“Undertow” is the third film by amazing director David Gordon Green. His strange and meandering film “George Washington” and his ethereal “All the Real Girls” touched on, amongst other things, intense interpersonal relationships. Both were a sort of study of action and reaction or cause and effect. I know that sounds vague, but to watch both of these films, you could swear nothing was happening. But by the end credits, everything sort of falls into place and you find yourself questioning the characters and their motives. Green makes you think and his films are so quiet and subtle, you almost find yourself in the film, wrapped up in the moment.
“Undertow” is a much more in your face type of film seemingly born from Charles Laughton’s brilliant 1955 film “The Night of the Hunter.” John Munn (Mulroney) lives way out in the sticks with his two boys Chris (Bell) and Tim (Alan). Chris is the rascally older brother who can’t seem to stay out of trouble while Tim is quiet and sickly. He suffers from severe stomach ulcers and a bad seventies hair-helmet. Life on the farm looks pretty drab as Chris shovels pig manure all day and tinkers with the Munn’s rundown house while Chris plays in and eats mud and paint all day long. Yeah, he eats mud and paint, but more on that later.
The Munn’s life gets a shot in the arm when John’s swaggering brother Deel (Lucas) comes to visit his brother after a stint in prison. You immediately get the feeling that there’s some kind of friction between these two and we soon find out why. Deel is a man completely consumed with envy and jealousy and his brother John is the source of his discontent. Soon the story detonates and any complaints of it perhaps languishing too long early on are forgotten.
All of the acting in “Undertow” is understated and incredible, especially Josh Lucas who literally seethes under the surface as the story unfolds. You know guys like him in real life who seem to be about to explode at any second and rather than do that, they just emit this strange, angry aura. Lucas totally nails this in his performance. Jamie Bell, best known as the title character in “Billy Elliot” mixes his teen angst with a heavy dose of youthful confusion and pulls off a nice performance. We feel bad for him being stuck in this simple life, but his love for brother Chris makes us realize why he’ll never leave.
As much as this film grows in intensity, it keeps that simple “slice of life” pacing that has made Green such an acclaimed director. Many compare him to Terrence Malick (who co-produced “Undertow”), but I find
Green to take Malicks slow, meditative pace to a whole new level. I also feel that the films title “Undertow” is a nice gateway into understanding all of Green’s work. Much of what his characters do and the way they act comes from things we really don’t see on the screen. Some motivations are never fully explained either.
For instance, does Chris’s stomach hurt because he eats paint and mud or is he trying to cure the pain by doing this? Many of the characters actions, much like people’s actions in real-life, occur below the surface and we’ll never know why they do what they do. The films title “Undertow” serves as a sort of analogy to the characters in the film and in Green’s other films as well.
“Undertow” is also Green’s most accessible film to date, yet he keeps his directorial style very close to the way it’s always been. Slow, patient, revelatory. There’s also an awesome seventies feel or homage to the film due mainly to the films look and production design but also to the great title card at the start of the film. It reminded me of something from “Deliverance” or even the old tear jerker “Where the Red Fern Grows.” With Green’s perfect natural progression onscreen here in “Undertow,” I can’t wait to see where he goes next.