The same could be said for Undertow, a richly filmed human drama of two boys being raised by single father John (Dermot Mulroney). Chris (Jamie Bell), being the stronger teen, is forced to do much of the labor around their small rural farm while little brother Tim (Devon Alan) eats poorly due to stomach problems. John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) comes to stay after being released from prison to exact revenge for losing his woman and his inheritance to John, and Chris must forget his illusions of leaving familial obligations to ensure his and Tim's survival.
Unfortunately, once the chase begins between Deel and the brothers, attention begins to wane. Though beautifully shot, it's not all that interesting to watch the kids travel and Deel follow them at every turn. After the engaging tension that had been built to see if either of the brothers would fall for Deel's rebellious charisma over their father's more necessary stoic discipline, the emotional connection falls flat from the repetition of encounter and escape.
The acting is graciously understated with dialogue that is clean and crisp while steering clear of heavy-handedness. With so many talented aspects coming together between the camera operation and those moving in front of it, it's a shame that the circumstances that move the film from one scene to the next fail to keep you attached to the conclusion, which errs on the side of predictability.
But despite the disproportionate attention given to the landscape in lieu of character interaction or development, Undertow does provide a more unique coming-of-age angle with Chris' thrift and street intelligence. Jamie Bell does an excellent job of carrying some of the weakest moments and keeps you caring about the various predicaments, even when you know how they will end. Josh Lucas' Deel is also so menacing that he provides true urgency for Bell to play off of.
On the downside, Tim is possibility the most randomly strange kid ever to appear in a feature length film, and I don't mean that in a good way. Undertow goes out of its way to identify him as "different," almost stuck in a vague childhood as he attempts unsuccessfully to play with cars. The film shows us his difficulties with eating and ulcers, but then shows him eating paint, laying on the strangeness so thickly that it never bothers to confront any of these problems when given plenty of opportunity to do so.
While it's far from a perfect film, Undertow does combine several strong sections of people who are easy to relate to in an environment that remains compelling in its use of everyday objects and life routines to tell an intelligent story instead of relying on melodramatic speeches or orchestrated fighting. You may have a good idea of what's to come, but many of its scenes deserve respect.
Reviewed as part of the 2004 New York Film Festival.
The DVD adds a commentary from Green, deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes documentary.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th December 2004
Distributed by: MGM
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 55%
Fresh: 64 Rotten: 53
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Bell as Chris Munn, Kristen Stewart as Lila, Robert Longstreet as Bern, Terry Loughlin as Officer Clayton, Dermot Mulroney as John Munn, Devon Alan as Tim Munn, Josh Lucas as Deel Munn, Eddie Rouse as Wadsworth Pela, Patrice Johnson as Amica Pela, Charles 'Jester' Poston as Hard Hat Dandy, Mark Darby Robinson as Conway, Leigh Hill as Muriel the Cashier, Alfred M. Jackson as Dock Worker, William D. Turner as Dock Worker, Michael Bacall as Jacob, Shiri Appleby as Violet, Carla Bessey as Violet's Friend, Damian Jewan Lee as Gus, Bill McKinney as Grandfather, Michael Gulick as Old Shirtless Man, David Blazina as Watch-Guard, Carlos DeLoach as Big Bad Cop, George Smith as Milk Man, H.G. Green as Newscaster, Jesse Scott Nelson as Retardoe, Craig Zobel as Bridegroom, Sophia Lin as Mail-Order Bride, Anne Marie Dove as Tattoo Girl, Thelma Louise Carter as Grandmother, Pat Healy as Grant the Mechanic