In telling the story of a young boy who leads his little brother through deep Georgian forests to get away from a malicious uncle, David Gordon Green has channeled the voice of Mark Twain and the tone of the Brothers Grimm. Shot on location in Savannah, Georgia, “Undertow” is about the chaos that prison parolee Deel Munn (Josh Lucas) brings into the lives of his brother John (Dermot Mulroney) and his two sons Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan). Resembling a pair of really rugged Marlboro men more than creatures of extreme bucolic America, Deel and John put their past demons behind them, and live together like a family. This calm unity is tragically short-lived as Deel reveals that he wants his share of some gold coins his father left to him and John. Conflicts of interest arise and Uncle Deel turns into a monster, ravaged by desire and greed. Fearing for their lives, Chris and Tim flee into the woods.
An allegory warning against the evils of avarice, Gordon’s film refuses to shield its viewers from the dark side of human nature. Blood pools, death lurks, and the protagonists are flawed. As Tim’s older brother, Chris does not have the luxury of exhibiting idiosyncratic behaviors (eating paint and mud to induce vomiting) or showing weakness. Even though he feels unloved and unappreciated, he knows he must protect Tim. Brotherly love may have disintegrated between his father and uncle, but Chris will not let the same thing happen to him and his brother. “Undertow” follows them as they meet an assortment of people, struggle to survive, and there is no presumption that there will be a happy ending.
Gordon’s film unfolds as folklore, enclosing the characters in a world where its inhabitants radiate a wildness that is animalistic rather than uncivilized. Structured like a fairytale and driven like a fast boat down a leafy river, “Undertow” expertly blends myth and suspense to create a fable with a wicked sense of humor and an appetite for destruction.