Garden State Movie Critique
Updated: Nov 15
May 20, 2021
I love the movie Garden State. I love it for a variety of reasons, but in this critique I won’t be talking about anything except for why I love it artistically: the plot, characters, the beautiful man that is Zach Braff, the charming nature of Natalie Portman, the personal transformation of the characters, people evolving and becoming themselves, growth, and the comedic and quirky love story. It’s the artistic elements that make this movie what it is and that give it the feeling of depth it has. The subtle creative decisions— the colors, themes, and soundtrack—that bring the whole piece together and support the plot.
In the opening scene of the film, the main character, Andrew, is lying on his bed staring off with a zoned-out expression. The only prominent object in the small room is an answering machine, playing a message from his father letting him know that his mother has died. Andrew lies under a plain, straight, white sheet that is without a single wrinkle, on a white bed in a white room with stark white walls, listening to the message. Interestingly, the color white symbolizes birth, and, in many Eastern cultures, also symbolizes death. The death of his mother was a real turning point in his life, and in the movie the main character is, in a sense, born again. This scene is made up of harsh lines and dull/muted/dreary colors, as opposed to flowing or expressive lines. The scene is shot from a linear bird’s-eye point of view—the camera is positioned at a high angle, making Andrew look small and vulnerable. The shot gradually gets closer to the man’s face, capturing his lifeless expression. As he lays there, the song “Don’t Panic” by Coldplay starts playing. This song perfectly fits as it switches to a scene of Andrew in front of his bathroom mirror, creating a mirror image of his face, which symbolizes his lack of self identity. He opens the mirror and we see rows of evenly lined up pill bottles. Everything in these beginning scenes is very controlled. Sheets tucked in, bottles lined up, etc. All of these shots are intentionally placed.
The next scene shows him stuck in traffic. The Coldplay song continues on through this scene, with the universally truthful chorus, “we live in a beautiful world” playing, which is perfectly ironic to the situation. This combination of scenes is an accurate representation of the main character’s life at the time. The lines, colors, and angles communicate the tone of the scene to the viewer. They’re setting the scene of the movie through color, art, and musical choices.
In a later scene, Andrew is given a shirt made out of the exact same pattern as the wallpaper in his childhood home bathroom. There is only one brief scene, shot from straight on, of him standing in front of the wall wearing the shirt. Andrew’s body mixes in with the wallpaper, and beautifully captures the character’s uncertainty in grappling with and navigating the death of his mother. He stands in front of this green, leafy wall, in the identical green, leafy shirt, and the only element that stands out (doesn’t blend in) is his face drowning in the pattern. Green represents healing, self-awareness, renewal, youth, vigor, which explains why they chose the color for this scene. The angles and colors show us wordlessly how the character is lost within the wallpaper and lost in his life, but beginning to find himself. The choice of wallpaper represents him coming into his personality, changing, and then growing. The scene had originally been much longer, showing Andrew slowly undressing out of his professional clothes and putting on the shirt, but the scene was eventually cut. Only having a few seconds of the shot made a more impactful statement, in my opinion, and added a comedic element.
Zach Braff is the writer, director, and main character of the movie. In an interview he said that he liked that the original scene showed him stripping off clothes that weren’t him, seeing him bare chested looking at himself, but felt that “it dissipated the joke if you watched him slowly put it on. It just ate up time. Took a lot of time… And we just found it was so much funnier when you just cut to it...we came up with the idea of just hard cutting to that.”
As the movie goes on, and Andrew evolves and begins to feel again, artistic elements of the scenes gradually change. Sam, the love interest, brings color to the scenes. Her house, bedroom, and style are all sort of messy and chaotic. They’re filled with warm colors, shades of orange, red, and pink. Orange expresses humor, energy, balance, all things that Andrew is searching for and, ultimately, finds in Sam. In one scene she is cleaning up her room somewhat haphazardly; she’s messy and cluttered. These small details reveal character aspects and flaws and emphasise how the two characters complete each other in subtle ways. Another example of the importance of color is shown in Sam’s clothing. Throughout the entire movie, except for the very last scene, Sam is wearing a casual pink sweatshirt. Pink communicates love, innocence, happiness, health, contentment, romance, charm, playfulness, and femininity. Her style makes her look young and lively. She’s dressed like a young girl to show the personality and lightness that the character holds. In the beginning, the characters had a non-sexual relationship, and this was shown through certain shots and body positions.
Lastly, one of my favorite scenes from the movie shows the three main characters standing on top of a graffitied junkyard at the bottom of a quarry in New Jersey, the garden state, and screaming at the top of their lungs. The shot starts up close on the characters, and pans out to show the seemingly infinite abyss of the quarry, a metaphor for life. The camera work in this scene brilliantly creates a feeling of hope, of possibilities, and of letting go. The incredible soundtrack evokes many feelings in the movie. In this scene, Simon and Garfunkel's “The Only Living Boy in New York” plays. This song adds so much passion and emotion to this scene. It delivers a feeling of freedom and expansiveness, with yearning and hopeful notes. The lyrics align with the scene as well, saying, “I’ve got nothing to do today but smile,” and “let your honesty shine, shine, shine.” A chorus of voices comes in the song as his two friends join him and become their own chorus, screaming in unison into the abyss. After this expansive chorus full of possibilities, the song circles back to the simple line of “and here I am.” The abyss symbolizes the same idea that the song is singing about, tying all the emotions together in one scene. The sun begins to shine through the rain and the clouds, like Andrew’s honest love for Sam, and it seems as if everything has become clear. On top of all the yelling and kissing and the background music, the sky is pouring down rain. Rain and water symbolize cleansing, rebirth, and the washing of everything away. The choice to have this scene play out in the pouring rain is essential to the energy the movie conveys.
I have appreciated analyzing the artistic aspects of this movie, rather than just talking about the plot as I usually do. I’ve learned about the depth of the creative decisions that go into a film and how everything is intentional, even though it might not seem like it. After watching this movie multiple times with the intent of paying attention to all the artistic choices, I discovered much more about it. I hope this critique sparked your interest in the movie!
Bauer, Professor. “10 Compositional Theories of Cinematography.” SlideShare, 2 June 2015, www.slideshare.net/professor_bauer/10-compositional-theories-of-cinematography.
Braff, Zach, director. Garden State . Miramax, Searchlight Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2004.
Hellerman, Jason. “How a Film Color Palette Can Make You a Better Filmmaker [W/ Infographics].” No Film School, No Film School, 27 Aug. 2019, nofilmschool.com/Film-color-theory-and-color-schemes#:~:text=The definition of Film Color, subverted to create dramatic irony.