Living in Georgia squalor with his two sons Tim (Devon Alan) and Chris (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot"), John Munn (Dermot Mulroney, "About Schmidt") is trying to keep his family together after the tragic loss of his wife. When his long lost brother, Deel (Josh Lucas, "Hulk"), comes back into the picture after his parole, John is willing to forgive past sins for another chance at a peaceful family. However, Deel isn't interested in reunions, but rather a Mexican gold coin inheritance he feels is owed to him. Sensing trouble, Tim and Chris run away from home, heading out into the unknown wilds to keep the last hope of family alive between them.
David Gordon Green is an Arkansas filmmaker who adores the textures of his homeland. In his debut film, "George Washington," Green went overboard trying to recreate the languid, rambling life of southern adolescents. The film was torture to watch. Things improved last year with the release of "All the Real Girls," Green's gorgeous ode to the mysterious and painful realities of fresh romantic relationships. It was near perfect. "Undertow" (IMDb listing) is Green trying on a more conventional plot this time out, dressing the film up as a gritty, grainy southern thriller circa 1976 (down to the yellow simplicity of the opening titles and pulling out the old United Artists studio banner). The results are disappointingly stuck in the middle of Green's capabilities.
Green can be a confounding filmmaker. More often than I think he realizes, he invokes the abstract spirit of David Lynch, pumping his films with "people of the Earth" oddities to the point where it often decimates the drama. Whereas "Washington" climaxed with a character boasting that he could roll his tongue, "Undertow" is a little less classy, with one character likening chewed gum to boogers, Tim's long monologue on the world of chiggers, and his oral fixation, which has Tim eating and regurgitating paint and dirt. Green's weakness is his inability to comprehend when he's indulging his vision a little too much. It might add personality to the film, but the man needs a stricter editor to tell him "no."
Of course, this comes from a director who opens his film with the main character (Chris) stepping on a rusty nail attached to a board. Chris bends the nail with a brick, then runs off with the board stuck to his foot. Comedy? Tragedy? You tell me. I admire the eccentricities found in his films, but Green loves to go too far, sometimes turning stirring drama into "Hee Haw"-like comedy situations without notice.
For the first 45 minutes, "Undertow" is a confidant, sturdy southern gothic mystery, featuring a corker of a mid-movie twist that changes the speed of the film drastically. "Undertow" cautiously balances the sweaty and grimy Georgia farmland atmosphere with good dramatic storytelling, carefully revealing surprises and character in a quiet way, until the electricity of the story takes over. Once that has past, and the two boys find themselves on the run, "Undertow" switches to a rambling, wandering feel (the film was co-produced by Terrence Malick for a reason), which induces a monotony that didn't seem possible before, and eggs on Green to start tossing in the weird location touches just to keep his frame alive.
"Undertow" has individuality, and Green's gift for giving the story a unique feel and setting that nobody else would want to touch. However, his mise-en-scene is getting cloudier with each production, and his predilection for southern idiosyncrasies takes a decent thriller down.
Filmfodder Grade: C