2004, R, 107 min. Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney, Kristen Stewart.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 12, 2004
Cross-pollinate the arthouse film with B-movie backwoods gothic, and you get something like Undertow’s peculiar fusion of high and low culture. Imagine a spectacularly bent Twain story, if Tom swallowed paint rather than applied it to a fence, or maybe a Faulkner tale, if Faulkner had a sense of humor and wove yarns about missing Mexican gold coins. The fingerprints of both Southern giants are smudged on Undertow – and I do mean smudged; as in his other pictures (George Washington, All the Real Girls), director and co-writer David Gordon Green worships at the altar of grime and decay. (For other influences, see also: Night of the Hunter, Deliverance, and the giddy Seventies aesthetic of freeze-frames and swish pans.) Green’s latest effort begins breathlessly as sullen teen Chris (Billy Elliot’s Bell) hauls ass over field and swamp, trying to outrun his girlfriend’s shotgun-toting daddy. Chris’ flight ends abruptly in the first of several moments of shocking violence, although this is the only instance that it is mined, quite brilliantly, for a queasy laugh. After a brief stay in the county jail, Chris is dragged home to the ramshackle house he shares with his widower father, John (Mulroney), and sickly little brother, Tim (Alan). The three men live in isolation and something near squalor, but are bound by a gruff love and a sense of routine. That routine is threatened by the arrival of John’s bad-news brother Dell (Lucas), redneck-cool and fresh out of jail. At first, Chris feels a certain kinship with his uncle, recognizing the same hotheaded impulse toward trouble, but then Dell loses his cool and starts ranting about how his brother stole his woman, then his money (the aforementioned Mexican coins). To give much more away would be to spoil the little (and rather conventional) plot Undertow may boast. Much like Green’s earlier films, Undertow is long on atmosphere and short on action – an imbalance that worked fine in his character dramas, but is less successful as the foundation for a quasi-thriller. The film is dogged by logistical concerns, in which Green and his co-writer, Austinite Joe Conway, can’t seem to provide the audience with a proper sense of geography or time – a game of scrapyard cat-and-mouse is ruined by spatial disorientation, a train hopped seemingly to safety appears to go not much of anywhere. And the film, nearing its climax, tips too far into the same kind of hyperpoeticism that marred George Washington. If I seem reluctant to fully endorse Undertow, blame it on unrealistic expectations. With film, as in life, only rarely do we fall mightily in love, and that’s entirely how I feel about Green’s underappreciated All the Real Girls, a film that never fails to take me out at the knees. Undertow falls far short of that film’s emotional impact. Sure, it’s intellectually engaging, and what keeps things interesting, always, are Green and cinematographer Tim Orr’s gorgeous eye (grime never looked so good!) and a terrific trifecta of performances from the child actors and Lucas, who knows how to use his hulk for maximum menacing effect. Did I fall in love with Undertow? Not in the least. But I liked it alright, and amidst the mediocrity, even rot, that constitutes 98% of contemporary American movies, that’ll do fine. (Interviews with director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Joe Conway on p. 60 of this week’s Screens section.)