out of Five
Running time: 107
David Gordon Green’s third feature is a beautifully shot, stylish thriller with impressive performances from Jamie Bell and Josh Lucas.
Undertow is David Gordon Green’s third feature, following George Washington and All The Real Girls, and it marks his third collaboration with cinematographer Tim Orr (whose own directorial debut Dandelion should hopefully get a release later in the year). It was a critical hit at last year’s London Film Festival and should repeat that success now that it’s getting the theatrical release it deserves.
Like both of Green’s previous films, Undertow takes place in the Deep South. It stars Dermot Mulroney as John Munn, who lives a quiet life with his sons Chris and Tim (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan) on a run-down farm away from the town. The older brother, Chris, has a tentative relationship with a local girl (Kristen Stewart, wasted in a small part) but Tim mostly keeps himself to himself, which is unfortunate, because it means no-one has noticed his paint-eating habit.
However, when John’s greedy, duplicitous brother Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up unexpectedly, their home-life is irrevocably shattered, forcing the two boys to go on the run with their murderous uncle in hot pursuit.
Undertow resembles a 1970s remake of Charles Laughton’s classic 1955
thriller Night of the Hunter; it has a similar lyrical quality and the same basic plot of children fleeing a killer in the South, but Green uses several directorial flourishes that evoke 1970s thrillers, such as freeze-frames, jump-frames, negative images and, best of all, a chunky yellow font for the opening credits.
Admittedly some of these effects work better than others (the negative images are only used once and seem a bit pointless), but the film is always interesting to look at, largely thanks to Orr’s impossibly lush cinematography. There’s also a terrific score by Philip Glass that adds considerably to the film.
Bell is superb as Chris and he completely nails the difficult Southern accent; if you hadn’t seen Billy Elliot, you’d swear he was someone Green had picked off the street. Similarly, Josh Lucas again proves himself to be one of the best young American actors around; he’s genuinely terrifying as Deel and yet his character remains both charismatic and engaging.
Mulroney is equally impressive as the moral centre of the film - he even bears a surprising resemblance to Lucas - while Devon Alan impresses as the fragile younger brother. There’s also an intriguing array of supporting characters, whom the audience, like the boys, has to decide whether or not to trust.
There are several superb scenes and little moments in the film. Ironically, one of the most memorable (and also one of the nastiest) came about completely by accident; Bell injured his foot during filming in a similar way to the rather horrible nail-through-foot incident that befalls Chris. The strange thing is that several of the film’s best moments derived from that accident, such as the darkly comic sight of Chris running with a plank of wood nailed to his foot, or the fact that he later whittles the plank into a model plane for his brother.
In short, Undertow is well worth seeing, particularly for Lucas and Bell’s performances. Green continues to be a director to watch and if Bell’s career doesn’t take off significantly after this then there is officially no justice. Highly recommended.