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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Undertow

Starring: Jamie Bell, Devon Alan
Director: David Gordon Green
Rated: R
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: October 2004
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Dermot Mulroney, Joshua Lucas, Kristen Stewart, Shiri Appleby, Robert Longstreet, Eddie Rouse, Patrice Johnson

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1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

If you're a reader of contemporary fiction, watching a film by David Gordon Green might remind you of just about any of the novels of John Grisham, except that in "Undertow," which Green made after carrying away a Best First Film award from the New York Film Critics' Circle with "George Washington," nobody bothers suing anyone. Gaining justice by one's own hand is so much quicker and more redemptive. Fratricide and patricide both serve as the picture's melodramatic devices, though much of "Undertow" is naturalistic, as cinematographer Tim Orr gives us a sharp sense of place in the rural south where outhouses and a deficit of running water are de rigeuer even in this 21st century.

Green tackles both a coming-of-age subgenre and, though discussions about the Greek myth of Charon's ferrying people to Hades, prepares us for a violent scene that could have come out of the early pages of Genesis.

Young Jamie Bell is the primary focus of this venture in the role of 16-year-old Chris, who lives in the woods with his dad, John (Dermot Mulroney), and is so discontent with the hard life of a pig farmer that he commits petty annoyances. In one such instance he breaks the window of his would-be girl friend, thus alienating the girl's father–from whom the barefoot lad runs so swiftly that he punctures his foot on a plank with a rusty nail and just keeps on running, board, nail and all. Chris's 10-year-old brother Tim (newcomer Devon Alan) is a sickly lad allegedly afflicted with an ulcer, which the dull-minded kid treats by eating paint. Throwing up becomes a major pastime for the boy.

When daddy John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up at what passes for John's home after serving some time in jail, he signals soon enough that he's really after some rare Mexican coins that John has hidden, prompting Deel to think of fratricidal revenge–particularly since John also stole Deel's girl from him and made her his wife.

"Undertow," then, is a blend of standard melodrama latched on to a naturalistic plot, the two styles living side by side not with complete comfort. For the most part, "Undertow" is a chase movie without car crashes, as we watch the 16-year-old and the 10-year-old run frantically from Deel, who is about to do the boys no good considering that they witnessed the commission of a crime. As in any road movie, the principal characters run into an assortment of characters, the childless black couple in particular, who take the two in and giving them good food in return for work while passing on the story of their own misfortunes. A good deal of the film consists of film-school tricks with the camera, such as freeze-frame, shifting to black- and-white, and featuring one particular shot shown as a negative–not all of these choices being necessarily obvious. Director Green calls his pic a "balls-to-the-wall" thriller, but while the suspense builds up thanks in part to a reliably eerie soundtrack from Philip Glass, the more interesting parts are also the least violent as we ponder some of the ways we ourselves got into trouble as youngsters and how we dealt with the consequences.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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