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Overall Rating

Awesome: 45.24%
Worth A Look47.62%
Average: 2.38%
Pretty Bad: 2.38%
Total Crap: 2.38%

5 reviews, 12 user ratings

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by Luke Pyzik

"Yeah, David Gordon Green is that good"
4 stars

Not since William Faulkner wrote about the residents of Yoknapatawpha County has the American South been so richly and beautifully reproduced as it has through the films of twenty-nine year old David Gordon Green. This is not hyperbole. In three films – “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” and now “Undertow” – Green has shown a gift for capturing environment and atmosphere like no filmmaker in recent memory. You’ll often hear actors and directors talk in metaphors about location being an actual character in the story, but no one has come closer to turning that metaphor into literal truth than Green. With “Undertow,” he has made his most accessible film (though not his best – that would be “All the Real Girls”), about two young brothers living in poverty with their father, and eventually struggling for survival.

“Undertow” begins with a tour-de-force credits sequence, and finds young Chris (Jamie Bell) running from the police after breaking his girlfriend’s window while trying to get her attention by throwing rocks at it. The sequence is executed with freeze frames and funky, seventies style color schemes and font types, straying from Green’s usual naturalistic visual style and lending the film a mythic aesthetic of Tom and Huck proportions. Appropriate, since the plot brings to mind Grimm Brothers’ stories, with young heroes separated from the protection of their parents and forced to deal with all the violence and tragedy of the adult world. Chris and his little brother Tim (Devon Allen) live with their father, John (Dermot Mulroney), in what must be the poorest and most secluded section of backwoods Georgia.

In the opening scenes, we learn bits and pieces about their lives. Chris is resentful of his father for keeping them isolated from the rest of the world, Tim is sick with an stomach ulcer achieved by eating paint when no one is looking, and John is damaged from the loss of his wife. In a lesser movie, the characters would be defined by these traits, but here they are only small details in a larger portrait. Their tender relationships are closely observed and quietly revered. Green paints John as a stern but loving, and the character displays an articulate openness that defies southern stereotypes even as he wears leather cowboy boots and sweats through his dirty old work shirt.

Soon the family routine is broken by a visit from long lost Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas), an ex-con with a crooked disposition and serpentine charm. Deel and John have a sweet, nostalgic conversation on the front porch, and Chris is drawn to his uncle’s cool even while being suspicious of his sudden arrival. Green sets a tone and creates a story that could easily progress in any direction. If you know Green’s previous work, you can imagine a movie that quietly explores these family relationships against the backdrop of this poor, isolated setting. But Green has something more conventional up his sleeve, and soon Chris and Tim find themselves in possession of a bag of gold and on the run from their Uncle Deel.

Though the plot may seem standard to anyone familiar with the legacy of “Night of the Hunter,” Chris and Tim’s journey is anything but traditional in its execution. Their adventure has all the hazy details and eccentricities of a forgotten dream, with encounters including a friendly, childless couple that takes them in, and a third-act alliance with a group of orphan kids who have formed their own dysfunctional community. With Uncle Deel close on their trail, the movie provides for a few moments of suspense, but it is not really interested in surprising or scaring us. Green is much more concerned with the psychology of young children dealing with violence and loneliness, and at no point is Green’s trademark lyrical style compromised for the sake of pandering to conventional expectations.

“Undertow” builds to a tense and genuinely suspenseful climax. Green has set the stage where anything is possible, and unlike the traditional Hollywood thriller, we feel a very real sense of danger for these two children. The movie ends on a curious note, with a startling shot of a bursting red balloon. The interpretation is up for debate, and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, but note that the actor playing Chris and Tim’s seemingly friendly grandfather is the same man who so famously made Ned Beatty “squeal like a pig” in John Boorman’s “Deliverance.”

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originally posted: 11/19/04 08:21:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 New York Film Festival. For more in the 2004 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/10/05 tigerrolph fab movie 5 stars
7/31/05 Daniel Brilliant! A stunning vision of the South in the 70's. Jamie Bell is a revelation. 5 stars
7/25/05 Captain Craig A total waist of time and mony..theirs and mine! How do they get away with it? 1 stars
7/04/05 Janet Wilson Lovely and sad, great actors, slightly confusing ending...heaven, I guess 4 stars
6/13/05 Phil M. Aficionado Moody and atmospheriic; excellent acting in search of a believable story line 3 stars
5/31/05 Indrid Cold Great acting and atmosphere, but not particularly interesting or entertaining. 4 stars
5/25/05 Cynthia Fellowes Boring, predictable plot with an unclear ending - what a waste of time! 2 stars
5/23/05 Brad N A little slow at times, but overall it was a great flim. Great characters! 5 stars
4/29/05 Jeff Anderson A brilliant, scary & terrific film. Bell, Mulroney & especially Lucas are OUTSTANDING! 5 stars
11/09/04 William Wingfield Awesome Joe Conway writes a masterpiece 5 stars
10/16/04 E Kos Wonderful film. Actors were superb with great emotion and feeling. Very natural . 5 stars
10/10/04 Carson Owens Loved IT! 5 stars
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  22-Oct-2004 (R)
  DVD: 26-Apr-2005



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