In his first two films, “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” David Gordon Green emerged as a Southern filmmaker who could ably portray the natural rhythms of life and language of the rural South without resorting to clichés.
In his third film, “Undertow,” those clichés, rather startlingly, are everywhere. In trying to make what he characterizes as “a balls-to-the-wall, get-him-by-the-gut-and-slit-his-throat kind of movie,” Green loosens his grip on character. This time he populates his film with sorry white-trash characters possessing room temperature IQs even in the most minor roles.
“Undertow” is the kind of mistake a young and adventurous director will make. It should not deter him from making many more films that will enjoy acclaim for their subtlety and sensibilities. Even so, Green’s rep as a key indie filmmaker might bring this UA release a modest success in adult specialty venues.
Talented English actor Jamie Bell conquers the Southern accent to play Chris, the malcontent son of farmer and taxidermist John (Dermot Mulroney). After his mom died, his dad moved with him and his brother deep into the woods to escape memories. Chris knows there must be more to life than farm chores but is unable to prove it by his current existence. So he spends his free time getting into trouble.
Wanting to attract the attention of a neighbor girl, he throws a huge rock through her window and winds up being chased by an enraged father and dog. Running in his bare feet, he leaps off a rooftop and impales a foot on a nail sticking out of a board. Yet, by God, he continues to run with that board stuck to his foot.
His younger brother, Tim (Devon Alan), is no brighter. He tries to eat things such as paint and mud, perhaps in the belief this will somehow help his ulcer. His idea of a good project is “organizing my books by the way they smell.”
Then Dad’s prodigal brother Deel (Josh Lucas) turns up. Just out of the pen and casting sly glances at everyone, you know this guy means trouble the minute he strolls onscreen. Only John can’t see it. He offers Deel room and board to “help out” with the two boys. The minute Deel asks about their father’s gold Mexican coins, you know what shape that trouble will take.
Once Deel has located the coins and killed his brother, the two boys are on the run from their homicidal uncle. Logic might dictate that Chris call the police, but he dismisses this by mumbling, “The cops’ll think I did it.” Why? you wonder. Who has the prison record here?
The chase is more a random ramble through the woods, where the boys encounter a well-intentioned black couple, who gives them food for work. Then, making their way to a small seaport, they fall in with a bunch of runaway kids about their age. Here Chris develops a crush on the pretty, abused Violet (Shiri Appleby), but before he can act on his impulses his uncle shows up, apparently willing to kill the two boys in broad daylight in front of whoever is willing to witness the murder.
The naturalistic style of the film is completely at odds with the hokey melodrama. The actors do an acceptable job at those long pauses and dialogue deliveries under the breath, but you can’t help noticing the effort to play “rural Southern.” Green, working from a script he wrote with Joe Conway, might have had the makings of a decent family drama here had the demands of a “balls-to-the-wall” thriller not diverted his attention.