“When you walk around with no one to laugh with you, or to hold your hand, it’s a different kind of walk, you know?”
Dir: David Gordon Green
Free Country USA, USA, 2000
Starring: Donald Holden, Candace Evanofski, Paul Schneider, Eddie Rouse
I first came across George Washington (2000) on a list of the most disturbing moments in film. Buried underneath the most infamous and gruesome scenes that cinematic history had to offer, the sepia drenched image you see above immediately drew my attention. My gaze was inexplicably drawn away from the horrific glee of Mr. Blonde’s ear slice in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the perverse stare of the rape scene found in Irreversible (2002), settling instead on this mysterious and enigmatic still taken from a film I had never heard of, but one that apparently warranted a place in the company of the mediums most notorious sequences. The scene in question rears its admittedly unsettling head about a third of the way through the films hour and a half running time, but emerges from, and disappears back into, beauty and grace, as opposed to the consistent hostility of its peers. To explain why I perceive George Washington as such a thoroughly brilliant film, this context is necessary, though the substance of the scene itself is not – that is something better experienced as part of the complete picture, rather than simply a moment on a list.
It is a rare opportunity that one is able to discover a film in such a unique manner, George Washington being the anomaly in an otherwise predictable compilation, but this was a scenario that allowed me to appreciate fully the skill and vision that comprises David Gordon Green’s debut feature length film. Bathed in sunlight, haze and the golden glow of a perpetual sunset, George Washington chronicles the lives of a group of Black-American children in rural North Carolina. Amidst abandoned railway tracks, rampant unemployment and derelict constructs a tragedy strikes and plunges protagonist and perpetrator, the eponymous George, into a melancholy and dreamlike consideration of his own place in the universe. Punctuated by gorgeous slow motion, exquisite use of natural light and some of the finest, most natural acting drawn from a group of amateur children you are likely to see, George Washington is an ambient and tranquil hymn to innocence, youth and what it means to be both a hero and a good person.
The aforementioned moment itself is certainly shocking, a brutal and tragic accident that would presumably ratchet up the levels of dramatic awareness in any other film, but in the deliberate clasp of Green it instead serves to submerge the narrative in increasingly hazy layers of imagination and melancholy. Where his peers chose to utilise their ‘disturbing moments’ to act as narrative pivots and points at which the films would lurch into action, Green employs his to further explore the complex themes of his script – both the serenity of the style and the sorrow of the accident combining to push the quiet George further into the recesses of his own philosophy.
George suffers from a condition that meant his skull never hardened and his cautious manner transfers his every word and action into the psyche of a thoughtful adult. Mature beyond his years, Green uses this character to explore adult ideas through the rationalised and condensed thought process of a twelve year old. George’s uncle is violent, his aunt passive, and in this god-fearing environment a gentle soul is somehow incubated. However, Save for the accident, George Washington is loose in a narrative sense, instead focusing on intensely lyrical visual sequences and finding beauty in the most improbable of places.
George Washington is, at points, unbearably tragic, but like its cast of child protagonists, there is a pulsating, relentless optimism shining through. Despite the harsh economic climate and the ensemble of disillusioned, increasingly purposeless adults that surround them, the children find hope and salvation in both the landscape and the details of life that often go unappreciated – the unconditional companionship of a dog, the unfamiliar magic of first kisses and the closeness of a small town community. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert stated in typically lucid fashion that “it is not about plot, but about memory and regret” and I cannot help but unequivocally agree – David Gordon Green’s film is one bathed in the haze of immemory and retrospect, as if the free flowing images are that of a dream and the result of an older entity recalling the events of a long lost youth in a manner that highlights their innocence, their intricate consequences and the passion with which they were lived.
George spends the second half of the film as the town hero – celebrated for risking his own life to save a young and similarly incapacitated boy from drowning. The recurring emptiness that characterised the images of the films first half is replaced by joy, colour and love. We are witness to a cathartic reconciliation between imprisoned father and humbled son, a love blossoming between two unlikely candidates, and revelry in the name of George – the best of us all. Though still haunted by the tragedy of the summer, the characters find solace in each other’s flaws and regardless of the seemingly bleak futures ahead of them, they embrace the life they are gifted and the experiences that they glide through.
By the end of my first viewing I had been wrung out in an emotional sense, such is the power and grace and beauty that the film is delivered with. David Gordon Green’s turn of the century masterpiece is a vastly under seen modern classic of American independent cinema. I find it incredibly easy to discuss the film, the emotional resonance it holds, and the way it makes me feel, because this is the direct intention of its immaculate design. Cathartic, beautiful, full of sorrow and joy in equal measure, George Washington is truly a brilliant film, and, to this day, I am still thankful I went in search of something more caustic.
- Kristofer Thomas