Undertow (2004) Movie Review

Image for Undertow the film

Title: Undertow
Year: 2004
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Play time: 1h 48min
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriters: Lingard Jervey
Starring: Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney  

Green Almost Got Me With – Undertow

David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls was one of those movies that sort of flew by me. It has its rabid fans, I know; some of them are even my friends. For my part, I enjoyed it, and appreciated it, but it kept me emphatically at arm’s length; I could not get involved with these characters, whose “uniqueness” was as oppressive as it was interesting. Maybe I’m so addicted to narrative that I just couldn’t handle it, though I prefer to think that it just isn’t a very involving film. This kid could go places, I thought, but he’s just not for me.

The opening minutes of Undertow threatened not only to make me change my mind, but also to apologize for my previous transgressions. With a sudden onslaught of bizarrely lyrical camera tricks and a spectacular, haunting Philip Glass score front and center, the mood resembled an amplified, southern gothic version of All the Real Girls‘ amicably loose-limbed tone. The subject — a kid caught up in a reckless act of rebellion — reminded me of the first scene in Ken Loach’s great Sweet Sixteen, and my 10 a.m. grogginess disappeared. I was ready to become a David Gordon Green convert.

Undertow’s Cast Performances are Appropriately Garish

I grooved for quite a while. The story, about a father (Dermot Mulroney) and his two sons (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan) whose relatively uncomplicated lives in backwoods Georgia are disturbed by the arrival of a relative menacingly named Deel (Josh Lucas), is brooding and ominous; the performances are appropriately garish. Lucas, in particular, negates Around the Bend in one try, and Bell, in his first leading role since Billy Elliot, makes a scrappy, sympathetic hero. I’m a sucker for this plot, and I relished in seeing it filtered through Green’s oddball sensibility.

But by the second act, when Bell’s Chris Munn and his little brother Tim are forced to run from the murderous Deel, turning Undertow into an homage to/perversion of Night of the Hunter, I felt the film start to slip away from me. Green’s patented brand of unconventionality starts to overwhelm the story; he purports to turn to his characters, but his approach is boilerplate, dispensing quirks and idiosyncrasies instead of searching for truth. All the bizarre little details Green has become famous for are here, but I found myself wishing he’d cut it out.

Oddly, the problem with Undertow reminded me of Kill Bill Vol. 1, where Quentin Tarantino similarly crushed a potentially enthralling tale with smug, ostentatious stylistics. I wrote that Tarantino didn’t believe in his material; I wonder if Green is simply making movies the only way he knows how or if he has a master auteurist plan. It’s true that I am in love with conventional narrative, so take this with a grain of salt, but I felt that Green added nothing. I wanted to be told a story, and instead got Green’s posturing, which eventually evolves into overblown symbolism.

The Straight-forward Plot Fails To Indulge Us

Undertow is intriguing, and beautiful, and skillful enough to be a passable October diversion, though I doubt it will completely satisfy anyone. Green’s fans will be disappointed with the straightforward plot; those of us who love straightforward plot will be frustrated with the ways Green screws it up.

Movie geek and tv show lover. Favorite genres: sci-fi, action, crime. Fan of trilogies.

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