2004Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney
t makes sense to tap David Gordon Green for a swampland thriller. His trademark eerie pacing, pans stretched out like molasses and silences that span whole oceans are perfect treatments for a story with the drawn-out tensions of murder, pursuit and fear. Yet Green’s strengths—largely his fixations with setting and mood and shot—are ultimately his greatest weaknesses. Whereas Undertow should be a story about the complexities of terror and hatred and love and family blood, instead it is no story at all, but a degenerating series of weak forays into interesting scenery, the plot trailing thinly behind the film like a diminishing fume.
Set to an oppressively stringy Phillip Glass score, Undertow jerks and stalls through a humid tin roof Savannah landscape, depressing from the outset and resoundingly bereft of hope. We are introduced to our antiheroic depressing Southern family, the Munns, who toil and scrape and vomit and live oh-so-earnestly, poised as the perfect and yet somehow unlovable victims we know they are destined to become. Mulroney is egregiously miscast as father John, too stilted and ineffectual in a role that sorely needed fleshing out.
Frank and Joe Hardy in "The Case of the Missing Chums"
Jamie Bell is fine as the naïve, afflicted protagonist caught in the age between innocence and slow, resigned realization of his doom, but without the strength of a pointed plot to drive him, Bell’s performance sinks along with the rest of the ship. (Though Bell and Devon Allen, as younger brother Tim, do manage to shine through Green’s uncanny child’s-eye vision on a number of fleeting occasions.) Josh Lucas as evil brother Deel is caricatured, and the women, who barely exist, are wide-eyed parodies of Zooey Deschanel’s fabulous character in All the Real Girls. (Hint to Green: not all women are sweet-faced tough girls who want to have “a million babies”.)
Green’s favourite axis, that of accident and betrayal, is trampled here by genre itself. Without the lightness and magic that spears through to illuminate even the saddest moments of Green’s earlier films, Undertow is flat and unmoving, an almost uniform landscape of badness without the tension of goodness and hope to counterbalance evil and futility. There’s no real fear here: just dread and waiting for the next bad thing to befall our heroes, only without any audience investment in the characters on the line.
How to prepare fer a pig-pickin', Step One: put on yore pickin' boots.
Green’s shots are beautiful, of course: an abandoned railway station reclaimed by nature, a cobblestone street out of time and place that languishes in the Deep South, rust red roofs and that avocado green only ever replicated in cars and refrigerators all fill out a florid, emotionally charged visual canvas—across which, unfortunately, very little happens.
Though well-pedigreed (Green idol Terrence Malick has a producer credit, and Glass’ ostentatious contributions aren’t accidentally foregrounded), Undertow can’t bear the weight of its demands here: the script is shaky and the characters unworthy of our attachment. Though it’s Green’s obsession with gesture that imbues his films with poignancy and realism, those gestures alone aren’t enough to keep the tenuous proposition of a by-the-numbers thriller from slipping away from him, reclaimed by that rushing tide of mediocrity.
note: Stylus screened this film at the Toronto International Film Festival
By: Liz Clayton
Published on: 2004-09-15