I remember seeing director Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" a few years ago on that screen - all filmlovers out there have at least one - the one where you can truly lose yourself in the towering, enveloping screen. The film remains one of my favorites, but there was something so striking, so poetic and so beautiful about John Toll's cinematography that I was awestruck. In that film's case, we were shown a world of lush, green, gorgeous scenery that played host to the horrors of war.
In "George Washington", we see cinematography that is influenced by Malick's films (the director and cinematographer discuss being inspired by Malick's films in the commentary) , but the environment is interesting in its own way. The film takes place in the rural South, where rusted industry sprouts up in the midst of rich greenery, as if the weeds of decay are slowly creeping inwards, or flowering up in the middle of the landscape. Characters are captured perfectly in the 2.35:1 frame, with the conversations taking place amidst seemingly endless backgrounds, giving the film a non-cramped feel that worked well with the film's open plot.
As for plot, the film does not contain a great deal of it. Instead, director David Gordon Green lets the camera linger on his characters (mainly nonprofessional) talking and experiencing. The film begins with Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and Nasia (Candace Evanofski) discussing the fact that they're about to break up. Films lately would likely present this sequence is less-than-subtle terms. In Green's film, the performers play this scene subtly, honestly and quietly. There's a lot of emotion in the quiet and the sincerity in the scene really makes the hurt that the characters are feeling heartbreaking.
Nasia then turns her attention to George, a young man who suffers from a serious problem in that his skull is soft and could be damaged with any force. A tragic accident happens to one of the children, which I will not reveal; it's at that point that the lives of the children change and they are not simply children without a care anymore.
The performances in "George Washington" are mixed. The kids are not professionals; they often hit particularly honest and heartbreaking notes, then aren't as compelling in other scenes. The main characters are nicely developed, but we really don't learn a great deal about many of the adults or other kids. If anything, I almost wish that "George Washington" was a little bit longer; while I'm sure that this was against the plan of Green, to really build too much defined structure, it would be nice to learn a bit more about some of the lesser characters or even more about the area.
Green has respect for all of his characters and, although the characters do not know where they day will lead them, they seem intelligent and good-hearted. I suppose I also appreciate this kind of structure in a film: we are not lead up and down an arc - build-up, break-up, back together - we are presented with characters that are placed in an environment with interesting tone, scenery and atmosphere as background and watch them interact. Either the characters engage the audience and lead them through this section of their lives or they don't - in this case, I found these characters and their dialogue (some of which was apparently improvised) compelling and the visuals and atmosphere rich. It's an exceptional debut film - even more impressive given the fact that director Green was only in his early 20's during filming.
VIDEO: Criterion presents "George Washington" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This new high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and was supervised by director Green and cinematographer Orr. The presentation of the low-budget film remained excellent, if only with a few minor flaws. Sharpness and detail were terrific throughout - most of the film appeared crisp and well-defined, although a scene here and there could look slightly softer than the rest.
There were few other flaws and what problems there were were hardly that bothersome. Some very slight edge enhancement was present, while a speck or two was visible on the print. No pixelation was seen and colors appeared natural, well-saturated and free of smearing. Overall, this is a superb effort from Criterion that shows off the film's stunning visuals very well.
SOUND: "George Washington" is presented in Dolby 2.0. The film's soundtrack is simple and enjoyable. Light ambience combines nicely with the dialogue and emotional score. All elements seemed crisp and clean although dialogue could occasionally seem a bit low in volume.
MENUS: The menus are not animated, but the film-themed images make for strong backgrounds, while the score plays out behind the main menu.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schnieder. This is a very enjoyable and informative commentary, as the director leads the discussion of the film's production. Green provides some enjoyable chat about working with the film's young actors as well as his thoughts about the film's loose structure, Orr talks about the look and feel, while Schneider provides some backing general comments. This track doesn't have much in the way of silence, but there are some stories and comments that sort of veer a bit too far away from the film at hand.
Finding Clues: This section provides director David Gordon Green's first two films, "Physical Pinball" and "Pleasant Grove" as well as the 1969 short, "A Day With The Boys", which inspired "George Washington".
Also: Criterion has organized the main cast members for a bit of a reunion where they are interviewed by director Green. Their answers provide very enjoyable insights into character and story. Also included in the features section are: an interview with Green and Charlie Rose, the film's trailer and a deleted scene.
Final Thoughts: "George Washington" is a haunting and beautifully filmed picture that, while not flawless, is a very impressive debut picture. Criterion's DVD edition provides very good audio and video along with a fairly interesting mix of supplements. Certainly worth a look as at least a rental.