Undertow: David Gordon Green’s Third Film, Starring Josh Lucas

Both continuity and change mark Undertow, David Gordon Green’s third feature film. Working with a bigger budget and a name cast headed by Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliott fame), Josh Lucas, and Dermot Mulroney, Green has made a genre film which is more accessible but less personal, and ultimately less impressive than his former outings, which didn’t do well at the box-office but helped put Green on the indie map as a unique talent to watch.

Rooted in the tradition of Southern Gothic, Undertow is a familiar intergenerational family melodrama that’s more effective as a suspenseful actioner than as a symbolic allegory about evil, greed, and the kind of violence that passes from one generation to the next.

Like his first two films, George Washington and All the Real Girls, Undertow is an intensely intimate, character-driven narrative. And like them, it is firmly grounded in the South, a locale Green continues to explore from the inside, depicting a physical and moral landscape that’s seldom shown in such detail on screen. However, unlike the first two features, which were contemplative personal meditations with strong lyrical overtones, Undertow is a generic movie, with recognizable plot, characters, landscape, and iconography.

A male-dominated drama, Undertow centers on a triangle of family relationships, each more problematic than the other, each influenced by a past that continues to haunt and define the present. John Munn (Mulroney), a stern, hardworking father, is raising by himself two sons: Chris (Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan). A hog farmer and taxidermist, John keeps his family in an isolated farmhouse in the woods. Older boy Chris feels restricted and yet overwhelmed by the chores–his father expects him to work and also take care of his sickly, more sensitive brother, Tim. A restless youth, suffocated by his surrounding, he yearns to explore the wide world out there.

The film is roughly divided into two unequal parts. The first and shorter part delineates family interactions in which tension prevails from the get go. In the strong, taut opening, that sets the tone for the entire film, Chris is seen throwing stones at the window of a pretty girl. The stones are thrown with such ferocity that her angry father rushes out of the house with his dogs and guns. Running fast for his life, Chris stumbles upon a long, rusty nail that penetrates his foot, causing excruciating pain. The sheriff arrives and Chris lands in jail, not for the first time. After bailing him out, father and sons pretend to be a normal happy family and begin preparations for Tim’s birthday celebration.

The Munns’ routine existence is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Deel (Lucas), John’s brother who’s just been released from prison. Full of charm and swagger, Deel has come to settle an old score regarding John’s collection of gold coins, a hidden treasure inherited from their father. Chris rejects his biological father as a role model, and, despite fear of his brutish uncle, he finds himself attracted to the seductive power, danger, and cool that Deel represents.

The film’s second part, which takes most of the screen time, is structured as one long chase scene between a murderous Deel and his two nephews. Through cross-cutting, Green chronicles the (mis)adventures of the two brothers and their uncle, hot on their trail. Seeking food and shelter, the boys develop a strong bond. Soon, Chris begins to function not only as Tim’s brother-keeper but also as his surrogate father.

What makes Undertow more interesting, colorful, and nuanced than a routine revenge thriller are the stops that the siblings make along the way. In this respect, Undertow is very much a road picture, set in the wild swamps and woods. As in his former films, Green shows strong emotional affinity with outsiders, marginal characters that are seldom portrayed with such authenticity in American film. Chris and Tim discover other kids who, like them, are alone and live together on the fringes of society. In due course, a romantic bond evolves between Chris and a shy, mysterious girl, Violet.

Chris and Tim – and the audience – know that it’s a matter of time before their violent legacy catches up with them. Indeed, with bold strokes, the film builds up toward the inevitable confrontation of uncle and nephew, the equivalent of a shootout in a Western movie, bearing symbolic meanings as well.

Walking a fine line between a chase thriller, a family melodrama, and a personal film, Undertow struggles to blend Green’s quiet, lyrical sensibility with the conventions of a down-and-dirty genre picture.