David Gordon Green: A Career In Review

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In preparation for this year’s Joe (directed by David Gordon Green and not to be confused with the 1970s hippies vs slobs film starring Peter Boyle), in which Nicolas Cage is thought to be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, I wanted to break down David Gordon Green’s seminar films.  A career unlike any other filmmaker alive today.

George Washington

Very few films, even expert films, understand what it’s like to be young, to be a kid.  Sometimes great writers are guilty of writing intelligent teenagers as immature forty year olds with a long life behind them.  George Washington tells the story of children living in the South, unrequited crushes and an accidental death and the attempt to hide the evidence.  Somehow, implausibly, this is all a lot funnier and more heart-warming than anyone would ever dream possible.

The days are hot and sweaty and filled with boredom.  The adults and the children seem to be as equally lost in life, wondering what the hell anything means.  While sometimes crushing and emotionally devastating, nothing in George Washington ever seems exploitative or provocative.  We’re simply viewing lives as imperfect as they may be, and David Gordon Green reminds us why films are magic.  It is, without hyperbole, one of the most fantastic debut films ever made.

The “I wish I had my own tropical island,” monologue is pure poetry.  It never feels forced or “written,” it doesn’t seem like the masturbatory work of a writer.  It feels like the sad thoughts of a kid who wants to escape his own misery.

All The Real Girls

Don’t let the presence of Zooey Deschanel fool you into thinking this movie is a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl picture in which a young, male hero is on the verge of an existential collapse and permanent lifestyle change when a quirky girl shows him that he’s perfect the way he is, and just needs someone there to embrace his anxieties.  Change… is bad.  You just need a really, really hot girl to love you for who you are.

On the contrary, All the Real Girls is about realizing that that person does not exist and heartbreak is sure to follow when living that philosophy.  Paul Schneider is fantastic in the lead role and, though his performance is mostly subdued as a man who’s proud of all the pussy he’s scored in his life, when he reaches heartbreak, it is masterful.

All the Real Girls, much like his freshman picture George Washington, has a much heavier story in idea than in actual execution.  The end result can be sad, but it’s also an affirmation of love and romance.

Undertow

Many of David Gordon Green’s films have been described as Southern Gothic drama, like a modern telling of Faulkner, but with the exception of Joe, this is the only work in his filmography that really fits the bill.  With an odd cast at its surface, British actor Jamie Bell leading, it’s absolutely incredible the performances that the director gets on film.  Dermot Mulroney and Josh Lucas are two actors who, prior to me seeing this film, never really blipped my radar; I always thought of them as serviceable actors in inconsequential roles.  But, boy do they both knock it out of the fucking park as brothers, one good, one bad, in their quests for happiness and peace.

The cinematography, as always, is lush and gorgeous, but Undertow really, really matches the look and feel of a Terrence Malick film.  David Gordon Green has often been called “the man who would be Terrence Malick” and Undertow is not a bad example of a film that would proudly grace Malick’s credit.  It meanders dreamily through its locale and explodes in unexpected violence and tension, but it never feels forced or like anything other than a logical extension of the plot that preceded it.

Snow Angels

It would have been so easy for Snow Angels to have been a sappy melodrama made for the Lifetime Network.  And it is, indeed, a melodrama, but I had that the word “melodrama” is used as outright dismissal of a movie.  Many movies, novels, television shows are melodrama, but that’s not a bad thing.  It’s simply a means of telling a story.  Guillermo del Toro is a proud melodramatist, according to his audio commentary on The Devil’s Backbone.  Snow Angels is clear about its intentions and portrays them with elegance, with a bittery, snowy backdrop to better visualize the loneliness of the characters.

Sam Rockwell, who’s never been not-amazing in his work (everyone even remembers his three-second speaking role in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie–“Menthol or regular?”), stars as Born Again Christian whose determination to Christ is a pathetic cover for a dysfunctional life.  Kate Beckinsale is his ex-wife and is amazing in the role.

The tragedy that befalls and affects every character in the film’s framework may seem obvious in hindsight, but the slow build is deliberately plotted and the climax is wrenching.  Snow Angels is one of the best examples of a modern melodrama that doesn’t rely on sap to carry the plot.

Pineapple Express

Stoner comedies that are actually funny are a rare bird.  That Apatow & Co. hired David Gordon Green to direct this film is a true testament to a gamble paying off.  Never mind the stupid comedies of Your Highness and The Sitter that were to follow in Gordon Green’s career after trying and succeeding with comedy, his result with Pineapple Express is impeccable.  It’s funny (due in large part to the script written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), but most of all it’s fun.  It was the movie that brought James Franco–for better or worse–out of his shell as someone who was typically such a serious actor in such seriously bad movies (except “Freaks and Greeks”!), and made him into a weirdo artist expressionist who shows up online as Batman with jizz on his mask.

This was Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s direct follow-up to Superbad and had a lot of hype to live up to.  I’m not entirely sure if it did, because it went in a totally different, lunatic direction, but audiences loved it.  Rogen, Goldberg and Apatow all cited Gordon Green’s past work as the reason to hire him because he had a way with effortless character development.  It was David Gordon Green’s first-ever crowd pleaser and it worked incredibly well.  It’s endlessly quotable (“It’s four o’fucking-clock?!”) and stupid in the best way possible.  It takes real genius to make something that’s successfully “stupid-funny.”  Look at the Harvard graduates who worked on “The Simpsons.”

He directed a handful of episodes of the hit show “Eastbound and Down,” but his success as a director of idiotic comedies was short lived.

Prince Avalanche

Coming off of the failures of Your Highness and The Sitter, David Gordon Green decided to get back to his indie roots with this remake of the Icelandic comedy Á annan veg (Either Way), called Prince Avalanche, about two mismatched men hired to repaint the highway lines after a fire devastated them.  Principal photography of the film was done in secret so that David Gordon Green would feel more at home after having worked with major studios three times in a row.

Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, dressed not unlike Mario and Luigi, star with great supporting work from Lance LeGault as a truck driver with homemade hooch and Joyce Payne in a mostly documentary-filmed role as a woman who, in real life, lost her home and possessions in a fire.

This film is a great example of what to do with a limited cast and how to make it interesting.  The dialogue is consistently funny and the characters, without resorting to ham fisted expostionary lines, build their characters with a lot of depth.

With Joe coming out soon, I just hope that he can live up to the expectation of his prior work.  Tye Sheridan, who was awesome in 2012’s Mud, coupled with a career-high performance from Nicholas Cage should at the very least be interesting.

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