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•• ViewsLondon, Matthew Turner: Rating 4/5
David Gordon Green’s third feature is a beautifully shot, stylish thriller with impressive performances from Jamie Bell and Josh Lucas.
Undertow is David Gordon Green’s third feature, following George Washington and All The Real Girls, and it marks his third collaboration with cinematographer Tim Orr (whose own directorial debut Dandelion should hopefully get a release later in the year). It was a critical hit at last year’s London Film Festival and should repeat that success now that it’s getting the theatrical release it deserves.
Like both of Green’s previous films, Undertow takes place in the Deep South. It stars Dermot Mulroney as John Munn, who lives a quiet life with his sons Chris and Tim (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan) on a run-down farm away from the town. The older brother, Chris, has a tentative relationship with a local girl (Kristen Stewart, wasted in a small part) but Tim mostly keeps himself to himself, which is unfortunate, because it means no-one has noticed his paint-eating habit.
There are several superb scenes and little moments in the film. Ironically, one of the most memorable (and also one of the nastiest) came about completely by accident; Bell injured his foot during filming in a similar way to the rather horrible nail-through-foot incident that befalls Chris. The strange thing is that several of the film’s best moments derived from that accident, such as the darkly comic sight of Chris running with a plank of wood nailed to his foot, or the fact that he later whittles the plank into a model plane for his brother.
The Conclusion - In short, Undertow is well worth seeing, particularly for Lucas and Bell’s performances. Green continues to be a director to watch and if Bell’s career doesn’t take off significantly after this then there is officially no justice. Highly recommended.
•• Robert Ebert: Rating 4/4
A master piece! One of the best films of 2004! "Undertow," like Green's "George Washington" (2001) and "All the Real Girls" (2003), takes place in a South where the countryside coexists with a decaying industrial landscape. We see not the thriving parts of cities, but the desolate places they have forgotten. His central characters are usually adolescents, vibrating with sexual feelings but unsure how to express them, and with a core of decency they are not much aware of.
In writing "Undertow," Green said at the Toronto Film Festival, he had in mind stories by the Grimms, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, and also Capote's In Cold Blood. He wears these sources lightly. While much is made about the family legends surrounding the gold coins, they inspire not superstition but greed, and function in the story just as any treasure would. Although we see two generations in which there is a troubled brother and a strange brother, the parallels are not underlined.
The bad feeling over the gold coins comes to a head in an instant of violence, and the boys run away from home, entering a world that evokes "The Night of the Hunter" (1955). In both films, two siblings flee from a violent man through a haunted and dreamy Southern landscape. The people they meet during their flight all look and sound real enough, but also have the qualities of strangers encountered in fantasies: The kindly black couple who lets them work for food, and the secret community of other kids, living in a junkyard. If these passages add up to a chase scene, Green directs not for thrills but for deeper, more ominous feelings, and the music by Philip Glass doesn't heighten, as it would during a conventional chase scene, but deepens, as if the chase is descending into ominous dreads.
Green has a visual style that is beautiful without being pretty. We never catch him photographing anything for its scenic or decorative effect. Instead, his landscapes have the kind of underlined ambiguity you'd find in the work of a serious painter; these are not trees and swamps and rivers, but Trees and Swamps and Rivers -- it's here that the parallel with "Night of the Hunter" is most visible.
"Undertow" is the closest Green has come to a conventional narrative, although at times you can sense him pulling away from narrative requirements to stay a little longer in a moment that fascinates him. He is not a director of plots so much as a director of tones, emotions and moments of truth, and there's a sense of gathering fate even in the lighter scenes. His films remind me of "Days of Heaven," by Terrence Malick (one of this film's producers), in the way they are told as memories, as if all of this happened and is over with and cannot be changed; you watch a Green film not to see what will happen, but to see what did happen.
Films like "Undertow" leave some audiences unsettled, because they do not proceed predictably according to the rules. But they are immediately available to our emotions, and we fall into a kind of waking trance, as if being told a story at an age when we half-believed everything we heard. It takes us a while to get back to our baseline; Green takes us to that place where we keep feelings that we treasure, but are a little afraid of.
