David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green, director of George Washington and All The Pretty Girls and still only 29, co-wrote as well as directed this aptly named artwork of a film set in Deep South Georgia in places not normally associated with the glamourous American film industry – swamps, slums and pigsties.
John Munn (Dermot Mulroney), part-time taxidermist and hog farmer, lives with his two sons in an isolated farmhouse. Chris, the older boy (Jamie Bell), has itchy feet. He longs to see a world beyond the pig sty. His younger brother Tim (Devon Alan) is perpetually sick – in no small part due to eating paint, dirt and whatever else passes through his grubby hands.
The three are soon joined by a fourth. John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas) has just left jail and arrives on the farm with nowhere to go. There’s an air of danger about him, but brotherly love, or at least a sense of duty, persuades John to take his sibling in. It’s a fateful decision, and one that will change all their lives.
The arresting opening sequence is a chase of sorts in which the sexually awakening Chris pursues a girl he likes, is chased by her father and his dogs and jumps from a roof straight on to a board with a nail in it. (Cue audible intake of collective audience breath.) And then he continues running. Meanwhile the titles call to mind any number of Burt Reynolds films from the 1970s – stills, zooms and lurid typographics are all in evidence.
The film continues in the same vein – Green and his cinamatographer Tim Orr create a sense of the region’s humidity, its social undercurrents and leave the audience convinced of having just been to the locations. To call it evocative would be an understatement.
Large sections of the film progress at a languid pace, only for the proverbial brown stuff to hit the fan and idiosyncratic set-pieces ramp up the action in what becomes a straightforward chase, but a compelling one.
And Jamie Bell is a revelation. As the Geordie Billy Elliot he was superb, but this role is as far removed from that as it’s possible to be. His Deep South accent is never less than convincing, and he exudes a hard-done-by teenage angst that goes well beyond caricature and suggests he has the makings of a great character actor if he ever tires of leads.
But the film doesn’t need Bell to rescue it. One of the most leftfield American films this year, Undertow will drag you down into its characters and locations until you don’t want it to let go.