Undertow is better than either All the Real Girls or George Washington, but when we’re in David Gordon Green territory, that’s a little like saying I’d rather be shot in the head than stabbed repeatedly in the chest. To make matters worse, while there’s more of a story this time around, what thin thread we do get manages to hit the top clichés from no less than three different movie genres. There’s a collection of old Mexican coins with a “legend” attached; there’s the sibling rivalry that ends in tragedy; and most ridiculous of all, there’s a bad guy who’s the bastard child of Jason and Michael Myers in that he manages to survive being strangled, stabbed, slammed in the head, and even pushed out a window. Add to this rather conventional turn of events Green’s stubborn insistence on having rural numbskulls speak the poetry of the gods; as if living in filth and squalor were the ticket to literary ambition. These are kids who haven’t been to school in years, spend their days butchering hogs and hammering wood, yet their brief, fleeting moments of idleness are packed with meaning and spiritual grace. I’ll accept a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’, along with assorted fisticuffs, drunken rages, and snort-filled dinners of ribs and taters, but I simply refuse to believe that the trash heaps of the South produce the sort of guy who says of his mud-eating, paint-slurping brother, “He thinks about infinity.” Yeah, and plays chess after bathing in dirt.
If you’ve never seen a David Gordon Green production, it’s impossible to describe unless you’ve also seen a film by Terence Malick. Green clearly worships at his altar, at least in terms of replicating breathtaking cinematography. I won’t deny that Green has a brilliant eye for detail; surrounding us with color and mood in a way most filmmakers could never hope to reproduce. His compositions are among the best in cinema today, but Green has, once again, forgotten to fill his canvas with human beings who are even remotely interesting. As there is no real inner life to any of these people, we are left with lifeless, plot-oriented dialogue or painfully banal, yet heartfelt ruminations about life and stuff. We know, for example, that when a long-lost brother Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up after a stint in prison, violence will ensue, usually after revelations about betrayal, infidelity, and promises not kept. And when he kills his deceitful brother John (Dermot Mulroney), we know he’ll go after the kids next, as they witnessed the crime and have those damned gold pieces (what is this, a Scooby-Doo mystery?) Hell, why not a big brawl over the deed to the house? Or the hidden oil well out back? I think I liked it better when Green didn’t care about story.
The two boys, Chris and Tim, run from the scene and embark on an “adventure,” which would be a complete reinvention of the word as it usually implies excitement and suspense. Chris (Jamie Bell) furthers his stand as the new homoerotic treat du jour, showing up in at least five scenes without his shirt. The younger Tim (Devon Alan), acts a bit retarded at times, but it turns out he’s merely suffering from an anxiety disorder, which apparently causes him to ingest everything but food, leading to bouts of wailing and vomiting. The tyke also has a monologue about bugs that might interest the entomological set, but will leave everyone else scratching their heads. And, while I’m going out of order, let me also say that the kid wears a pilgrim hat to the dinner table for no conceivable reason (reminding ol’ Deel of a dream he once had involving wild pilgrims bent on “tickling the hell out of him”), asks the oldest cinematic question involving a dead mother–“Was she pretty?”–and walks along mindlessly as Chris states, “We’ll shave our heads, grow beards, and speak only in Apache.” Yes, you may roll your eyes now. Fuck knows I sure as hell did.
The brothers wander around the swamps and backwaters of Florida, evading capture for a time, but we know that eventually, Uncle Deel will have his revenge. But before Deel and Chris have it out in a river, Green takes us through a concrete no man’s land of sorts, where kids wander around doing nothing in particular. Chris even befriends some greasy chick who might be a prostitute, and they chat about, well, her desire to amass an army of children so that people will take notice of her as she walks down the street. Chris also comes across a barn and, spotting a cow, says he’s going to “milk the hell out of her,” which means that he’ll sit down, get comfortable, and proceed to suck the bovine’s teat. Then the whore talks softly (hence, With Great Importance) about putting wishes in bottles and seeing if they’ll make it to the ocean, because some gypsy said something about it once. And then, in a direct and shameless rip-off from Malick’s Badlands, the two brothers construct a fort (set to the music of Philip Glass!) to keep the world at bay. There’s talk of Chris finding work somewhere, and Tim may or may not succumb to his illness, whatever the hell that might be. At least Deel has a motivation for his behavior; these two just sit around and look world-weary.
Thankfully, the script for Undertow doesn’t contain as many howlers as previous Green efforts, but we do get an improbable scene where young Tim arranges his books according to smell… In a way, Green isn’t as ambitious this time around, even resorting to chase scenes and dramatic music for effect. It’s the art house equivalent of a Western, or some Saturday morning serial aboard a pirate ship. Someone has a secret, greed overwhelms another, lives are threatened, and redemption is found. Whatever it is, it grew tiresome very quickly, as I have no patience for any film that doesn’t resort to cheap, sustained mockery when it comes to white trash. But Green is a champion of the little man; the forgotten souls who inhabit our back roads and quiet hamlets. He’s committed to capturing the very essence of their experience, the greatness and mystery of simplicity. Me, I couldn’t get past the opening credits where Chris runs away from the gun-wielding father of his sweetheart, steps on a nail attached to a board, continues running with the nail in his foot, jumps from a cliff into the water, and later uses that same wood to build a toy airplane for his brother. Followed of course by a bon mot that I won’t bother trying to remember.