by Pat O'Donnell
David Gordon Green will be releasing his twelfth film in September, a drama about a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing called Stronger. From the trailer, it looks like it is going to be an emotional, human story that will leave me weeping. This is both a surprise and not for Green. Throughout his career, he has tackled dramas, thrillers, broad comedies, and touching character pieces. And Green has been nothing if not inconsistent. Today, we love simple filmmakers. Directors should either be arty auteurs or studio shills, with little room to move between. What David Gordon Green presents us with does not fit into any dichotomy, and that is why I am fascinated by how strange and aggravating his journey as a filmmaker has been.
The first era of Green’s career has a distinct aesthetic and thematic core that gave him serious festival clout. His first full-length film, George Washington, felt like a mission statement. It is gorgeously shot, containing slow-motion montages, an earthen color palette and poetic voice-over. It is difficult to describe the plot, but it is about deeply poor children seeking redemption. Green’s next two films, All the Real Girls and Undertow followed suit, having a Southern Gothic tinge and straight-faced, Romantic tales. These films were story-forward, placing young characters in difficult situations and forcing them to grow up. All the Real Girls was about young, tragic romance whereas Undertow had a chase-thriller pastiche. Snow Angels felt like a natural extension of this, just more dour and less sublime. Snow Angels is a dark drama, dealing with the crushing sadness of the death of a child and the reactions of the individuals surrounding the tragedy. The film really thinks about repression of emotions, with the central couple’s ultimate downfall being pent-up emotionally. It is one of the rawest films I have ever seen. There is some levity with the teen romance storyline, but most the story focuses on broken people who end up beyond the breaking point.
Following this, Green had a seismic shift in tone with Pineapple Express. To go from these heady, intimate genres to a flat-out mainstream comedy was stunning. And even more stunning is the fact that it completely works. I think that most people treat this film as part of the glut of Seth Rogan films of the early 00s. However, Pineapple Express is both a throwback to the big 80s action-comedies and propulsive contemporary story about stoner culture. It is a compelling ride, as much about friendship and fragile masculinity as it is about explosions and cross joints. It swings big, aiming for huge laughs and great thrills and manages to achieve it. Unfortunately, this success seemed illusive.
Green was chasing the comedy dragon for the next few films. And chasing the dragon always gets worse and worse. Your Highness is a strange stoner epic that has too little weed and too little epic action, even the majority of the laugh lines from the film were ADR. There are neat practical effects and Danny McBride gives a great performance, but it is slow and strange. The Sitter is the most frustrating movie Green has made. The film feels like it is rushing, pushing us out the door. Jonah Hill’s titular babysitter is a milquetoast, well-meaning fuck-up and the children have cosmetic problems that just comes from being kids. There are barely any laughs in the film, save for one liners from Hill’s improvisations. Touching moments genuinely hit well, but the film is lopsided and easy. By 2012, Green seemed to have lost his touch.
Then, Green dropped Prince Avalanche in 2013, and it was an absolute dazzler. It is lean, fun and serious. It thinks about masculinity and shows the ebbs and flows of male friendship. When the film came out, it was touted as a “return to form” for DGG, but I disagree. The film has little to do with the sort of montage heavy, self-serious films of his youth. This is a wise and studied meditation on self. It is light and breezy in a way that his early attempts were not. It is undoubtedly Green’s masterwork. The same year as Prince Avalanche, Green released Joe, a minor critical success, but again it feels half-baked. It has all the same moves as an early DGG film, a dramatic Southern yarn about impoverished youth. The problem with Joe is it has no complexity to it. Green is fine painting with the broadest brush, losing the complicated nature of all his subjects. The titular character has demons, sure, but he is so virtuous that he operates like a no-collar superhero that always does the right thing. It is an absolute slog. The last two outings of Green were duds, Manglehorn threatens to be interesting, but ultimately falls disappointingly flat. Our Brand is Crisis has Green trying to get political but completely loses any opportunity for successful satire.
Ultimately, David Gordon Green takes big swings. He is never satisfied making a by-the-numbers, expected film. He is reminiscent of the directors of the 1940s, like Capra and Ford, beholden to no genre. Green goes off instinct and relies on emotion. He lets the feeling of the piece dictate above all else, shown both in the ephemeral sadness of films like All the Real Girls and the improvisational comedy of The Sitter. There are always moments that remind you a great artist is at work. Green likes to think about what makes people grow up, typically through extraordinary situations. He likes to work with a stable of collaborators and has the markings of a classic auteur. But he also has made some things that feel like they are from a totally different director. He doesn’t want to be pinned down or boxed in. This fall he has Stronger and following that he has the reboot of Halloween. Again zigging when we think he should zag, Green bucks the trend of your typical director of 2017. We need more filmmakers that strive to subvert expectations. In our current film culture, we need all the unique people we can get.