David Gordon Green

I was just going to pipe up that “Undertow,” a Southern gothic about boys (including an excellent Jamie Bell) threatened and chased by a nasty death-dealing uncle (Josh Lucas, who resembles John Bruns with a handlebar moustache), isn’t so great.

It has an outstanding credit sequence: Bell and a young woman share a tender moment, then the film flips forward and we see him outside her window, throwing a rock through it. Then he’s chased by her gun-wielding, gun-firing father, and the film deploys all kinds of tricks stolen from ‘seventies genre flicks … and it’s just thrilling to watch, as narrative and as a flashy play of technique.

Once the film starts it slows to a crawl, but even that’s okay: watching Bell in the family dynamics with his father (Dermot Mulroney) and his brother (some very cute frail thin kid, who looks like a little Mark Mauer) — it’s odd, touching, surreal… quite wonderful.

It all goes kind of to hell when Uncle shows up.

The film becomes a slow-motion chase, with many noodling sidetracks where the boys hang out. It’s always gorgeously shot, but it’s depressingly unmotivated in terms of plot and character.

Which is true of plot for all of Green’s films, but he’s usually adept at imagining quite strange and wonderful little interactions between eccentric characters. And the films always look outstanding; the strong influence of Terrence Malick weighs somewhat heavy on the images, but it’s not just watching a fan replicate a favorite style. Instead, Green has an eye for ‘junk’–the camera plays over deserted industrial spaces, trashheaps; the characters, too, are displaced, penniless, working in the oddest jobs imaginable if working at all. Instead of Malick’s idealization of the pastoral/natural as a space for examining the “human,” we get a more liminal view of the human finding moments of beauty in spaces of destruction or desolation.

So, instead of complaining about “Undertow,” I thought I’d put in a nod for “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” Green has talent to burn, but he doesn’t seem well-suited for the narrative demands of your typical flick (or your typical audience)… and “Undertow” kind of fascinates as an attempt to find his way into the mainstream.

8 thoughts on “David Gordon Green”

  1. I wanted to like this film . . . I really did. That title sequence is well-constructed (it does have a kind of backwoods seventies feel to it as if Arthur Penn were directing Walking Tall) but once Jamie Bell’s character steps on a nail (which literally goes through his foot) and then continues the chase with nail and board firmly attached to said foot, I found it really hard to appreciate the artistry and could only get caught up in the overheated absurdity of the action. The whole film is pitched so far over the top (one character’s defining trait is that he eats paint) that I felt betrayed by a young filmmaker with obvious talent who has yet to find his voice (and Mike, who champions Green a lot more than I do, articulates the filmmaker’s skills very well).

  2. I agree that the strongest part of Undertow was the beginning and credits sequence. Like Jeff and Mike, I also felt like I was watching the beginning of a 1970s American International drive-in film.

    But despite the slow-to-a-crawl pace after Uncle Buck shows up, I still liked it. I wish the girlfriend (the kid from Panic Room) was in it more. She really grabbed my attention in every second of the film she was in.

    I didn’t mind the fact that the little kid’s home life was so messed up that it manifested itself in the bizarre eating disorder (and it’s a real disorder – see the recent news article about the foster parents who locked up their kid in a cage. True or not, they said it was b/c the kid would eat batteries, pencils, etc. It’s a real disorder and I was glad they didn’t make more of it than showing the symptoms.)

    I make a habit of only listening to the first five minutes of any audio commentary, and in Undertow I learned that the story, while ostensibly true, was probably highly embellished by the runaway, and had more in common with Treasure Island than reality. That made me grant the story some more slack. And yes, Green’s eye for junk, particularly at the fishing dock, and in the small towns the kids venture into, was wonderful.

    I was really annoyed by Philip Glass’ score though. It was incredibly inappropriate for the film. I don’t need dueling banjos, but come on; this is not The Hours. In fact, Glass is overrated and overused. Get Will Oldham to put something together (and give him a part in one of Green’s films) – or someone. But not Glass.

  3. I’m not sure the bonny prince is ready for underscoring but its a damn good idea (he’s in a film showing at Sundance this week . . . forget the title). At least its a much more original idea than Sam Beam who seams to show up on every film’s soundtrack these days. Glass’ soundtrack for Mishima is outstanding. Just wanted to throw a little love his way.

  4. Saw Snow Angels, a thick, grisly slab of small town, gothic pornography. When Obama talked about rural folks clinging to guns and religion, I suspect/fear he had just come back from a screening of this disappointing adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s novel. Where the novel reached for greater scope (and its attendant mythos), Green compresses, flattens and stunts the dramatic action. Not even Will Oldham could save this. Amy Sedaris does some nice work, and Green coaxes a few genuine moments from a sorely miscast Olivia Thirlby . . . but man, this is a third rate, bargain basement In the Bedroom. Don’t bother.

  5. I liked this more than you, but still didn’t really like it. I was … well, I veered between “impressed” by the constant quality of the cinematography and direction, by the relatively-understated acting… and “annoyed” by the blatant appeal to “quality” which seemed to drench the surroundings in a sort of self-satisfied gloom.

    I was trying to think why this didn’t work. And I think the movie, in reducing the book to the hyperbolic gothic tragedy of its plot, removed much of the real empathy and engagement with the lived experience of each character that O’Nan’s novel so fully realizes. So what you’re left with is, yeah, smalltown working-class goth-porn. But I would be okay with that, if the film had veered toward cathartic and emotionally-powerful Tragedy. Instead, everything was tamped down, shooting for “realism” (?), or at least understatement, which seemed both jarringly discordant (given the plot’s excesses) and dramatically stagnant. The kind of film you’re supposed to like. And I really don’t like that kind of film.

  6. I did like the first half hour or so, particularly Green’s ability to inject a casual and engaging sense of humor to the proceedings, but then things go dangerously and histrionically downhill. And Green doesn’t know how to direct three-year-olds (or maybe doesn’t know how to cast them) which I found distracting (given the plot). I guess the relationship between the teenagers has some promise but even that thread let me down in the end (I kept returning to the novel’s perspective of the man looking back to his past, the dilapidated house where his former babysitter used to live and where he and his friends would hang out and smoke pot, the pervading sense of loss that accompanies growing up). And when you talk about films which veer “toward cathartic and emotionally powerful tragedy” do you not have In the Bedroom in mind?

  7. Definitely, to your last question–no doubt, ItB is leagues better, and it plays the same dangerous balancing act between overdetermined and deeply-emotional. But it never topples over.

Leave a Reply