If I were to choose the single greatest American directorial debut of the last ten years, David Gordon Green's "George Washington" would be very near the top of the list. This extraordinarily lyrical film unfolded its odd, wonderful moments with a near complete disregard for plot mechanics. Green's second film, "All the Real Girls," included many of the same disconnected moments, but they were now spattered into a story about a womanizer who falls in love for the first time.
His third film, "Undertow," continues in the same vein as his latter effort. It still has the good stuff, but now it's steeped in a rudimentary, even ludicrous, plot. It plays like nothing more than an exceedingly well-written "Friday the 13th" sequel.
"Undertow" tells the story of a Southern family: a soft-spoken father, John (Dermot Mulroney), a troublesome older boy, Chris (Jamie Bell), and a sickly younger boy, Tim (Devon Alan); their mother has long ago passed on. When John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) turns up on their doorstep, fresh from prison, John invites him to stay. It turns out that the menacing Deel is really after a case of gold coins that their father once collected. He stops at nothing to get them, not even killing his own brother and stalking the two boys across hill and dale.
The boys push him out a window, hit him with a shovel, smack him and batter him in various ways, and just like Jason Voorhees in "Friday the 13th," he keeps getting up and keeps coming back.
Eventually the movie's sustained mood gives way to a kind of sickly thudding suspense, and they fail to work together. Green once revealed to me in an interview that he enjoys these kinds of odd crossovers, but in this case a smart film turns into a dumb one.
Working with his constant collaborator, cinematographer Tim Orr, Green has been often compared to Terrence Malick, who is credited as a producer on this film. Malick has also made three films -- all masterworks -- that have moved in the opposite direction: from heavy plot ("Badlands") to mixed ("Days of Heaven") to very little plot ("The Thin Red Line"). Malick is talented enough to make this shift, but Green has a long way to go before he can balance his films the same way; Undertow is a far cry from "Badlands."
Undertow still boasts superb atmosphere and its ethereal sense of place, notably a kind of hideout in the woods that appears late in the movie, a graffiti covered facade of a crumbling building in the middle of nowhere. But if the film were a debut, it would be only the promising calling card of a talented director. We know Green can do better.
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
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