The American writer Flannery O'Connor once said that if you survive a southern childhood, you have enough material to write about for the rest of your life. Watching David Gordon Green's "Undertow," filmed near Savannah, Georgia, I was reminded of O'Connor and the tradition of the southern gothic novel. The film plays like one—at least through the second act—much more so than it does a standard cinematic thriller.
The emphasis is on character and quirkiness, with Dermot Mulroney playing a blue-collar man of few words who, after the death of his wife, retreats to the backwoods to raise his two sons and a few pigs—the latter, awfully darned close to the house, I might add. But in the tradition of the southern novel, all of the characters live just slightly south of "normal."
For starters, there's 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan), who eats paint, grease, and mud. It's not clear whether it's connected, but (big surprise) he's quite sickly. Tim also has a habit of memorizing his books by the way they smell. Then there's 16-year-old Chris (Jamie Bell, a.k.a. "Billy Elliot"), an awkward boy on the cusp of manhood who shows his affection for a girl by throwing a good-sized rock through her window and gets chased by her pa, his hound, and two skidding squad cars, "Dukes of Hazzard" style. The most normal is the father, John, who we gradually learn has a few idiosyncrasies and baggage of his own—things I can't talk about here without giving too much away.
The offbeat is cultivated from the opening sequence, when young Chris runs away from the rock-throwing incident barefoot and ends up jumping from a roof right onto a nail, then hobbling off with a board attached to the bottom of his foot. A high price to pay for a first kiss with Lila (Kristen Stewart, from "Panic Room"). Then again, paying a price seems to run in the Munn family.
Just as John is about to wring his hands over his delinquent and sickly sons, thinking it can't get much worse, into their lives drives the brother from the past he would rather forget. Deel (Josh Lucas) is fresh out of prison but not fresh out of anger and resentment. He's got some issues with brother John that run awfully deep, involving a woman and some gold coins he's determined to track down—and, of course, he doesn't care who gets in his way.
In a way, it's too bad that the action picks up when this cataclysmic catalyst comes to town, because "Undertow" was moving along just fine as a quirky backwater sort of film. Sans British accent, Bell turns in a believable performance as a southern lad—except for the fact that, as the director points out in the commentary, he can't drive a stick shift. "What kind of southern boy doesn't drive stick?" he teases his young star. The location filming, Philip Glass's eerie score, the preponderance of angular shots, and the silences thick as grits that Green allows, all contribute to an atmosphere that could have come straight out of O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
But when Deel begins to ask the boys questions and pokes around the household, the backwater suddenly turns into a raging river, exploding the way the opening scene did. Unfortunately, the action, and yes, the outcome, is totally predictable, because we've seen this sort of thing before. In fact, it felt as if Green and co-writer Joe Conway rushed through Act 2 to get to the violent Act 3, when it might have been more powerful and interesting to milk the tension between the two older brothers while showing the younger siblings as a counterpoint more than they do. Once the violence commences, it's a walk down a road most lovers of the genre could manage with their eyes closed. Green seems to have wanted to have it both ways, and a scene with an African-American couple that interrupts the tension of the boys' flight indicates just how hard it was for him to decide whether he was telling a story southern-style, or thriller-style.
"Undertow" is rated "R" for violence.
Video: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 ratio), and the quality is quite good, though there's a slight and deliberate graininess that contributes to the languid atmosphere. No complaints, though.
Audio: Here too, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is decent, though there isn't a whole lot of rear-speaker action, even in scenes where characters are in nature, which is somewhat surprising.
Extras: From the full-length commentary by Green and Bell, it's apparent that the two had—and still have—a close relationship. There's an ease about them as they discuss the film, teasing each other in between pointing out various aspects of filming. If portions of the film conjure up images of "Night of the Hunter," with Deel singing softly the way Robert Mitchum whistled as he methodically searched out his targets, we learn it's because that was one of many films that Green had in mind as he was making "Undertow." Influences included "The Goonies" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but Green also consulted "In Cold Blood" and demonstrated his familiarity with "Deliverance" by hiring Bill McKinney, the man who played the hillbilly rapist, to do a brief voiceover and make a cameo appearance.
We learn in the commentary that Bell got his first onscreen kiss in the film, and that the man who loaned the company the souped-up car that Deel drives went berserk on the set when he thought the actors and crew weren't treating his "baby" with enough care, then threatened to "cut all their throats, for real" and drove off, leaving big ruts in the yard of the house where they were filming. We learn, too, that the director actually doubled for his 17-year-old leading man in the running scenes. There are some fun anecdotes here, and it's a pleasure listening to Green and Bell, with no real sags in the conversation.
The making-of feature is entertaining as well, presented by the cast and crew as a kind of music-video record of the filming. There's footage of Bell with his foot bandaged up—except that it was a different foot from the one in the film. It turns out that he was clowning around inside a dilapidated building where they were filming and actually stepped on a nail himself, which was why the director had to run for him in the opening scene.
Rounding out the extras is an "animated" photo gallery (which on my television just looks like an ordinary slideshow, set to music), and two deleted scenes, both of which were cut because they went too far off-story.
Bottom Line: "Undertow" is an oddball character drama that gives way to more predictable action and suspense, in the tradition of stalker films. But it still makes for an evening of solid, if predictable, entertainment.