Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review - Undertow

A teenage boy and girl sit crossed-legged across from each other in a field, the evening sun setting behind them. They are in the first flush of young love and are making plans to escape this dead-end town. “We should disappear”, says Chris (Jamie Bell), “go someplace where we can see everything”. “Let me see your knife” Lila (Kristen Stewart) replies, “I’d like to carve my name into your face“. This is how people talk in David Gordon Green films.
Only two films into his fledgling career and Green was already hailed as the most exciting talent in American cinema. His first film George Washington displayed his strong grasp of character-driven filmmaking, his patient, leisurely approach and - in conjunction with his close friend and cinematographer Tim Orr - an ability to conjure images of luminous beauty. Green followed his acclaimed debut with All The Real Girls, a wonderfully heartfelt and subtle romance. There was no great drama and the film had no big declarations of love; it simply followed two young people as they found each other, fell for each other, and, when it didn’t work out, got on with their lives. Shit happens in Green’s films, and life goes on.

So the opening sequence I outlined above seems to indicate that Undertow will be more of what we‘ve come to expect from this director. The two young lovers gingerly and tenderly talking around the subject of love recalls a number of similar scenes in his previous work, but soon Undertow’s differences become evident. Green’s third feature is his first to employ a number of recognisable actors, his first to have something resembling a plot and it’s the first time violence has come crashing into Green’s idyllic world. This is also the first time that Green has directed a film from somebody else’s original story, but Undertow is still instantly recognisable as a David Gordon Green film.

As a director, Green seems constantly distracted, always looking for something more interesting and unusual than the basic story allows. It’s as if he wants to get that pesky plot out of the way as quickly as possible, so he can watch a kid eating paint, or playing in the mud. That plot, such as it is, revolves around the Munn family, who are scraping a living in a rural southern backwater. The father John (Dermot Mulroney) has his hands full raising two kids alone and trying to keep the farm going, but eldest son Chris isn’t helping matters with his constant run-ins with the law and rebellious attitude. It seems like something of a mixed blessing when John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas) turns up, having been released from jail. John is happy to have an extra pair of hands around the place but there is clearly some bad feeling which has been festering between the pair.

Soon Deel has outstayed his welcome. He is too lazy to help with the renovations and is too irresponsible to look after the kids. Even more seriously, his real motivation for visiting the family is coming to the fore. John inherited a set of antique gold coins from their father years ago and now Deel wants his share. He interrogates the children but gets no answers and the two adults finally confront each other in a violent encounter. Chris grabs the coins and his younger brother Tim (Devon Allen) and escapes the farm with Deel in hot pursuit.

Undertow becomes a chase picture, the kind of film which traditionally follows a fairly straightforward and conventional narrative. But Green seems desperate to stray from the path and explore the surroundings, and it’s this tension which makes Undertow his most problematic picture. Green’s handling of the storyline's twists is often arbitrary and it seems like his heart isn’t really in it. However, thanks to his intelligent and unusual direction, and the strong cast, he manages to inject a sense of urgency into the film which helps to paper over some of the cracks in the narrative. It’s hard to watch this film and not think of Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter or Terrence Malick’s Badlands (Malick’s credit as executive producer only encourages comparisons) and these references don’t really help Undertow find its own voice.

Fortunately, the cast is exceptionally good throughout. Jamie Bell, sporting a fine Georgia accent, is excellent in the lead role, showing an impressive range and comfortably carrying the film. It’s a performance which should help him break out of the shadow of Billy Elliot once and for all. Also on fine form is Josh Lucas whose Deel first appears as a charismatic and mysterious character before showing his true colours and becoming a genuinely threatening villain. Lucas’s confident demeanour and shark-like grin has never been put to such good use. The rest of the actors are strong but often have too little screen time to make any lasting impact.

There is some great stuff in Undertow - the breathless and tense opening sequence is a superb piece of filmmaking and Green skilfully stages a realistic and violent fight between John and Deel - but it remains the weakest film Green has made yet. It looks beautiful of course, the score is a delight, and the performances are fine, but the fact that Green is forced to adhere to the main story when you know he’d rather be somewhere else makes it a frustrating affair. He certainly is the most exciting young talent in American cinema, hopefully his future films will show exactly why.