David Gordon Green. A discussion of Pineapple Express does not begin with Seth Rogen. It doesn’t begin with James Franco. It begins with Americana indie darling David Gordon Green, who accepted Pineapple Express as his first major Hollywood film in one of the most curious and perplexing “go big” moves by any independent director this side of ever. The more shocking thing: if you squint, and even if you don’t, it’s not too difficult to see the whole film as Gordon Green having fun with his indie film aesthetic. That’s a stretch, sure, but it’s clear that his rambling, lackadaisical camera and slow-going filmsmanship more interested in waiting around and chilling with his characters is in effect in Pineapple Express as much as in any other film he’s ever made – he’s just traded in “detached, humanist exploration of human distance” with “a Sunday afternoon’s high”, and the way he finds similarities between the two is quite cinematically exciting indeed.
You see, it is exactly his laid-back chill that makes Rogen and Franco so funny here to begin with, capturing the two at their most improvisational and aloof. Franco really made his modern image on this film, and Rogen is far less stiff and awkward than normal here, largely because Green knows how to film him to make his awkwardness all the more amusing and mocking. Even when the film gets a bit too … caught up in itself and everything becomes high-flying action (the plot basically reads “two potheads get mixed up in a crime film”), Green directs it with long takes less to convey excitement than to consciously slow the material down. Simply put, he realizes that an action comedy is a dumb idea – what with the action smothering the comedy and the comedy slowing the action to a crawl – and he almost mocks the action to its face for how it doesn’t really belong in this would-be “guys chilling out” film, and how idiotic it is that the two numbskullian main characters would have any success at all at doing anything more than turning the television on. At the same time, it ribs at the idea that action heroes find success through skill rather than, say, screenwriter’s intervention.
It’s ultimately a little difficult to look back on Pineapple Express as something more than a curio these days, a low-key, energy-sapped bit of lightning in a bottle. But Green’s style, of setting his camera on little details and pauses in action definitely works to create, if a curio, an amusingly off-kilter, scrappy curio to say the least. And there ain’t nothing wrong with a little curio from time to time, especially when “summer entertainment” is often synonymous with loudness and belligerence at the expense humility. Pineapple Express isn’t a great film, or a great comedy, but it’s refreshing in a day and age where films are under-confident to the point of needing to pile and heap themselves onto us with leaden bludgeoning force. Sometimes sitting back and existing is enough, and Pineapple Express is exhibit A to the claim.
The argument has been raised more than once that Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is nihilist and un-moving in the face of terror. That’s true, but that doesn’t make it a bad film, nor does it make it an unethical one. The story, or premise in this case, has a couple played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler hunted and tormented by a small group of masked killers. There’s nothing else to it. The two don’t deserve it, they don’t do anything amoral, and the film doesn’t comment on the nature of their personal hell as much as it shoves it in front of us in plain sight. It’s a simple, primal, direct film with nothing to say about horror, even when it “does” horror exceedingly well.
Yet, the nihilism of it all not only makes the film all the more scary, but it curiously and perhaps unintentionally makes the film more humanist. Unlike a conventional slasher where the film judges its characters and they die for a reason, The Strangers is about the unspeakable, implacable fact of death for no reason whatsoever. The end affect – the crippling sensation that horror is ever-present and we can do nothing to stop it – is not only more unnerving, but also, in fact, caring in a way slashers as a whole fairly ever attempt. While slashers normatively judge their characters, The Strangers merely observes them. If anything, it likes them, and seeks respite for them – it simply knows it has no say in the matter. The raw clinicism of the violence doesn’t so much to indicate it wants its characters to die, but that it knows they might, and is afraid for the fact. It does not put us, and itself, above the characters – it makes us them.
More importantly, morality aside, the film is exceedingly well constructed, brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Bertino is one of the few directors to understand how a still, motionless camera can be used intentionally and deliberately rather than as a default, giving his camera a static, observant eye that doesn’t resolve tension with movement or cutting. It’s more effective, too, because it alternates with more rabid hand-held shots that adopt Kristen’s and James’ point of view. The tension, between giving us their viewpoint and clinically boxing them off at a distance through static shots, is wholly effective genre smarts. The sound, rapidly becoming my favorite MVP of any good bone-shaking horror, is also uniformly terrific, the best in a horror in a good many years. The door pounding terror is a classic technique used damn well here, and a particular sequence with a discordant record skipping arhythmically torments the screen. It’s not genius level filmmaking, but it’s shockingly effective in an old-school chills sort of way.
It’s all, simply, fine genre craftsmanship of the most direct, efficient, inspired variety. It’s nothing brilliant, but it’s readily effective from beginning to merciless end. Readily effective horror is a rarity these days, and if other horrors have more to say, few say them as well. In this environment, sharp, astute horror is not only not immoral; it’s damn near the Lord’s work.