by Oren Golan
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In his third feature, David Gordon Green uses a plot that may be familiar in the Southern Gothic genre (comparisons to Night of the Hunter abound), but he certainly brings a unique style to the work. Undertow is based on the true story of a poor rural family in the South with a gaping old wound that has yet to heal.
Chris and Tim are brothers, but very different: Chris, the eldest, is the manual laborer of the family, while Tim is delicate and unsuited to the hard work of the farm. They live with their widowed father, John, played ably by Dermot Mulroney. Their routine is shaken when John’s brother, Deel (Josh Lucas) is released from prison and John allows him, albeit reluctantly, to live with them. But Deel is after more than just a family reunion—he’s also after the batch of gold coins that John inherited. Deel’s quest leads to the murder of his brother, and subsequent pursuit of the two boys who must run for their life and fend for themselves with nothing but a sack of gold coins.
Green has a flair for stark rural landscapes which evokes Terence Malick’s Badlands (Malick is one of the film’s producers) and seems to be a set in a world straight out of Faulkner. The director’s affinity for trash dumps, train tracks, dirt roads and rusted metal are apparent in the touching way he films them. Gordon’s real strength though is his knack for unique yet realistic dialogue, particularly for young adult characters. He also assumes his viewers are attentive and familiar with the usual film clichés since he picks up scenes and conversations seemingly mid-way, yet still manages to preserve the awkward silences and mood shifts that give his characters depth.
Undertow is a fairly suspenseful film, though ultimately not gripping. It is sprinkled with bits of real and unexpected humor, particularly from the largely non-professional extras who give the setting additional authenticity. Green has touched on a lot of themes, particularly brotherly and fraternal love, jealousy, and an older brother’s responsibility for the younger. That duty to his younger brother, which John failed at in his younger years, is now a big part of what Chris must come to terms with. Josh Lucas (Wonderland, Hulk) gives an excellent performance as the seething and spurned Deel, while Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) gives a nuanced performance as the young adult who must deal with the new pressures of manhood. It all adds up to a fine film, if not quite a classic, which is certainly a step towards more mass market appeal for Green while fortunately preserving his unique voice.
Oren Golan is an attorney in Chicago, where he once saw Parker Posey in person but was unable to sneak into her limo.
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