3½ stars (out of 4)
David Gordon Green's "Undertow"--which stars Jamie Bell and Josh Lucas as a fugitive boy and his devilish uncle--is a contemporary Southern Gothic movie thriller, true to its roots but also true to our time. Easily, violently, Green's film sinks its characters into a swamp of naturalism and accurate surface detail and then sends them on a nightmarish journey through a landscape that seems both real and magical: A rural Deep South terrain full of sun-seared forests, rotting junkyards and small farms reeking with manure, old junk and neglect.
The movie is about two poor young boys who flee their rural home after their father is murdered, pursued by the uncle who killed him. It stars British actor Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot") as Chris, the older boy; Josh Lucas as his uncle Deel; Dermot Mulroney as his dad, John; and Devon Alan as his younger brother, Tim.
With its fairytale structure, taut story and rich atmosphere, it's a bit reminiscent of the Charles Laughton-James Agee classic "The Night of the Hunter"--though it's shot recognizably in the style of American '70s rural movie crime dramas such as "Deliverance" or "Badlands."
The structure and plot are very simple. Deel, recently out of jail, hooks on with John's household, though he's still nursing serious grudges against John for stealing and marrying Deel's girlfriend (now dead) and also for his possession of the family legacy, a sack of old gold coins, which Deel thinks should have been divided equally.
Soon, John is dead and the boys are on the run with the coins--and with their wounded, dangerous uncle right behind. What follows is close to what Green created in his earlier, less-conventional films: an alternate world where kids live outside adult control, even while the pressures of life (and, in this case, death) close in on them.
"Undertow," which Green co-wrote with the movie's original scenarist Joe Conway, is, in a way, a matter of taste--though it's certainly to my own. Beautifully shot in the rural or coastal areas around Savannah, Ga., it's far more accessible than Green's two previous critical hits, "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," which the public mostly ignored. It's a movie by a young, gifted director who has been almost defiantly out of the mainstream and now, gingerly, tries his hand at a seemingly sure-fire genre piece, a classic chase thriller with recognizable stars and faces, Lucas, Mulroney and Bell. Even Bill McKinney, who plays the boys' grandfather, is a familiar face; he played the more terrifying of the two hillbilly sadists in "Deliverance."
The acting is strong throughout. Bell, without a trace of his old accent, creates an almost Huck Finn-ish outsider. From Chris' very first scene, when he tries to rouse a girlfriend by throwing rocks at her bedroom window and then flees her rifle-brandishing dad with a nail piercing his foot, he seems a figure both real and mytho-poetic. So do Mulroney as the doomed dad; Alan as the younger Tim; Shiri Appleby as their friend-on-the-road Violet; and Lucas as Deel--radiating sex, evil and pathological violence in a way that recalls, though it can't match, Robert Mitchum's Preacher Harry Powell in "Hunter."
In using these resources to make a more conventional movie, Green makes a real stretch--with the strong help of his cast, of writer Conway, of Terrence Malick, who co-produced this film and of Green's own crack cinematographer Tim Orr. In the end, he succeeds, often brilliantly, though "Undertow" is definitely not the sort of movie you'd expect from him--or from the genre.
Still, for anyone who likes classic, offbeat American moviemaking, in the rural-thriller genre from "Moonrise" to "Macon County Jail," "Undertow" is one to check. Seething with violence, bleeding with lyricism, it's a poem from the junk heap, a cry from the swamp, another night for another hunter.
Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Green, Joe Conway, from a story by Lingard Jervey; photographed by Tim Orr; edited by Zene Baker, Steven Gonzales; production designed by Richard Wright; music by Philip Glass; additional music by Michael Linnen, David Wingo; music supervisor Mark Wike; produced by Lisa Muskat, Terrence Malick, Edward R. Pressman. An MGM release of a United Artists and ContentFilm presentation; opens Friday. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (violence).
Chris - Jamie Bell
Deel - Josh Lucas
Tim - Devon Alan
John - Dermot Mulroney
Violet - Shiri Appleby
Grant the Mechanic - Pat Healy
Grandfather - Bill McKinney