An acclaimed young filmmaker who has found success with 2000's "George
Washington" and 2003's "All the Real Girls," writer-director David
Gordon Green stumbles in a big way with the pretentious, overstylized,
and ultimately empty "Undertow." Starting off with a bang in an opening
credits sequence modeled after '70s exploitation cinema and featuring
a graphic depiction of a nail stabbing through a foot during a chase,
Green promptly forgets his stylistic influences soon after. What follows
is a meager crime drama with delusions of grandeur.
Widower John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) and his two sons, teenage troublemaker
Chris (Jamie Bell) and sickly 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan), live a
hardworking, dead-end life in rural Georgia. Having taken his kids
out of school in favor of a desolate, peaceful lifestyle, Chris is
forced to do manual labor around the house while Tim is left to sit
around, read, and continue his tendency of eating mud and paint, a
habit that has left him in a weak, emaciated condition. Their mostly
tranquil lower-class lifestyle is put into a tailspin with the appearance
of John's brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), freshly released from prison
and secretly out to steal the valuable gold coins their father gave
him years ago. When Deel's no-good designs lead to tragedy, Chris
and Tim have no choice but to go on the run, gold coins in their possession
and their dangerous uncle in hot pursuit.
Produced by masterful filmmaker Terrence Malick, "Undertow" more or
less steals Malick's ruminative style. Unlike Malick's own brilliant
existential war drama, 1998's "The Thin Red Line," director David
Gordon Green confuses subjective complexity with shameless self-importance.
The screenplay, credited to Green and Joe Conway, is filled to bursting
with stilted dialogue that no one would ever really say, and intermittent
character narration that reaches for depth but only comes off as laughably
moronic. Meanwhile, the story meanders along at a lugubrious pace,
not really going anywhere but with the hint that something emphatic
is approaching. When this promise goes unfulfilled, and the film unceremoniously
ends with nothing having happened that couldn't have been guessed
by the thirty-minute mark, the viewer closes their fist on air.
As the crooked Deel, who has been forced to withhold a secret about
Chris since he was born, Josh Lucas (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama")
brings steely veracity and a menacing magnetism to his performance
that outshines everyone around him. Deel may be the villain, for all
intents and purposes, but Lucas relishes the role. As tight-knit brothers
Chris and Tim, Jamie Bell (2000's "Billy Elliot") and newcomer Devon
Alan believably form a bond with each other as siblings, but spend
most of their time onscreen walking around and not doing much of anything.
Supporting turns from Shiri Appleby (2003's "The Battle of Shaker
Heights"), as a teenage runaway, and Kristen Stewart (2002's "Panic
Room"), as Chris' girlfriend, are thanklessly one-note and too brief
to make an impression.
A thriller that lacks thrills past the 30-minute mark, and a motion
picture that tries to fool viewers into thinking it is about more
than it really is, "Undertow" is the perfect cinematic example of
a wolf in sheep's clothing. The film wastes a quirky, potentially
intense music score by Philip Glass (2004's "Secret Window") that
is reminiscent of his own arrangement for 1983's gorgeous "Koyaanisqatsi"
by way of Danny Elfman, wearing out its welcome long before the 107-minute
running time has subsided. When "Undertow" finally reaches its soft,
unfeeling conclusion, cementing the entire experience as a pointless
one, director David Gordon Green's only achievement has been to make
you want to take a long, soapy shower and scrub the grime off.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman