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.