Since “George Washington” (2000) opens with a teenage girl’s dreamy, wise-beyond-her-years narration as the camera floats in slow-motion through waving fields of grass and glides along railroad tracks, you probably don’t need to be told that first-time feature director David Gordon Green, then just twenty five and fresh out of film school, was a big Terrence Malick fan. But he was.
The girl is Nasia (Candace Evanofski), already rabidly boy-crazy though barely a teen, and she is prone to deep rumination about not just the cute young guys in her working-class North Carolina town but about everyone else as well: “The grown-ups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends.” The teenager’s sophistication suggests that perhaps the narration comes from an adult Nasia thinking back, but the other kids also speak with similarly mature voices. Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) dreams of having his own island, his own planet, being saved by Christ, and even the very young, eerily unemotive Sonya (Rachael Handy) understands there’s something missing in her family’s DNA and envisions a bleak future for herself.
Of the group, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) seems most child-like which is why Nasia dumps him in the opening scene (she’s looking for a real man), only the first of the tragedies that will befall a youngster too innocent for his world. That leaves us with our final major player, George (Donald Holden), the sort-of title character (his last name is not Washington, but he does dream of being president) who doesn’t really say much at all. Like Buddy, George is also vulnerable, though in his case because the plates in his head don’t quite meet, forcing him to wear a helmet and live in dread of exposure to water. He is thoughtful and gentle, except when immediately provoked, and feels the first stirrings of civic duty while his peers are still focused exclusively on love and friendship.
For the first half-hour, the movie plays out like a n everyday slice-of-life in a racially-mixed rural town with limited employment opportunities (generally centering around the train yard), cruising along in full Malick meditative mode as it casually explores a timeless and unspoiled space. But after drifting along with the aimless young characters for a while, the story takes a dramatic turn and major incidents begin to pile up: deaths, near-deaths, and disappearances. This is a decidedly atypical summer and if “George Washington” is a coming-of-age tale it plays out in a decidedly atypical and increasingly bizarre fashion. One of the more mundane developments: George becomes a super hero. Let’s just leave it at that.
The final half of the movie seems motivated more by the need to create bold, striking images than for narrative coherence, which may sound Malick-esque but tilts more towards Harmony Korine territory though in less overtly grotesque fashion. The images are certainly worth the price of admission as cinematographer Tim Orr somehow manages to shoot a film that looks both hyper-stylized and naturalistic at the same time. The predominantly amateur cast helps to bolster the latter quality: the kids’ dialogue may be unusually philosophical but their performances feel sincere, convincing even when they stumble self-consciously over the big words and big thoughts Green has written for them.
The movie is at its best when at its most languorous, with the kids mostly hanging out and waiting for nothing more than the next day. The extended monologues and the mounting dramatic twists feel like awkward stabs at profundity that hit and miss the mark in roughly equal proportion. But “George Washington” is an exceptionally beautiful movie with some winning performances from a young and unproven cast, and it’s easy to understand why it won so many festival and critical awards for best debut. What’s harder to understand is how this formally innovative indie landmark turned out to be a springboard for David Gordon’s career as a stoner comedy auteur. But then again maybe the most hallucinatory aspects of “George Washington” make a little more sense seen through the billowing aromatic clouds of “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.”
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Criterion originally released “George Washington” on DVD in 2002; this dual-format upgrade retains the same Spine Number 152. I do not own that as a point of comparison though it was described as having some problems with compression and artifacting. I’m not sure just how “restored” this “restored high-definition digital transfer” really is, but it doesn’t share any of those problems. The 1080p picture isn’t as sharp as Criterion’s best high-def transfers, but the image quality is strong throughout and shows off a very evocative sense of lighting in the many outdoor scenes. The color scheme is a bit muted, but that may be intentional.
This is a dual-release format which includes a single DVD (with film and extras) as well as a single Blu-ray disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track sounds crisp and has enough of a sense of depth to pull in the listener. The movie has a moody, idiosyncratic score (by Michael Linnen and David Wingo) with lots of sustained, repeated notes, more ambient than symphonic, and the lossless audio preserves it all quite well. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has imported all of the extras from its 2002 DVD release. No new extras are included.
The film is accompanied by a commentary by Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider. It was recorded in 2001 for the Criterion collection.
The disc also includes two student films Green made at the North Carolina School of the Arts. “Pleasant Grove” (1996, 15 min.) starts along railroad tracks with a boy and his dog and is clearly the seed from which “George Washington” grew. The film can be played with an optional commentary track by the same trio as above. “Physical Pinball” (1998, 20 min.) features Candace Evanofski and Eddie Rouse who also both appear in “George Washington.”
“A Day With the Boys” (1969, 18 min.) is a short film directed by Clu Gulager and shot by Laszlo Kovacs. Green described at as a major influence. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an 18-minute short with five minutes of credits before. It consists almost entirely of slow-motion shots of boys playing out in the woods and pretending to shoot a businessman. Or are they pretending? Deep, man.
Criterion staged a Sep 15, 2001 Cast Reunion (16 min.) in which Green interviews the cast members about their experiences on the movie.
A segment of the “Charlie Rose” show (16 min.) shows a 25 y.o. Green who could easily pass for 20 but holds his own while explaining his thoughts on his debut feature. The segment includes a couple lengthy clips.
The collection wraps up with a Deleted Scene (8 min., playable with optional audio commentary) and a Trailer (2 min.)
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Armond White and a Director’s Statement by Green.
Depending on which release date you count, “George Washington” was either one of the last American indie critical hits of the 20th century or one of the first of the 21st. Criterion was quick to include it in the collection. This new release doesn’t offer any new extras, but does include a sharp high-def transfer that shows off the gorgeous cinematography of this strange and memorable debut feature.