DVD Review Of Undertow

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/07


  When does the seep of an artist’s talent get to be too much? Is it the first time he ‘sells out’, or the third, or when all of the early potential has drained away? This was what I was thinking as I watched David Gordon Green’s third filmic effort, Undertow, an hour and forty-eight minute effort released in 2004. Oh, it’s not a bad film, but all it is is a stylized, updated version of Night Of The Hunter, and that was a vastly overrated mediocrity of a film to begin with, directed by Charles Laughton in 1955, and starring Robert Mitchum as a murderous psychopath who stalks children who run away from him. What is most distressing about the film is that it comes after Green’s first two features- the enigmatically wonderful George Washington and the lyrically poignant All The Real Girls.

  The basic problem is the screenplay- it’s virtually nonexistent, and what does exist is all refried trite Hollywood potboiler thriller. How’s this for originality? Two white trash Southern brothers, the Munns, are reunited. They have a deep, dark secret in their past. One brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), has just gotten out of prison, and the other, John (Dermot Mulroney), has two sons of his own, Chris (Jamie Bell, from Billy Elliott)- who impales his bare right foot on a nail, sticking up from a board in an opening chase scene, and Tim (Devon Alan)- a budding mental case who pukes all the time because he eats slugs, dirt, and paint. John stole Deel’s girl, married her, and then Deel went crazy, committed a crime, and went to jail. It seems that John has some family gold coins that are worth alot of money. Deel steals the coins, kills John, then tries to kill John’s two sons, who’ve run off with the coins, even though he claims that Chris is really his son, since they look more alike and Chris has been in trouble with the law, as well. There are some potential moments of characterization, and a realistic family squabble with less melodrama and trite chase scenes would have been far more up Green’s alley, but this film’s sitting on the fence is what dooms it.

  That said, however, the editing of the film, the look of the film- from stylized negative images, color manipulation, to slow motion, to ending scenes with stopped action, freeze frames, and transitional fades, all works. Cinematographer Tim Orr’s sepia mindset adds much to this film’s dull narrative, especially with the forest scenes of yellow, brown, and red hues. But, it is like having a delicious visual steak, then pouring a bag of sugar over it when one factors in the bad screenplay. The musical scoring is a solid job done by Phillip Glass, although it is as conventional as the film, and nothing like brilliant jobs he did for the Godfrey Reggio Quatsi films.

  Green tries to add ‘poetry’ by having John tell his boys the coins were given to his dad by a mystic Mexican ferryman who was really Charon, Death’s guide across the River Styx, but too often the film bogs down in the ‘dumbest possible action’ clichés that plague such films as this, as well as slasher films. The poetry in the earlier films came from the realistically poetic dialogue the characters were unawares of. Even though Deel has been in jail, and may have escaped- as we hear earlier in the film, on the radio, that a convict has fled prison, and despite the older brothers’ animus, Chris tells Tim that they can’t go to the cops after Deel kills John because they’ll ‘blame him’ for killing his dad. It’s absurd. Even the ending of the film, where the knife-wielding Deel approaches Chris in a river, after he dumps the gold coins, ends with the boy stabbing his uncle and surviving. This is where Green totally parts ways with a filmmaker like Terrence Malick, to whom he’s often compared, and who actually produced this film. In Days Of Heaven, Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, there are also a couple of murders, but the film handles them realistically, if poetically, and there is no tacked on happy ending where the ‘good guy’ wins. Especially weak is the last scene where Chris, after surviving- and no, there’s no evidence that the scene is ‘afterdeath’, is greeted by his grandfather (Bill McKinney, who played the sadistic murdering rapist in Deliverance) in a touch of in-joke irony Green employs. Also, the words that young Tim speaks in voiceovers, mostly about chiggers, is not nearly as believable, poetic, nor evocative as those spoken in Days Of Heaven by the young girl narrator, nor even those in Green’s first two films, which he wrote alone.

  Of course, there is also a vagabond druggy girl, Violet (Shiri Appleby), that provides a few minutes of a love interest for Chris, but this goes nowhere in the film either. On the positive side, there are a few scenes involving strange characters, a black couple that harbor the boys until, in another ‘dumbest possible action’ twist, the wife unwittingly gets Deel back on their trail, as well as her bizarrely going on about her own son’s death due to her lack of breast milk- as if any adult would speak that way to children who are total strangers. There are also a couple of tow truck drivers who are daft and one (Pat Healy) who prattles on aimlessly about the hilarious things there job consists of. Had the film focused more on the family and characters like this it could have worked, much as Green’s earlier two films did. Instead, it takes the easy way out, right from the opening voiceover and epigraph of the film, which, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, tries to pretend the film is based on real events. It’s not. Green rewrote the original screenplay by Joe Conway, from an original story by Lingard Jervey (if one can call such a hackneyed plot ‘original’). Another near faultless warning about the film comes from its being labeled a ‘masterpiece’ by Roger Ebert, the same film critic who called Steven Spielberg’s atrocious Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List by the same term. Any time Ebert goes over the top in praising a film it usually means the screenplay is atrocious. Ebert, after all, penned the incredibly bad screenplay for Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls.

  The MGM DVD is in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and there is a trailer, photo gallery, some deleted scenes, and a making of documentary called Under The Undertow, made by Josh Lucas. The film commentary, by Green and Jamie Bell, in his native British accent, is unenlightening. Green tends to play the frat boy in his commentaries, for he rambles on about minutia as key scenes play out, which if he commented upon a viewer might get to understand the process of filmmaking, even if the scene fails. All in all, his commentaries are fairly pointless. The same could be said for the flights of fancy into trying to make this a ‘fairy tale’ film- with the Greek references and writing of wishes put into a bottle that is tossed into a river.

  Rumor has it that Green is working on adaptations of two recent books that contain dubious potential for him to expand his visual art- Brad Land’s atrocious memoir of frat boy sodomy, Goat, and Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘mystical Negroes’ novel, The Secret Life Of Bees. Is there no end to the bastardization of art? Apparently not, but such bastardy takes willing participants, and Green should be severely chided for moving away from his unique style. He was on the cusp of greatness with All The Real Girls, and perhaps becoming not another Malick, but an American Ingmar Bergman. Instead, Undertow is a major step backward for Green and for American film’s future. Too bad his audience had to dosey-do with him.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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