Review: Filmmaker Returns to Rural Roots
The creator of Pineapple Express and East Bound and Down got his start doing thoughtful indy projects about the rural South. In his most recent work, David Gordon Green revisits the people, places and problems of small-town America.
Green's 2014 film "Prince Avalanche."
Filmmaker David Gordon Green is probably best known for his popular stoner comedy Pineapple Express and his HBO series, Eastbound and Down. But he got his start with a handful of thoughtful films that explored the boundaries between family and community in the rural South. After his brief, puzzling foray into commercial comedy, his recent return to independent film provides a new take on old rural issues: outmigration, economic difficulties and uncertainty about the future.
In David Gordon Green’s 2013 film, Prince Avalanche, a woman combs through the ruins of her burned-down house looking for pictures, documents and artifacts. “All of these things are like memories,” she explains. “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging in my own ashes. … How’s anybody gonna prove that I had all these experiences?” In the majority of his films, Green uses the rural South to explore versions of the woman’s question. Are memories stored with communities, families or objects? Why does nature resist memory? Do memories matter in the face of uncertainty?
Green’s first film, George Washington (2000), established him as a keen observer of rural conditions. It tells the story of a dying North Carolina town, where kids watch adults struggle to find purpose after many of the town’s jobs have vanished. A young girl, Nasia, intones, “The grownups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends. They had worked in wars and built machines. It was hard for them to find their peace.” A train yard foreman confirms Nasia’s observation: “This place is falling apart faster than we can do anything about it.”
Family is important in Green’s films, because family is supposedly important in small-town America. But family is also the ultimate revelator: These people know your true identity, they store the memories that maybe you’d like to forget. The central conflict in Green’s second film, All the Real Girls (2003), is between Paul and Tip, two best friends who grew up together in another (or perhaps the same) dying North Carolina town. Paul wants to date Tip’s sister, Noel, but Tip tries to protect her from the “true” Paul, a womanizing romancer. Paul’s mother, Elvira, makes a similar effort. To Tip and Elvira’s mutual frustration, Noel loves Paul despite his past. It is a poignant tale of how family members can betray one another simply by carving out their own identities.
In no film is this theme more prominent – and potentially lethal – than Green’s third feature, Undertow (2004). It is the story of two brothers who are pursued by a murderous uncle through rural Georgia. The uncle claims to want a set of rare gold coins that the boys carry, but the brothers and the audience know his true intention: He wants to implicate them, to drag them down into the violence of the family’s ancestors. This is Shakespearean stuff, but perhaps Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers – another small town David Gordon Green character – put it best: “If you find someone in your family that you don’t like, it is perfectly OK to [expletive deleted] them over.”
These first three films of Green’s career – along with his fourth, Snow Angels (2007) – establish family as both the cause of and solution to most conflicts. Two of his most recent films, however, pull back from the lens of community. They emphasize more abstract ideas like friendship and nature as forms of escapism.
In Prince Avalanche (2013), two city boys, Alvin and Lance, wander through the devastation of a wildfire, repairing rural highways and determining if they can be friends. Like in All the Real Girls, Alvin is dating Lance’s sister, but neither of them seems to be bothered by this. Instead, they meditate on their distance from society: Is such a fragile, remote landscape worth rebuilding? The answer comes in the form of the woman digging through the remains of her house. She proves that memories and experiences are worth fighting for, that there is no inherent value in being close to a city.
Joe (2013) is in some ways a companion piece to Prince Avalanche. The title character is an ex-con who runs a successful tree clearing business in rural Texas. The community here feels tired and spread out. Evil men lurk around every corner; one man tries to murder Joe after Joe embarrasses him in front of his friends. It’s a far cry from the sleepy post-industrial towns of Green’s early career. Joe hires an abused teenager, Gary, and is brought into conflict with the boy’s alcoholic father. The definition of family is strained here; in a moment that recalls Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” the boy’s father instructs him to “Stay with your family. Your family’s all you got.” Meanwhile the man beats Gary and steals his hard-earned money.
In these two films, nature is manipulated and commoditized. Humans destroy it and conjure it back, usually for profit. Manual labor brings solace to the main characters, even if it isn’t ethical. By contrast, Green’s first four films depict nature as passive. Sometimes it makes mistakes, but there are rarely consequences for these mistakes. At no point in Green’s work is nature vengeful or benevolent. It is prominent yet indifferent. It is employed to bring out the true identities and memories of the characters.
This emphasis of nature could be why Green so successfully blurs the distinction between fiction and reality. He does this by mixing professional actors like Nic Cage and Paul Rudd with non-professional actors like Joyce Payne, the woman whose house burned down in Prince Avalanche, and Gary Poulter, a homeless man who played the abusive father in Joe. It gives his films an undeniable documentary quality. And that’s a really Southern thing, when you get down to it: Myths and memories often mislead us to sometimes tragic ends. David Gordon Green’s films attempt to provide us with a map for navigating these mental realms, so that we may avoid the same fate.
Tarence Ray lives in eastern Kentucky.