Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dermot Mulroney, Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Josh Lucas, Shiri Appleby, Kristen Stewart
Written by: David Gordon Green
Directed by: David Gordon Green
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Running Time: 108
Date: 09/07/2004

Undertow (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gold Digger

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Gordon Green's directorial debut, the extraordinarily lyrical George Washington (2000), unfolded its junky, ethereal atmosphere with a near complete disregard for plot mechanics. Green's second film, All the Real Girls (2003), attempted the same disconnected mood, but now spattered through a story about a womanizer who falls in love for the first time.

His third film, Undertow, continues in the same vein. The mood is still there, but now the plot has grown more rudimentary, even ludicrous. It plays like nothing more than an exceedingly well-directed Friday the 13th sequel.

Undertow tells the story of a Southern family: a soft-spoken father, John (Dermot Mulroney), a troublesome older boy, Chris (Jamie Bell), and a sickly younger boy, Tim (Devon Alan); their mother has long ago passed on. John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) suddenly turns up on their doorstep, and is invited to stay. It turns out that the menacing Deel is really after a case of gold coins that their father once collected. He stops at nothing to get them, not even killing his own brother and stalking the two boys across hill and dale.

Deel is the new Jason Voorhees; the boys push him out a window, hit him with a shovel, smack him and batter him in various ways. Yet he keeps getting up and keeps coming back.

Eventually the movie's sustained ambiance gives way to a kind of sickly thudding suspense, and these elements fail to work together. Green has said that he enjoys these kinds of odd crossovers (such as the creators of Jackass directing a remake of Splendor in the Grass) but in this case he merely turns a smart film into a dumb one.

Working with his constant collaborator, cinematographer Tim Orr, Green has been often compared to Terrence Malick, who is credited as a producer on this film. Over the course of his own three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) Malick has steadily moved away from ordinary plot mechanics and into pure poetry.

Green appears to be on the opposite track. Undertow still has a haunting sense of place, notably when the young refugees arrive at a kind of hideout in the woods, a graffiti covered, half-demolished building by a serene lake. But if this film were a debut, it would be only the promising calling card of a talented director. Green can do better.

In 2016, Olive Films released Undertow on Blu-ray, with a trailer as the only extra. The film's soft, meandering visuals are very nicely captured, as is the moody soundtrack.

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