Imagine if you will a horrific dream where you are trapped on a crashing plane full of terrified passengers who know the end is any second away. While oxygen masks and beverages shake and spill, the chaos of this moment somehow ceases to faze you, because the deep and helplessly frozen state you are in can not be lifted, even in the most severe of circumstances. This intriguing and compelling moment graces the opening scene of Zach Braff's Garden State, a film of realization, suffering and love, and leads into one of many symbolic and metaphoric moments that consist of a young man's struggle to overcome emotional hardships and a dysfunctional past. During each major sequence of events that take place throughout the story, the visual aspect presented to the viewer plays a significant role in understanding the meaning and intent of the director's vision. The design of this film is one of the most important elements used to convey the thematic symbolism and appropriate mood of each moment with specific techniques such as lighting, color, and structure. It leaves the viewer with a deaf understanding of the character's inner thoughts and feelings, and creates powerful mise-en-scene during each of those large, turning point moments. Through effective design, each phase of the main character's progress towards change is symbolically represented, and helps to illuminate the mise- en -scene that attaches emotional impact to the narrative of this poignant film.
The film's story is centered on the life of Andrew Largeman, (Zach Braff), a psychologically repressed New Jersey native struggling to make it as an actor and part time waiter in Los Angeles. After several attempts at reaching him to no avail, Andrew's
father leaves the message that his mother has died on his voice recorded answering machine while he lies in bed one morning. Having little apparent reaction, he returns to his home town and goes through the motions of the traditional funeral, and runs into family friends and burnt out high school classmates with lethargic boredom. For the first time being home since a number of years of estrangement, Andrew struggles with facing past and present failures, including a distant surface-level relationship with his father (Ian Holm), and everyday reminders of just how unimportant and pathetic his acting career is turning out to be. During a session with a local neurologist for headache symptoms, Andrew wonders about the effect the plethora of anti-depressants and mood stabilizer medications he has taken for as long as he can remember to be having on his life. Upon reaching the decision of stopping all prescription drugs, he becomes acquainted and amusedly intrigued by a talkative, happy go lucky girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), who struggles with her own failures and insecurities. Through the growing relationship of these two very different but somewhat alike loners, Andrew and Sam find comfort and strength in one another's company and conversation. A series of crazy, emotional, and humorous events adventures between the two misfits lead to Andrew's emotional enlightenment and acceptance of his adolescent shortcomings, guilt, and lifelong anguish. With the visual design of each of these moments, viewers are given the chance to experience the film through Andrew's point of view by appropriately drawing the look of each scene to fit what he is feeling. While Andrew's life takes turns for the better, the design and mise-en-scene fit accordingly, and portray an effective vision that is aesthetically present and helpful to the experience of this film.
One of the most expertly used tactics in creating meaning in this film is how design is used to depict so literally the tone of Andrew's life prior to his emotional changes. The colors used in several of the opening scenes are stark whites, grays, and dark blues with little energy or depth. These colors tell the viewer with little or no dialogue whatsoever about his state of mind and the life he leads. One of the first opening scenes, following Andrew's dream of being a passenger on a crashing airplane that served as a metaphor for his life, is a shot of him lying unmoving in a white bed, in an all white room. The closed frame of the shot shows how trapped he looks in his own room, or perhaps his own life. The vision or implication that is described to a viewer is that of how a mental hospital or prison might look. This scene is followed by quite a few scenes of the same nature, with dark and murky colored lenses, closed frame shots, and stark open spaces with characters spaced far apart. In most of these shots, including one of him stuck in traffic alone and another standing at a distance from his family at his mother's funeral, the viewer is seeing Andrew alone, staged away from other players and focused in on so it is clear to see the sad, expressionless looks on his face. Mise-en-scene is effectively reached in a scene of showing Andrew, alone on a strange couch after a night of rolling on ecstasy, with a dark blanket covering him. The smoky, gloomy air around him can be seen by sun peering through holes in dark posters that cover the windows. As Andrew slowly wakes up, alone, the viewer is shown the nature of his life; under the influence of something that is preventing him to feel real and sober life experiences.
The developing relationship between Andrew and Sam is the most vital motive for change in Andrew's life, and that is seen quite clearly as the design takes new form. When first introduced to the character of Sam, the viewer is exposed to a laid back and nervously cheerful personality; the polar opposite of Andrew's. Everything about the two characters is dissimilar, down to their different colored clothing and body language. The first scene of the two together, which takes place in an almost empty hospital waiting room, conveys the different comfort levels of the characters as Sam comes over to sit as close as she can to Andrew in the large space, while he sits stiff and edgy. As their conversation progresses, his body language becomes more fluid and inviting. As Andrew is shown Sam's world through a visit to her house, the viewer is also entering a different world from which they started. The tone shifts from drab and stoic, to bright and welcoming by orange walls and colorful curtains that Andrew at first feels out of place by, but eases into ever. As they enter her room, the same vivid orange dominates the surroundings accompanied by girlish dolls, bright lamps, and sentimental trinkets that symbolize her innocence in opposition to Andrew's. The warmer lighting surrounding Andrew and Sam while together continues as their relationship progresses, and the staging becomes noticeably closer. Their growing emotional attachment is seen through different aspects of lighting and distance, especially in a scene while they are swimming late on a very foggy night in a pool full of other people their age. While Andrew swims alone at an opposite end, a shot taken from above shows Sam swimming towards him from the other end of the long pool. They then are slowly zoomed in on, illuminated by the warm light of the bottom pool light, that frames their two heads shown, gradually moving closer to one another. This scene conveys the mounting closeness that is taking place, and its effect on Andrew and his previous way of life.
Another important relationship that contributions to Andrew's momentous internal change is the lack of communication with his father. The house Andrew grew up in is large and empty looking, with the same bleak colors as seen in the opening scenes of the film. The space between them, while they talk face to face for the first time in years, represent their emotional distance and the fact that they barely know each other. There are three scenes where Andrew and his father interact, the first two being alike in nature. The first takes place the day after the funeral, when they are forced to see one another for the first time in years. Andrew remains standing close to the door as they begin talking, while his father sits behind a large desk. Neither one moves much at all as they continue a forced conversation. The second shows the two in the kitchen, spacefully purposefully a significant distance apart showing the father, this time, close to the door. Through the archway leading to the living room, all that is seen is white and pale gray tones of furniture and window light; the same color of the light that dominates the scene. The third takes place towards the end of the film, after Andrew has undergone considerable emotional transformation through his time with Sam and the absence of his medicines. This scene starts out with the same distance between the two characters, but drastically changes as they begin a real and deep conversation, and ends with the two characters sitting close enough to touch. The lighting changes to a warmer quality that makes color show in both of the character's faces. The last interaction between Andrew and his father creates a mise-en-scene that leaves the viewer with a new emotional attachment to the two characters who are building a new relationship.
Garden State is a film that is realistically honest and sends the viewer on a passage that is touching, dark, and comedic all that the same time. The way that writer / director / and star Zach Braff's vision is intriguingly apprehensive through the concepts of lighting, design, and mise-en-scene makes viewers empathize and identify with the main character, and the number of diverse and affecting situations he finds himself in.