Undertow (2004) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 107 min.

Cast: Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney, Shiri Appleby
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Joe Conway, David Gordon Green
Review published June 17, 2005

Undertow 2004I'll freely admit, Undertow has an audience out there, but I am not a part of it. I have enjoyed David Gordon Green's (George Washington) contemplative filmmaking in the past, though, and while I do enjoy his nice touches here, it is in his attempts to pull off a mainstream thriller that his film loses me. Awkward is perhaps the only way to describe them, as tension is only sporadically achieved. Green's strengths are in his ability to see the small details in characters and situations, and in setting his aim on bigger goals, he loses sight of the big picture as well.

Undertow starts with teenage Chris Munn (Jamie Bell, Nicholas Nickleby) on the run from the authorities for another juvenile act that he can now add to his growing list of such activities. His father, John (Dermot Mulroney, About Schmidt), once again bails him out, unsure of how long it will be before Chris does something that will land him in jail for good. John's other son, Tim (Devon Alan, Throttle), has problems of his own, growing thinner and more sickly as the days go by, and no one is quite sure what's wrong with him. After the loss of their mother, it's a lonely existence out on their pig farm, but they do get a surprise visitor in the form of John's ne'er-do-well brother, Deel (Josh Lucas, Hulk). Deel makes like he is ready for the brotherly bonding that they never quite had, but underneath it all, he envies his brother for the life he's made for himself, and is out to try to get a piece of his own, starting with the cache of Mexican coins their father had reportedly promised them upon his passing.

While Undertow proves to be Green's most tangible film in terms of telling a story, he shows that he is probably best at mood pieces and gentle reflections than in trying conventional filmmaking. In the quiet scenes where the characters just talk, there are some choice moments to admire, but there are a few turns of events that require mastery in how to create genuine thrills -- editing, music, style and believability. Green has earned a following for his slice-of-life dramas, but with Undertow, there are developments that necessitate a different school of filmmaking technique, and one that Green hasn't quite nailed down.

One thing that Green does manage to do is evoke a sympathetic stance for the boys and their father, which does serve well in making us care about their plight. However, when tensions within the family boil over, there is an aloofness that doesn't jibe with the grittiness of the material, and the subsequent aftermath of the tensions doesn't seem remotely true-to-life. Not to spoil the film, but there is a tragedy that occurs that changes the lives of all involved forever, and despite an ongoing traumatic experience, there is a curious ambivalence about it all among the characters. Unfortunately, this ambivalence spills over into the audience as well as a result.

There is an artistic quality about Undertow that will please those who enjoy seeing things just a little bit differently, relishing every offbeat technique and awkward moment as if they were inspired by a man in full command of his craft. Either some critics are giving Green too much credit, or I'm not giving him enough. It is my belief that these "inspired" moments come not through careful consideration and planning, but rather, due to the inadequacies of a semi-novice filmmaker. Those who enjoy Southern gothic may like the depictions of Southern male aggression and the underlying religious undertones, but anyone into genuinely good storytelling may find the ironically titled Undertow has Green showing off his contrary tendencies underneath those of his strengths.

Qwipster's rating:  

©2005 Vince Leo