This is the best movie yet from David Gordon Green, but that isn’t saying much. Cinematically, Undertow oozes mood, quite literally as the sweat and dampness of the Southern summer drips from the pores of its characters’ and from its sodden textures. And, for a while, there is great pleasure in taking this in and in witnessing Gordon Green’s visual talent at work. But, when it comes to pacing and in establishing the very purpose of his stories, this writer-director is at a woeful loss. Even here, when he has a real genre framework and a clear storyline to work from, he manages to ditch everything at the expense of indulging his fascination for Southern squalor. Indeed, every character, every setting of Undertow (as in his previous George Washington and All the Real Girls) is spawned from some hideous dream of the downtrodden and muck-drenched South. After a while, all this becomes extremely monotonous and downright depressing. As good as its performances are (especially by the gifted Jamie Bell), it’s all smothered by Gordon Green’s obsession with contrived Southern gothic, cross-bred here with Greek tragedy, the O’Neil of Desire Under the Elms and the Hitchcockian chase formula.
The story: John Munn, a pig farmer (Mulroney) with two sons (Bell and Alan), lives in a ramshackle house. One day, he gets a surprise visit from his long-estranged brother, Deel (an effectively slimy Josh Lucas). Deel intends to steal a cache of gold coins, a legacy from his and John’s late father, that John has stowed away. After a bloody scuffle in which John is killed, Chris (Bell) snatches the coins and hotfoots it, along with his sickly younger brother, Tim. Across oppressively dank swamplands, rundown backwater towns, a junkyard and even a squatters’ colony, Deel chases the boys down. The thatch-haired Tim, as thin as a stick figure and always ingesting paints and other hazardous chemicals so as to induce vomiting, comes across as just a sad sack with no discernible motive for his self-destructive behavior. Bell does his best as the resilient older brother and so does Lucas as the venal Deel. But what’s with Gordon Green’s fascination with emotionally retarded social outcasts? The ragged urchin girl who befriends Chris seems just a tattered version of the moon-eyed and addle-brained college nitwit played by Zoey Daschenel in All the Real Girls.
A real letdown, a drag-down bore, a shame considering the promise of its mood and its style (most notably its 70s-inspired freeze frames and color schemes). Still, none of this is a surprise considering its misguided maker. Gordon Green — along with P.T. Anderson and a handful of other American filmmakers who have a penchant for style, but nothing to offer in terms of an original vision — must be jettisoned from the poop shoot of pop culture. Let us all move on.
Directed by: David Gordon Green
Written by: Joe Conway, David Gordon Green
Cast: Jamie Bell, Kristen Stewart, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas