**½/**** Image A Sound B- Extras A-
starring Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, Devon Alan
screenplay by Joe Conway and David Gordon Green
directed by David Gordon Green
by Walter Chaw David Gordon Green's collaboration with cinematographer Tim Orr has borne George Washington and All the Real Girls--fruit from the tree of Americana, nourished at its roots by the twilit legacy of Terrence Malick. Taking its cue from another source, Malick's progenitor Charles Laughton and Laughton's only film as a director, Night of the Hunter, Green's latest, Undertow, just isn't as good as his previous work: it's too sunny at its end, too mannered in its middle, and it fails to live up to the standards both it sets for itself and the limited oeuvre of Green sets for it.
Undertow opens with a voiceover-accompanied image of a boy standing in the surf that segues into an awkward courtship between two gawky teens. (Hints of an adolescent All the Real Girls.) Chris Munn (Jamie Bell) is the boy, gawky, dotted with acne, and so inarticulate when he's jilted by the girl (Kristen Stewart) that he expresses his hurt with a rock through a window and a long stare; a chase ensues that ends with Chris getting a nail in his foot and taking a dip in a river. The film's unnamed rural south is Green's Yoknapatawpha County, and Chris lives there on an isolated hog farm with his father (Dermot Mulroney), younger, paint-sipping brother Tim (Devon Allen), and, eventually, his uncle Deel (Josh Lucas). There's a mention of River Styx ferryman Charon and a little something about a fortune in Mexican gold before a murder most biblical sets Chris and Tim on an O/odyssey across the bottomlands.
Green is making myth here more than he was in either the lyrical George Washington or the stunned, melancholic All the Real Girls; the picture favours freeze-frames, sudden saturations of light, and the sort of mesmeric state implied, if not actually evoked, by Philip Glass music. (Undertow features the formerly scarce Glass's fourth score this year.) But with Green working almost entirely in allegory, with all of the gilded, laden symbols that that suggests, what is the signified aside from the hoary ideas of fathers and sons in uneasy orbit? There's no room for women in Undertow unless the feminine element is the ocean, its implacable pull underscored by the film's title--the girl in the beginning is rhymed with a girl at the end (Shiri Appleby): both are treacherous, the second resolving as the maiden to be championed by Chris's sullied knight. The moral isn't worth the telling, is what I'm saying. Undertow is a beautifully shot and structured film that isn't about anything greater than how this particular boy is a product of his savage environment.
Heavy with superstition and regional flavour, Undertow works best as the shadowed underbelly of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It's less troubadour ballad than epic poem in its essay of a boy who would be king finding his manhood in gouts of blood, backwoods stigmata, and baptisms in muddy streams. There's much made of smell and the importance of tactile information, how similar the feeling of muck and shit against bare skin is to eating a slice of chocolate cake with your hands. There's magic in Undertow, not the least of which Green's devotion to pure cinema and the clarity of visual storytelling, but the picture fails to touch the archetypes that it uses to tell its tale. It's a cunning mosaic of powerful images and ancient themes without gravity. (Green might be too good a director of actors: Bell's performance is so immediate that his Chris never quite transcends himself into a representative of the collective unconscious.) Undertow is good, but the perhaps unfair expectation based on just two pictures is that Green's films be sublime. Originally published: October 22, 2004.
by Bill Chambers MGM has assembled a fine DVD package for Undertow, starting with a marvellous 1.82:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Compromised by a touch of filtering, the image is nonetheless tactile and blemish-free, with saturation, contrast, and shadow detail that are each best described as irreproachable. I wish I could be nearly as gung ho about the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, especially considering the amount of TLC helmer David Gordon Green says went into the mix, but even at a few notches above reference level, Undertow sounds peculiarly mousy here. Subwoofer usage is nonexistent while music and atmospherics rarely seem to reach into the surround channels; dialogue is frequently a chore to make out, a problem exacerbated by the fact that you can only activate the subtitles through the main menu. Extras include another chatty commentary track featuring Green, this time paired with star Jamie Bell. If Green ultimately takes too much pride in his hipster references (however nostalgic I got seeing the 2001-esque United Artists logo that used to scare the bejesus out of me as a child, it's self-conscious whims like these that make Undertow sometimes feel superficially invested), the presence of the generally indifferent Bell has a neutralizing effect on Green's tendency towards the pedantic, and the director's championing of old-school values--his dislike of ADR, his fondness for found locations--once again inspires lonely but hearty cries of solidarity. Praised for her commitment to verisimilitude, Shiri Appleby probably ought to thank the heavens that Green has never seen an episode of "Roswell" ("I'm sure she's delightful on it").
Elsewhere on the platter, find the Josh Lucas-produced "Under the Undertow" (28 mins. w/optional Lucas intro, 27 mins. without), a video diary of the hellish 30-day production. Broken ribs, shoulder spasms, crew walkouts, furious locals, bug bites, rain delays--just another day on the Georgia set of Undertow. Remarkably candid ("I don't even know what this movie's about," sneers location manager Ad Paroo with far more bitterness than quoting him can convey; "Don't 'woah' me!" screams goth 2nd 2nd AD Heather Daniels at wrestler-sized makeup artist Gene Witham), it's not likely to give you the warm-and-fuzzies à la the documentary supplements on the Lord of the Rings DVDs, but it's no less moving a testament to the tenacity of folks involved in the creation of something that will outgrow, outshine, and outlast them, for good or ill. Two deleted scenes, sadly of VHS quality, showcase an extended lunch with the Pelas family as well as a genuinely haunted alternate ending reminiscent of A Perfect World that had me lamenting Green's choice to remove it. A 5-minute animated photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills accompanied by Pyramid's "Monster in the Canyon," Undertow's theatrical trailer, and trailers for Walking Tall (2004), Code 46, Die Another Day, and Assassination Tango round out the disc. Originally published: April 4, 2005.
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