A Prayer Before Dawn
A Prayer Before Dawn will put you through the wringer and eventually make you glad you went.
Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on directors David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols.
While watching David Gordon Green’s debut, “George Washington” (2000), upon its premiere in Toronto, he called it “a tightwire act,” considering the “slight and offhand materials” it was attempting to spin into a story. “In its mastery of style, the film plays notes it seems to be inventing,” Roger wrote. Once he wrote the film’s four-star review, it was apparent the critic had discovered one of his new favorite filmmakers. He compared the film to Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” yet stressed that the film was “not a copy of Malick; it is simply in the same key.”
When Roger saw Green’s second film, “All the Real Girls” (2003), at Sundance, he was struck by the director’s “gift for moments of acute observation, for dialogue both naturalistic and uninflected, for mood over plot, for poetry over prose.” He later awarded the film four stars as well, and said the film was “too subtle and perceptive” to treat the characters’ “lack of sexual synchronicity as if it supplies a plot.” When Green presented his third film, “Undertow” (2004), in Toronto, Roger knew that he was in the presence of “a great filmmaker,” and admitted that nothing he could write could convey “the poetry and beauty” of the film. “Green said he was inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the adventure stories of Poe, Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, and modern crime stories like In Cold Blood,” Roger wrote. “That seems like an unlikely list, until you see the film and realize it really does contain all of those inspirations. And lives up to them, too.”
Roger’s four-star review of “Undertow” serves as an overview of the filmmaker’s work up to that point, and its various distinctive qualities. He wrote that Green, who was only 29 at the time, “has achieved what few directors ever do: After watching one of his films for a scene or two, you know who directed it.” The critic said that labeling Green’s work as “Southern Gothic” was too narrow since it didn’t take into account its surreal qualities or how the dialogue is at once recognizable and utterly alien, such as the line, “Can I carve my name in your face?” “He is not a director of plots so much as a director of tones, emotions and moments of truth, and there's a sense of gathering fate even in the lighter scenes,” Roger wrote.
Though Roger was in the hospital when Green’s “Snow Angels” (2007) was released, he was able to review the director’s unlikely follow-up, “Pineapple Express” (2008), which he gave three-and-a-half stars. Referring to Green as “the poet of the cinema,” Roger predicted that “there's a danger he'll become in demand by mainstream Hollywood and tempted away from the greatness he showed in "George Washington" and "Undertow." (I can imagine his agent hiding this review from him.)” Roger’s prediction proved to be regrettably accurate, as evidenced by Green’s two subsequent comedic misfires, “Your Highness” (2011) and “The Sitter” (2011), which each got only one star from the bewildered critic. “The movie is a perplexing collapse of judgment,” Roger wrote of “Your Highness.” “David Gordon Green has made great films. He should remind himself of that.”
Yet just as Green was shifting his focus toward Hollywood comedies, Roger discovered another filmmaker who came from the same world as Green. Jeff Nichols made his debut with “Shotgun Stories” (2008), which was co-produced by Green, and earned four stars from Roger. “Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic,” Roger wrote. That year, Roger alphabetized his Best Films of the Year list, which included “Shotgun Stories.” “It avoids the obvious and shows a deep understanding of the lives and minds of ordinary young people in a skirmish of the class war,” Roger wrote, before citing it as an audience favorite at Ebertfest 2008.
Nichols’s next film, “Take Shelter” (2011), also earned four stars from Roger, and ranked at #5 on his Top Ten list that year. It was also invited to the 2012 installment of Ebertfest. “Here is a frightening thriller based not on special effects gimmicks but on a dread that seems quietly spreading in the land: that the good days are ending, and climate changes or other sinister forces will sweep away our safety,” Roger wrote. “This is masterful filmmaking.” He later chastised the Academy for failing to nominate the film’s leading man, Michael Shannon, who he felt gave one of the best performances of the year. The snub was, in Roger’s mind, “an indication of the fairly narrow range of films it considers.”
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