In Indie circles, David Gordon Green, the director of Undertow, seems to have become the new “Golden Boy”. His first two films “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” have been endlessly praised. In between, Green has been likened to Terrence Mallick (who executively produces Undertow) and his style has been dubbed Southern Gothic. All this has left me quite irked as he has managed to slip under my radar, but thankfully I now have Undertow, only his third film, to see what all the fuss has been about.
By glancing at the DVD cover, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was a straight to video effort, blink and you missed it at the cinema, plus its extras free. However you would be very wrong.
The story seems a relatively simple one, brothers Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) live with their father, John (Dermot Mulroney) on an isolated hog farm in the sweaty deep south. Older brother Chris is hard working but has a tendency to get himself into trouble, while Tim is introverted and sickly. Nothing much happens until their father's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up. We learn he has been in prison, but we're not sure why, but there is definitely some tension between the pair. However they agree to forget the past and get on with life, while Deel agrees to John's request of sticking around and helping out on the farm. Unsurprisingly Deel is not everything he seems and an explosive piece of violence puts the two boys in fear of their lives and they flee the farm with their Uncle Deel in hot pursuit.
To say any more at this point would spoil your enjoyment, but don't think this is some run of the mill chase movie with a maniac in tow. In part this is true, but goes much deeper than you might imagine.
What makes Undertow stand out is the cast and the direction of David Gordon Green. Jamie Bell is a revelation here, and after watching you'll never see him as Billy Elliott again. He is quite frankly superb, both convincing and believable. In fact if you never knew he was British, one would never guess as his Southern drawl is perfect. Dermot Mulroney is good as well, showing himself to be more than a romantic comedy stalwart. Josh Lucas, also know for rom-com leanings is totally convincing as the wronged brother and shows that he too has some real acting ability. Devon Alan as Tim is also a real find, who makes you wish that someone would just look after him and feed him properly so he stops eating mud and paint! The relationship between the two brothers Chris and Tim is also very believable and their brotherly love is evident unlike that of their father and uncle.
Green too is a star here as his direction is nigh on faultless. He uses clever techniques (black and white, jump cuts) not for show like Guy Ritchie for example but because it's important to the narrative of the story. It is also the dirtiest and grimiest films I've ever seen, highlighted by the cinematography of Tim Orr and the look of the actors. You will simply want to hose them all down. This is coupled with a sense of “something” being not quite right” i.e. there is sense of unease that seems to run through the spine of this film. All this reminded me of “Calvaire”, the recent Belgian shocker by Fabrice du Welz. In fact there were many elements about the film that were reminiscent of the genre and exploitation movies of the 70's - I'm unsure whether it was the music or the feel, but there was simply “something” there. I'd be very interested if anyone else felt the same way. The excellent score by Philip Glass really adds to the movie as well and heightens the moments of tension.
It's great to find a new interesting director and Undertow is well worth tracking down. Highly recommended!