Reviewed by: The Exile

Not yet 30, and with only two previous features (George Washington and All The Real Girls), director David Gordon Green has quietly chipped out a reputation for dreamy, small-town reflections on love and survival. The rural South is his stomping ground, and, along with cinematographer Tim Orr, he has woven his stories around crumbling textile mills and deserted railroad tracks, coaxing forlorn beauty from decay and neglect. This neglect has seeped into his characters, whose sweetly inept attempts to connect with each other give his movies a powerful emotional pull.

Undertow is Green's first foray - albeit a tentative one - into thriller territory. It's also his first film with recognisable actors (Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas) and legendary director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) as a producer. Malick's presence on the set dovetailed perfectly with Green's artistic goals. "I was inspired by the hell-raising, redneck cop movies of the Seventies," he said in a recent interview. But also he wanted the action tempered by the mythic, menacing aesthetic of films such as Deliverance and Malick's own Badlands, where the sense of dread is directly connected to the land itself.

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Shot in rural Georgia for less than $2 million, Undertow is a visceral tale of two brothers on the run from a relentlessly violent and mercenary uncle. Chris Munn (Jamie Bell) is a surly teenager chafing against the rigid authority of his father, John (Mulroney), a hog farmer still grieving for his late wife. Chris's younger brother, Tim (Devon Alan), is a skinny, sickly kid who speaks little and eats even less. When no one's around, he sips paint and mud in one of the film's many indications of psychological distress.

Too weak to work, Tim reads while a resentful Chris shovels manure and pigswill for both of them. No wonder Tim arranges his books by the way they smell - everything in the movie, from John's corncob pipe to the caged possum in the living-room, looks rank enough to identify from a hundred paces.

One day John's brother, Deel (Lucas) saunters into the yard, fresh from prison and simmering with resentment. Apparently John's dead wife was Deel's girlfriend first and Deel, not only feels robbed of love, but also cheated out of his share of the Mexican gold coins left to them by their late father.

"Looks like you're doin' OK," he sneers, eyeing John's tooled leather boots and fur-lined jacket. John, a decent but superstitious man, offers lodging, but hides the coins, believing them to be hexed. When things turn bloody and biblical, the movie becomes an extended chase as Chris and Tim, clutching the coins, take to the road with a relentless Deel at their heels.

Inspired by a real message left on a runaway hotline, Undertow is described by Green as a "Southern tall tale," flickering with reminders of Seventies backwoods exploitation cinema: freeze-frames offered in homage to the 1974 drive-in classic Macon County Line and a cameo by Bill McKinney, who played Mountain Man in Deliverance.

The film's most obvious debt is to Charles Laughton's surreal masterpiece Night Of The Hunter, not only in plot, but with its eerie evocation of an alien landscape, alternately threatening and protective. As Chris and Tim navigate the sprawling hobo camps and junk piles of the deep South, Green's empathy for his locations fleshes the film with realistic detail - laconic riverboat workers lounging in the sun, a stunned-looking mail order bride being hustled from church to buggy.

Emphasising texture over tension, Undertow plays like a mud-splattered Hansel and Gretel, taking a sideways look at what it means to be a man when wives and mothers are no longer around.

Reviewed on: 22 May 2005
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Atmospheric thriller from the Deep South resurrects shades of darker, deadlier incarnations.
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Kotleta ****

Director: David Gordon Green

Writer: Joe Conway, David Gordon Green

Starring: Jamie Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Kristen Stewart, Robert Longstreet, Terry Loughlin, Eddie Rouse

Year: 2004

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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