Mainstream audiences probably don’t know the work of David Gordon Green, and they may never know it. Nevertheless he is quietly making a name for himself with portraits of the rural South of such texture and flavor that you’d swear the movie engages all five senses.
R for Violence
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David Gordon Green
Undertow features Jamie Bell, last seen with his native British accent in Nicholas Nickleby and Billy Elliot. He plays Chris Munn, a young man who lives with his father (Dermot Mulroney, the least convincing member of the cast, but still pretty good) and little brother Tim (Devon Alan) in a remote, ramshackle house somewhere in Georgia. One day trouble comes in the form of uncle Deel (Josh Lucas). He’s fun-loving and drives a cool car, but he oozes a little too much charm, hinting at something cruelly reptilian underneath.
The family blood heats up from the friction between the boys’ father and uncle Deel and is soon boiling over. The two boys end up on the run from their uncle, who pursues them doggedly. The movie almost becomes a road trip, an excuse to tour interesting-looking locations in Georgia.
Out on their own without their father, the boys let their fantasies get out of hand. Tim longs for one of the northern states where they don’t have chiggers, up there in Nebraska or Iceland. Chris convinces himself not to seek help from the police, which if he were any older (or under a director less sensitive to how kids think) would be an unconvincing plot contrivance. Meanwhile, Deel zeroes in on them, getting help from the locals with his false good-ole-boy charm.
The movie might be a little slow-moving for some audiences. But that’s just Green taking time to establish characters and setting. At the same time, Green establishes his own visual style. On the George Washington DVD there’s that short film from the early 1970s that captured for Green the essence of that era. I don’t know what aspect appeals to him most — the child actors, the woods, the golden light, or the filmmaking conventions: the blocky yellow titles, freeze frames, and zooms. But having seen that, and knowing that it’s what Green loves, Undertow is an impressive homage to a time and place. (Even the opening credits look like they were filmed in the 1970s).
As the youngest boy, Alan is outstanding, thanks in large part to Green’s directorial choices. His hair is uncut and unkempt, making his little head look even bigger. His clothes are perfect, those wide rugby stripes that seemed so popular when I myself was that age. Tim has a fascination with tasting everything from paint to rust to mud, and a corresponding weak stomach, possibly indicating a health problem, but with no doctors in the vicinity and no money for health care, who knows?
Bell is unbelievably good, particularly if you recognize him from his British films (which many people will not). Aside from nailing the accent, he exudes rebelliousness toward adults, appropriate for a 15-year-old, but without the experience or knowledge to act on it, and so he knuckles down under the mystical power of adults. He is also convincingly protective of his little brother in the face of danger.
The landscape these characters inhabit is undeniably American, and yet seems so foreign on a big movie screen. As set decoration, Tim has a caged possum in his bedroom. No other working director shows his audience the real poverty of the rural South. The boys pick lice from each other. And Green does it matter-of-factly and nonjudgmentally. It’s an honest, if ugly, loving portrait of pig slop, rusted station wagons, good old boys with flashy grins, sideburns, trucker caps, girls who are pretty but will never be supermodels, dirt, poverty, and junk heaps.
Undertow does feel a little contrived, particularly as the plot wraps up a little too neatly at the end. And the quiet, steady, river-like pace may not be fast enough for more casual audiences. But Green is a visionary young director, and Undertow helps cement his own style. It’s also a solid bit of well-acted drama, and a travelogue to some of the more the more foreign-seeming parts of the United States.