Undertow

Undertow
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Joe Conway and David Gordon Green (story by Lingard Jervey)
Stars: Jamie Bell (Chris Munn), Josh Lucas (Deel), Devon Alan (Tim Munn), Dermot Mulroney (John Munn), Eddie Rouse (Wadsworth Pela), Patrice Johnson (Amica Pela), Pat Healy (Grant the Mechanic), Bill McKinney (Grandfather)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.
Undertow Blu-ray
UndertowDavid Gordon Green’s Undertow is a kind of spiritual cousin—both narratively and stylistically—to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). Both are dreamlike thrillers in which two young siblings are pursued by a psychotic, greed-driven family member, and both take on the fragmented aura of a modern fairy tale. Laughton’s film, the only one the great British actor ever directed, was a grab-bag of stylistic approaches, which helps explain why critics and audiences were so baffled by it when it was first released, while Green’s film carefully evokes various devices associated with art cinema in the ’60s and ’70s, particularly switches between color and black-and-white and the use of freeze frames to punctuate a narrative that is often purposefully languid and diversionary.

Like all of Green’s early films, Undertow is set in the rural South, which is defined by both untrammeled wilderness and the rusted decay of an industrial past. All of the action takes place deep in the forests of Georgia, where a father named John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) has retreated with his two sons, teenager Chris (Jamie Bell) and adolescent Tim (Devon Alan), after the death of his wife. Their withdrawal into the wilderness has cut them off from virtually all contact with others—the boys don’t go to school, and the ramshackle house and small farm where they live is their world. John isn’t trying to hurt his children, but merely protect them from the pain he has suffered, which is why he does not take well to Chris becoming involved with a local girl (Kristen Stewart) and then lashing out at her father who does not approve of the relationship. Chris is at the age where he is beginning to rebel, and his enforced isolation only fuels his growing resentment.

Enter Deel (Josh Lucas), John’s estranged brother who arrives one day unannounced, having recently been released from prison. John and Deel haven’t spoken for years, and the differences between them are stark. While John is soft-spoken and reserved, Deel is brash and full of swagger, traits that Lucas plays up with leering aplomb. Perhaps out of guilt, John invites Deel to rejoin the family, at least for a while, but old wounds involving a stolen girlfriend and an inheritance of gold Mexican coins threaten to upend the uneasy reunion, and soon Chris and Tim find themselves on the run from Deel, who is intent on catching and, most likely, killing them. His charm and genial recklessness, which are clearly hiding darker impulses, become fully villainous as he pursues the boys, who have literally no place to go but deeper and deeper into the woods. At various points they try to find shelter with different people, including a well-meaning couple who mistake them for runaways from their father, and later a commune of homeless kids that takes them in, recognizing their shared isolation from the rest of the world.

As scripted by Green and Joe Conway (Paradise, Texas) from a story by Lingard Jervey and scored by Philip Glass, Undertow has a rambling, loose structure that is less about moving us from Point A to Point B than it is about providing a structure for the film’s lyrical tone (the film has a Terrence Malick quality to it, which isn’t surprising given that Malick is credited as an executive producer). Green had already directed two features in the same vein, 2000’s George Washington and 2003’s All the Real Girls, and at the age of only 29 he had all but perfected a unique blend of off-beat ’70s-era aesthetics and a poetic ambiguity rooted in Southern gothic imagery. The characters are sketched in just enough to create an impression—Chris’s budding juvenile rebellion and need to be with others, Tim’s anxiety disorder that causes him unending stomach pain and a compulsion to eat things that shouldn’t be eaten, Deel’s long-simmering jealousy and resentment—but in many way they are archetypes, filling slots in a familiar tale about vengeance and how the sins of the father are visited upon the son.

The mythic qualities of the fairy tale—the isolated location, the primal urges, the familial violence—are played quietly, although they are underscored by a myth surrounding the Mexican gold coins involving the ferryman on the River Styx. The film has a slightly unreal ambiance, which is heightened by the serene cinematography by regular Green collaborator Tim Orr. It wouldn’t be long before Green temporarily abandoned this line of filmmaking for studio-produced comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and The Sitter (2011), projects for which he seems strangely ill-suited, but he now mixes small-scale films like Joe (2014) with studio projects like Our Brand is Crisis (2015). He has certainly sacrificed some of the unique voice he cultivated in his early works for bigger budgets, but we can always return to films like Undertow, whose marriage of conventional thriller dynamics and unexpected visual potency marks it as something both utterly unique and reliably familiar.

Undertow Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
SubtitlesNone
SupplementsTrailer
DistributorOlive Films
SRP$29.95
Release DateMarch 22, 2016

VIDEO & AUDIO
Making its high-definition debut, Undertow looks excellent in its 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation, which makes it a fine replacement for MGM’s 2005 DVD. The image is well-rendered and sharp, with strong detail and a fine film-like presentation that rightfully highlights Tim Orr’s beautiful cinematography. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel surround soundtrack works well enough, although it seems like the levels could have been tweaked somewhat to better balance the dialogue and the music/sound effects.

SUPPLEMENTS
The only supplement on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer.

Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Olive Films / United Artists



Overall Rating: (3.5)



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