Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #88
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: January 16, 2004 (Sundance) July 28, 2004
Sub-Genre: Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $35,825,316
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Zach Braff
Producers: Gary Gilbert, Pam Abdy, Richard Klubeck
Screenplay: Zach Braff
Score: Alexi Murdoch, Chad Fischer
Soundtrack: Available From Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax (Compilation Produced by Zach Braff)
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Editing: Myron I Kerstein
Studio: Camelot Pictures, Jersey Films, Double Feature Films
Distributors: Fox Searchlight Pictures (USA), Buena Vista International (International)
Stars: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard, Ian Holm, Armando Riesco, Jean Smart, Jim Parsons, Ron Liebman, Ann Dowd, Ato Essandoh, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Weston, Alex Burns, Geoffrey Arend, Method Man, Denis O’Hare, Debbon Ayer and Magoo as the Masturbating Dog
Suggested Audio Valium
Frou Frou “Let Go”
Film is a powerful media. It has the power to induce uncontrollable laughter, teeming rage, blind fear, profound discomfort and world shattering heartbreak, in the focus of a lens. Depending on your state of mind and how much you are willing to commit emotionally, it can give to you riches unbounded, so long as you open yourself to it. Some folk only wish for escapism and that it fine also, but for those able to use it as a learning tool, it can alter your whole outlook, if done properly. I hand myself over to its safekeeping every time I sit and press Play, searching for a positive message within its narrative. Cherry picking basically. My opinions and beliefs have long since been formed but, should the teachings of a film be relevant to me, then I will always sit up and take notice.
Garden State changed my life. At the start of proceedings, I had built a fortress around myself emotionally, having been through the joys of divorce, and losing my way like a wayward sheep straying far from the flock. I was desperately lost, my normally sunny disposition had been replaced with a cynical viewpoint, and refusal to allow myself to feel anything. By the wonderful end credits, I had been reduced to a blubbering mess of emotion; the floodgates had opened and I had received confirmation that there is in fact beauty in the breakdown.
Now, I am not suggesting the impact will be identical to anyone fortunate enough to spend 102 minutes with Largeman and friends but, for a guy late into his twenty somethings flailing desperately off course, it had the desired effect. Zach Braff will be familiar to most of you as JD from the long-running Scrubs. As well as being gifted with a witty script and animated group of protagonists, ringmaster Braff also gives his Springer-esque final thought, normally a moral nugget of infinite wisdom for you to carry on with you, should you wish.
Garden State is his Annie Hall. With Woody Allen as obvious influence; he offers over his artistic soul, to ensure his story is told the way he wants. Braff writes, directs, stars and even compiles his own personal mix-tape for this labour of love, the succulent fruit from beneath his creative loin cloth, where the berries are reddest. There is evidently a great deal of Zach in Andrew Largeman, there’s too much insight to suggest otherwise. He begins perched upon the ledge of utter bewilderment, questioning his soulless reality. Through the course of the film, Large embarks on a journey of self discovery and spiritual enlightenment, as the meds which have robbed him of both his childhood and the ability to feel, start to wear off.
The story focuses on his return to his hometown, to attend his mother’s funeral. The striking introduction is cold and clinical; with the colour white used to express the blank canvas that is his state of mind. He feels numb, cold and is cruising uncomfortably on auto pilot, living a life he would feel isn’t his own, it only he could feel. However, like the Tin Man from Oz, Large hasn’t given in and, desperate to find his centre, he sets off, accompanied by Coldplay’s perfectly placed Don’t Worry. As he stands dazed at his mother’s burial plot, he catches sight of some old buddies. For the remainder of the first act, he sleepwalks through drug-laden social gatherings, smiling awkwardly and politely. But there is never less than pain behind his eyes.
Once more, as is the case unswervingly throughout, the audio compliments his inner turmoil exquisitely without Largeman even needing to open up. Props for his willingness, as he also commands our empathy instantaneously with his gentle demeanor. His tale opens gradually like a flower in the throes of bloom. Once we are presented with his stern and misguided and above all equally lost father, new light is shed on his wayward mental state. A subsequent visit to his GP adds credence to his curiosities, a lifetime on various numbing agents masquerading as medication have clearly been responsible for his lack of feeling.
Something truly unexpected happens in the surgery waiting room and this is where the film shifts into an entirely different direction. He makes the opportune acquaintance of Sam, a young lady with an innocent aura about her and sweet disposition. Momentarily, they touch souls, through the introduction of The Shins and without a word spoken in that moment. It is a scene of graceful simplicity but also of tremendous emotional resonance, depicted by the awkwardness of that musical enlightenment and instant attraction clear in both of their facial expressions.
Natalie Portman has since gone on to bag herself a Best Female Actor Oscar for her sublime turn in Black Swan and, of course, should already be familiar to anybody blessed enough with having seen Leon: the Professional. However, it will forever be her inhabitancy of Sam which touches me most personally. Indeed, for some time afterwards, I was deeply infatuated with her character, before the realization set in that it wasn’t in fact Sam who I was deeply in love with but the awareness that someone like Sam can exist, in the first place. I gleaned hope from her very existence and the fact Portman brings so much to the role only serves to cement this affection. Their interactions throughout the remaining two acts confirm our wildest hopes and, while this is down to both leads (and I see a lot of myself in Largeman), it is she who shines brightest. Ignore any cynical reviews that called out Portman’s character as little more than a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, they’re just trying to come across hip and ironic. Samantha is an uncut diamond. All the way.
That being said, there is another beacon of brilliant light in the unlikely guise of stoner buddy Mark (a marvelously understated turn by Peter Saarsgard). His eyes suggest he understands Largeman better than most and they share an almost telepathic relationship. Saarsgard’s ability to fully comprehend his character’s nuances and intricacies enables him to steal many of the scenes he figures in and his is a star-making turn, in my opinion.
Indeed, there are a number of quirky turns, each highlighting Largeman’s disconnection from many of those who surround him. In particular, the excruciating exchanges between Largeman and numerous acquaintances from his past showcase this superbly. As our love story begins to blossom, so too does his faith, the meds now replaced with tangible feelings, the likes of which have been muted for his entire adult life. This culminates in a pivotal moment in the infinite abyss; where he finds his voice spectacularly alongside his new soul mate. He begins to bare his soul to this grateful recipient and this provides him with rare clarity.
This new-found lucidity of mind enables Largeman to gain closure on the strained relations with his estranged father. In the moving scene, he becomes the responsible adult and sets the wheels in motion for a new understanding between them. The closing scene does absolutely everything correctly and even manages to make its own luck with an inexplicably well-timed happy accident. Portman is utterly transcendent in this scene, needing only one take to convey Sam’s crushed response to her love’s imminent departure. And thankfully, Braff sidesteps any enticement to give a pragmatic outcome, thus appealing to the true romantic in us all. We are willing them on and by this point there is only one adequate conclusion. He gets it spot on and our story comes to the most gratifying of closes, escorted by the spellbinding Let Go by Frou Frou and a single crystalline tear from yours truly. Every time.
Garden State has amassed a dedicated fan base over the years, so much so that he now plans to give his devoted followers a sequel. I have mixed feelings about this proposal. On one hand, I shall await it like a ravenous vulture. But on the other, it will be unfeasible for it to ever have the emotional poignancy that he achieved with this splendid motion picture. For me it was the right film at the precise time in my existence when I needed it most. In the words of Largeman and in the direction of Braff I say only this – “you changed my life”.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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