive, desperate, miserable nature that has defined his work all along. This ‘well of
negative emotion’ is absolved, more or less, through this acknowledgement, allowed to exist
comfortably at last.
Most importantly, however, here the transcendence finally makes sense. It’ll take a
whole ‘nother essay for me to describe how and why exactly I love its placing here so damn
much, but suffice it to say that the peace of ascension makes a lot more sense in the context
of depressed suicide than raging murder (though I hate the fact that I have to compare the
two at all) (there’s also a fun bit about pop-culture image and the whole Cobain thing but,
like I said, different, much more personal essay) (as if it could get much more personal than
this). No matter what, it’s an incredibly apt resolution to Van Sant’s troubling and varied
evolution, from unclear fascination to untapped rage to, finally, holy absolution. The birds
sing, the chorus kicks in, and Van Sant finds an appropriate peace at last.