•• Movie Habit, Marty Mapes: Rating 3/4
Mainstream audiences probably don’t know the work of David Gordon Green, and they may never know it. Nevertheless he is quietly making a name for himself with portraits of the rural South of such texture and flavor that you’d swear the movie engages all five senses.
Undertow does feel a little contrived, particularly as the plot wraps up a little too neatly at the end. And the quiet, steady, river-like pace may not be fast enough for more casual audiences. But Green is a visionary young director, and Undertow helps cement his own style. It’s also a solid bit of well-acted drama, and a travelogue to some of the more the more foreign-seeming parts of the United States.
•• Eric Snider: Rating B+
David Gordon Green’s “Undertow” opens the same way his beautiful “All the Real Girls” did, with two teens in love gazing at each other and sharing whispered conversation. But in short order the film turns away from Green’s usual style of atmosphere and character drama and develops, of all things, a plot.
The results are not completely successful. Green’s strengths are not in telling stories but in painting pictures and evoking moods. But “Undertow” often manages to have it both ways, to show a compelling storyline and to be contemplative. Sometimes the mechanics of the plot serve the greater good by putting the characters into situations in which Green’s writing and directing skills can be put to truly excellent use.
The urgent musical score by Philip Glass improves the film; in fact, I daresay most films are improved by a Philip Glass score. The cinematography, by Green regular Tim Orr, beautifully captures the rural environment and contributes greatly to the film’s overall feel.
That “feel” is ultimately what plants the movie firmly in excellent territory. The story itself, though occasionally compelling, is mostly just a means to an end, a way to show these particular people reacting to a series of events. It’s the people who are most interesting, not the things that happen to them. As with “All the Real Girls,” I found myself wanting to hang out in this world for a little while longer.
•• Reelviews, James Berardinelli: I suppose if one was to classify Undertow, it would go into the "thriller" category (the appropriate sub-genre would be the newly-coined "Southern gothic"). In reality, however, Undertow has as much, if not more, in common with road movies than it does with traditional thrillers, and because it does a better job developing personalities than suspense, it is a more effective character study. All of these diverse elements (and a few more) are present in this atypical story from director/co-writer David Gordon Green (George Washington), who brews them into a whole that, while imperfect, is nevertheless pleasing.
The story transpires in rural Georgia, and Green pulls the audience into this uninviting setting from the first frame. When it comes to establishing place and time, the director is an expert. When Green's camera takes us to a hot, dirty pig farm in the middle of nowhere, we are there. Similarly, we visit dirt roads and pathways that civilization seems to have forgotten, small towns with tiny general stores where the locals gather to gossip, and a junkyard that is a testimony to the obsolescence of man's ingenuity. Every place that appears in Undertow is authentic, and this is one of the movie's greatest strengths. (There are times when the visuals echo those of Badlands and Days of Heaven, two pictures made by one of Undertow's producers, Terence Malick.)
The success of the film rests on the shoulders of the two young actors. Jamie Bell, who shot to fame playing the title character in Billy Elliot, effectively expresses the transformation of Chris from glum and self-centered to a concerned caregiver. Bell's strong, focused performance is an opposite from his work in Billy Elliot, highlighting not only the actor's talent, but his range. Devon Alan, although not as demonstrative, is believable as the frail Tim. Meanwhile, Josh Lucas, who plays both villains and romantic leads equally well, turns up the hatred, rage, and sadism to peak levels for this performance. He is chilling. Dermot Mulroney hides his natural charm and good looks beneath a scraggly beard and unkempt personality, presenting John as unreachable.
Undertow will have limited appeal to mainstream audiences, who frequently do not have the patience to let a movie like this unveil its pleasures. There are allusions to everything from mythology to the Bible to the Brothers Grimm. The film starts out slowly, allowing us the opportunity to get to know the characters, before things start to happen. And, although there is violence and danger, this is less about the chase than it is about the relationship between the siblings. Those going to Undertow expecting a thriller will find the proceedings slow going. However, those who are seduced by the characters and the setting will find that the 105 minutes pass quickly.
•• FilmBlather, Eugene Novikov: Undertow is intriguing, and beautiful, and skillful enough to be a passable October diversion, though I doubt it will completely satisfy anyone. Green’s fans will be disappointed with the straightforward plot; those of us who love straightforward plot will be frustrated with the ways Green screws it up.