Undertow (2004)

25 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Wow…where do I start with this movie?

“Undertow” is one of those “experimental projects” that every director goes through to make sure they can step outside of their comfort zones. Even if that wasn’t the case, “Undertow” is an amazing movie. It takes a fairly straightforward story inside a marathon of deep, personal fantasies and experimented camera shots. This movie is weird. I know that’s a strange criticism to make for a movie that I’m rating four stars, but that’s the spirit of this entire movie. It’s strange, unusual, unbelievable, unnerving, dark, unsettling, disturbing…and I loved every minute of it.

“Undertow” was directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, one of the most intriguing moviemakers I’ve ever come across. His work before this were the indie favorites “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” There has always been a certain quality to his films that made them special. Maybe it’s the way he lets the characters breathe and gives them room to express in just one camera shot. Maybe it’s the countryside atmosphere he’s surrounded them with. Whatever it is, he uses a lot of it in “Undertow.” In fact, he uses just about everything he can think of to make this familiar story…unfamiliar.

The story follows two brothers—16-year-old Chris (Jamie Bell) and 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan). Chris is a rebel who is constantly in trouble with the law; Tim is a little weirdo who has habits of eating things like mud and paint, and also “organizing my books by the way they smell.” They live in a rural area of Georgia with their widower father John Munn (Dermot Mulroney), so out-of-the-way from society that they can’t even have friends—the only ones to celebrate Tim’s birthday are Chris and Dad.

Their lives are interrupted by John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas), who hasn’t been in contact with his brother for years—he didn’t even know John had two sons. Deel is said to be a wild card, having been in prison for a mysterious reason. John believes Deel wants to do right from now on, so he lets him stay at the farm and work. But Deel is more sinister the more times he becomes acquainted with his two nephews, particularly Chris—there’s a scene in which he intimidates him while speeding in his nice car and saying things like, “I knew your ma first; she was my girl.”

There’s a rare gold collection said to be the gold drachmas that are good for admission across the River Styx into Hades when you die. The collection was given to John by his father, and has hidden them somewhere in the house. That’s exactly what Deel is here for—nothing more, nothing less. But after a violent incident, Chris and Tim run away from home with the gold coins, with Deel searching for them.

Chris and Tim trek along some desolate Southern landscapes and come across some very original individuals, including a young black couple who are accustomed to their rural lifestyle most comfortably and take the boys in briefly. Later, they also come across a camp for homeless people, mainly young people who have nowhere to go.

The story is somewhat similar to “The Night of the Hunter”—children go on the run from a violent man for greed, and they come across unique characters along the way—and the look of the film is as unusual. Also in mind when Green was coming up with the idea, as he said at the Toronto Film Festival, were stories by the Grimms, Mark Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Legends and fairy tales take up a lot of the movie’s spirit and dialogue—the legend of Charon and the River Styx and that old tale about writing a wish on a piece of paper and throwing it inside a bottle into a river. There are many monologues as the boys venture through these desolate, haunting Southern landscapes that it reminds of a film made by Terrence Malick (he actually is a co-producer for the film).

What do I mean when I say David Gordon Green might be “experimenting” with “Undertow?” Consider the opening-credit sequence—there are different video filters (even negative, of all filters), pauses, slow-motion shots, and everything else that can be toyed with, all in a chase scene. As if using all of those editing tricks wasn’t enough, the chase itself is just bizarre. It introduces Chris as he breaks the window of his girlfriend’s bedroom, causing her father to chase after him. It’s a merry chase until Chris, barefoot, accidentally jumps and lands on a nearby wooden plank with a nail sticking out of it. It’s even less pretty to see as it is to hear—it’s a very painful moment. And then, Chris continues to hobble along on his way, with the board still attached to his foot.

And that’s just the beginning of the movie! Trust me; it gets just as strange, if I haven’t already made that point.

Hearing the storyline, one would get the idea that this is a chase picture. But it’s not, in the conventional sense. David Gordon Green doesn’t go for the kicks; he goes for the dread, despair, and menace of the situations—fitting, because they match the landscape.

Jamie Bell, a young British actor (from “Billy Elliot”), has no trouble perfecting his American accent nor does he have trouble making us feel sympathy for Chris. Devon Alan suits the role of Tim well. Dermot Mulroney has a reassuring presence as the boys’ father, and Josh Lucas, playing against type, is certainly menacing as Uncle Deel.

What have I left out? Only the music, I hope. The film is covered by an ominous music score by Philip Glass that gets deeper as the story continues. It’s a chilling, non-comforting score that’s perfect for the film.

There is a chance I may have left something out from “Undertow.” But if there is, you can discover for yourself exactly how unusually thrilling this film is. However, I must warn you that this is not a film that’s easy to watch. It’s the kind of “Southern Gothic” tale that leaves audiences with an uneasy feeling. I won’t lie; it left me uneasy too. “Undertow” is strange, unusual, unbelievable, unnerving, dark, unsettling, disturbing…and I loved every minute of it.

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