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.)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Undertow
Vision and Focus
Vision and Focus
In the 'Undertow' with director David Gordon Green and first-time screenwriter Joe Conway

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 12, 2004

More David Gordon Green
An Ungentrified Man
An Ungentrified Man
David Gordon Green wraps up his Texas trilogy with Manglehorn

Richard Whittaker, July 3, 2015

Greener Pastures
Greener Pastures
Texas Film Award honoree David Gordon Green is just gonna keep doing his own thing

Kimberley Jones, Feb. 28, 2014

More David Gordon Green
The Aftermath of the Big Headline: <i>Stronger</i>
The Aftermath of the Big Headline: Stronger
David Gordon Green talks about the unlucky bystander to history

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 3, 2017

First Trailer Released for <i>Our Brand Is Crisis</i>
First Trailer Released for Our Brand Is Crisis
Sandra Bullock and David Gordon Green head to Bolivia

Josh Kupecki, Sept. 8, 2015

More David Gordon Green Films
Halloween Kills
The Shape is back from the dead again

Richard Whittaker, Oct. 22, 2021

The night he came home again (for the first time)

Richard Whittaker, Oct. 19, 2018

More by Kimberley Jones
Don't Worry Darling
Even Florence Pugh can't save this heavy-handed thriller

Sept. 23, 2022

We Have an Issue: Toasts All Around
We Have an Issue: Toasts All Around
Celebrating the Best of Austin: Restaurants awards, and sending off Music Editor Kevin Curtin

Sept. 23, 2022


Undertow, David Gordon Green, Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney, Kristen Stewart

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle