Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Undertow


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 9/7/05 w/ Additional Edits.


Since emerging with his dreary, dramatic debut feature George Washington in 2000, the Arkansas-born, North Carolina-native David Gordon Green was becoming the new cinematic voice for the American South with his realistic outlook at the poverty of the South and its hazy beauty. Often channeling the influences of Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, Green was becoming a favorite among critics, notably Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert who highly praised the director and his debut feature. Green re-emerged in 2003 with his sophomore feature, All the Real Girls that was a more traditional, romantic drama starring Green regular Paul Schneider plus Zooey Deschanel and Patricia Clarkson.

The film received similar acclaim while Roger Ebert gave All the Real Girls like his debut feature, four out of four stars while champion him as one of the most gifted young directors he's seen. Green was also getting praise from independent film director Gus Van Sant. Another iconic director Green got praise from was none other than the reclusive but legendary Terrence Malick who not only loved his work but would also help produce Green's next project, an unconventional thriller/chase drama entitled Undertow.

Based on a story by Lingard Jervey that was later turned into a script by Green and Joe Conway, Undertow is a thriller about a reclusive, quiet family living in a farm in Georgia whose idyllic, quiet life is disrupted by a man's brother who had just returned from a stint in prison. Driven by envy, greed, and rage, the life of a man and his two sons are changed when murder occurs and the two young boys run away from their uncle. Taking influences from some of the Southern films of the 1970s plus the work and narrative style of Malick, Undertow is more than just an homage to 1970s cinema with a bit of Green's unconventional style of storytelling. Starring British actor Jamie Bell, Dermont Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Kristen Stewart, and Shiri Appleby. Undertow is a brilliant, in-your-face thriller that brings beauty and danger to the South.

For the secretive Munn family from a secluded farm in rural Georgia, there’s not much to do but raise hogs and fix broken things in the town. Yet for the teenager Chris (Jamie Bell), he rebels against the safety of his father John's (Dermont Mulroney) as he causes trouble and gets chased by cops after breaking the window of the house of girlfriend Lila (Kristen Stewart). The day couldn't have been worse since it was Chris' ten-year-old brother Tim's (Devon Alan) birthday. Tim doesn’t mind if he celebrates his birthday with just his father and brother. John prefers to live quietly while still mourning the death of his wife and mother's children. The boys do nothing but raise hogs while John goes miles away for work with the ever-frail Tim refusing to eat normal feed while eating stuff like dirt and paint.

Though Chris might rebel against the quiet life that his father wants since it prevents him from seeing Lila, that begins to change with the arrival of his uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) who had just gotten out of prison. Deel's arrival only makes John uneasy though he needs him to watch over the boys. Deel helps out though he couldn’t notice of Chris' rebellion as he takes him out for a ride in his car. Deel asks Chris if he knew about any coins that John still had. Chris doesn't know where they are as does Tim. The coins were taken by John and Deel's late father from a Mexican ferryman and John claims the coins are cursed by the ferryman. Deel wants his share but John has had them hidden. Finally, after days of waiting, Deel terrorizes the home as he reveals a shocking family secret and demands for the coins as murder ensues. Chris and Tim run away with the coins as Deel tries to find them.

The boys keep on running till they stopped at the home of a poor but caring black couple named Wadsworth (Eddie Rouse) and Amica Pela (Patrice Johnson) where they received shelter with a bit of work for exchange. After learning that Amica called for Deel, the boys go on the run again as Deel keeps looking for them. Chris knew that they couldn't resort to stealing every time while the idea of going to their maternal grandparents often comes into question since they didn’t like their father. Chris tries to get work at the docks but because he wasn't of age yet, he and Tim continued to go on the run as Tim becomes frail. Chris does everything he can to steal and succeeds to help Tim only that Deel is getting closer into finding them. After arriving in a town by train, they meet a young homeless girl named Violet (Shiri Appleby) who takes them to her abode with other homeless folks as they know an upcoming confrontation with Deel is coming soon.

Most chase thrillers have a tradition of being on-going with a lot of action and a bit of a break in its usual structure. David Gordon Green's approach was not only channeling a bit of Southern Gothic drama but also the stories he read as a kid which are referenced in the books that Tim reads. The first half of the film is a contemporary, bleak drama with a lot of Southern Goth textures about family and mysticism about the coins with a morality point from the John Munn character. Then the film begins to change into a chase film through the South as if the audience is watching a lost episode of The Dukes of Hazzard but with some dark humor and no Daisy Dukes walking around. Green channels not just the Southern films of the 70s he grew up with but also starts the film off with a bang where Chris gets into trouble while the film credits have a 70s feel to it.

Green's ability to pay homage of the 1970s Southern films shows that his roots are still intact in where he came from. He encompasses the South just as it is. It's very bleak, it's also a bit dreary, and it has a beauty to it that is indescribable. It's that same idea that makes All the Real Girls an appealing film in itself. Green manages to capture an authenticity to the look, even as the film moves forward to its final act. There is very little humor in what Green carries, especially in the environment he's in as the kids talk about little mosquito-like creatures that leave out big marks on the skin that are called "chiggers". There's an unconventional style in how Green tells the story from the script and his directing approach since he makes the film its own with a bit of things he loved including a brief narrative style of Terrence Malick that broadens the story more.

Helping Green in capturing the authenticity of the film's look is his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr. Orr brings the realism of its look with very little lighting in the film's nighttime sequences, especially with fire as the source of light. In the film's scenes in the dirty, garden-like shelter the homeless people are in, there's something beautiful in its lighting with sunlight and all sorts of reflections that come in that are magnificent. Orr aims for realism and beauty, even in the ugliest of places as he goes for what Green wanted, a feeling that you are there and for those in the South, that's what it really looks like. Even in the film's production design from Richard Wright, the film has a distinctive look with the way the Munn home looks like where it looks a bit poor and broken but it's still holding in its own to the shops, garage stations, and the shelter where the places have an authenticity to it as does the costumes of Jill Newell.

Green's longtime editors Steven Gonzales and Zene Baker give the film a nicely, stylized editing structure that gives the movie its unconventional style and approach. Even in the way the film would look where the shots would suddenly go into different color schemes with some freeze-frame then fade-out editing styles. There's a nice rhythm and presentation into the way the film is edited. Even in the sound work of Christof Gerbert, the film has a realistic way of its sound from the creatures heard in the woods to the sounds of ships at the docks. Everything that is also captured in sound is the tense-filled score of Phillip Glass who brings in that mix of drama and tension that surrounds the film and the characters in their present environment along with some music ranging from country, blues, and rock that is played in its soundtrack from frequent Green collaborators Michael Linnen and David Wingo.

Then there's the film great cast that are filled with actors and non-actors. Small performances from Pat Healy as a mechanic, William D. Turner as a worm-eating dock worker, and Bill McKinney as the boys' grandfather are wonderful to watch as does the poverty-stricken but content couple of Wadsworth and Amica Pela played by Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson. Rouse and Johnson bring depth into their performances as a couple that lost some things but still pride on themselves for living and giving the boys shelter. Kristen Stewart and Shiri Appleby also give wonderful performances as the love interests of Chris with Stewart being the naive one in her illuminating presence as Appleby plays a grittier, desperate one who is helped by Chris.

Dermont Mulroney is brilliant as the strict but morally caring John Munn who does all he can to take care of his boys while protecting them from things he feel would trouble them. Mulroney brings a bit of humor but a lot of heart as a father who is still grieving while trying to teach his sons right from wrong. Josh Lucas gives an intense performance as the repressed, dangerous Deel with an intimidating presence that the audience will know will be scary to watch. Lucas steals every moment onscreen, even when he's being quiet and restrained in one of his best performances. Devon Alan is amazing as the young, 10-year old Tim with his affinity for books and eating weird stuff while proving to be a great companion as a kid who has an intelligence and a way he deals with things at a young age in what is the film's real breakthrough performance.

Jamie Bell gives a riveting performance as the trouble-making Chris who does all he can to rebel but when he’s faced in a situation that is life-threatening, he does all he can to take care of his little brother. Bell also displays a true Southern accent with all the quirks and schemes that makes him an authentic Southern boy. Bell brings energy, depth, and heart to an amazingly complex character that's a bit of Huck Finn and a bit of the rebellion of Kit in Terrence Malick's Badlands.

The Region 1 DVD from United Artists/MGM is shown in the 16x9 Widescreen format of 1:85:1 presentation plus 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound in English, Spanish, and Portugese plus French, Spanish, and Portugese subtitles. The DVD also includes several features including the film's trailer and promos for other MGM releases. Special features includes 2 deleted scenes with an introduction from David Gordon Green apologizing for the poor film quality of the deleted scenes but showed what they could've been. The first is an extended scene of Amica talking about her baby that later died and her remorse in a wonderful dramatic scene. The other comes very late in the film where Tim and Deel talk as he ponders the parallels between his relationship John and Tim's with Chris. The animated photo gallery is shown with one of the songs in the soundtrack playing in the background. Each picture moving with shots of the film's cast and crew playing around and relaxing as it includes an appearance from Gus Van Sant holding the camera.

The Behind-the-Scenes documentary produced and co-hosted by Josh Lucas with an optional introduction from the actor as he talks about making Undertow and his experience of making the film. The documentary called Under the Undertow is a 28-minute documentary shot by Lucas, Bell, and the entire cast and crew reveal the relax, laid-back style of everyone involved with a lot of hi-jinks and on-set arguments with a make-up artist and assistant director plus a car that got lost and never found. The doc also includes comments from the actors including Devon Alan who enjoys the acting and doesn't really want to do it for money but wants to have fun and make into a career. The doc also reveals the devotion to realism and authenticity in the 30-day shoot in the Spring of 2003 where the film was shot mostly around Savannah, Georgia and parts of South Carolina.

The final special feature in the DVD is an audio commentary track from David Gordon Green and actor Jamie Bell. Bell, who was watching this film for the very first time, talked about perfecting his Southern accent for weeks before the film and like many of the actors, everyone was in character, notably Devon Alan who was the most professional out of all of them, to the surprise of the older actors. Green discussed a lot of the locations and technical ideas of the film while bringing in a few friends from his films and character actors from movies he loved like Bill McKinley from Deliverance and references to other movies like Macon County Line, Bad Boys with Sean Penn, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot by Michael Cimino.

Another discussion that everyone wanted to hear is the involvement of Terrence Malick. Green talked about Malick wanted to give Green a script for Undertow after seeing his debut film that Green began to work on with Joe Conway. Malick noticed how his influence was used and helped him out during filming as Green acknowledges him not just as a great film director but also a great mentor. Green and Bell's conversations are filled with hilarity and tidbits where they discussed how both Josh Lucas and Dermont Mulroney both injured themselves during the fight scene, Bell also got injured, and how Green wanted to find a Southern Billy Elliot for his film only to use Bell in the end.

Undertow is a brilliant, stylish thriller from David Gordon Green featuring amazing performances from Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Josh Lucas, and Dermont Mulroney. While traditional thriller fans will find the structure a bit too unconventional, fans of Southern 70s films like Deliverance and Macon County Line will definitely enjoy the film and the references it has as well its ode to the South. The film has it all, witty dialogue, nice action work, some great drama, nice humor, a great atmospheric tone, and an authenticity to what it really was like in the South.

It was no surprise that the film received a lot of acclaim plus another four-star review from Roger Ebert who put the film in the top ten list of his favorite films of 2004. The real person who should be thanked for having this film is the legendary Terrence Malick who gave a young director like David Gordon Green a chance to create a unique vision as the young 30-year old filmmaker is truly becoming a future cinematic voice for American cinema.

David Gordon Green Films: George Washington - All the Real Girls - Snow Angels - Pineapple Express - (Your Highness) - (The Sitter) - (Prince Avalanche) - Joe (2013 film) - (Manglehorn)

© thevoid99 2011

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