Directed by David Gordon Green
Screenplay by Joe Conway and David Gordon Green
Story by Lingard Jervey
David Gordon Green has created a wonderful film that is equal parts Southern gothic thriller and young adult adventure novel. As the sins of the past visit the Munn family, we see love and hate, greed and selflessness, revenge and redemption at work on the relationships between two generations of brothers.
John Munn lives with his two sons on an isolated pig farm in the rural South. He moved the boys there after their mother died. John struggles to be a good father. He works as a taxidermist and makes Chris, the older son, do a lot of the chores around the house. The youngest boy, Tim, is sickly and can’t do much of anything. He doesn’t have much energy because he doesn’t eat what he’s supposed to.
One day, John’s brother, Deel, shows up on their doorstep. He is recently released from prison and is just passing through on his way to a job. John asks Deel to stay a few days before the job starts and help out around the house. John can’t pay him other than room and board. Deel agrees. John can’t see it or maybe he overlooks it because it’s good to have his brother around, but Deel exudes trouble. We soon find out Deel’s purpose for finding John, and it opens a Pandora’s box of family secrets that changes everyone.
I knew I was in store for a quality film because the opening scenes illustrated the talents of the filmmakers. Chris throws a very large rock through the window of a girl he likes. This causes the girl’s father chase after Chris and sick his dog on him. The police get involved in the pursuit. Chris leaps off a man’s garage and pierces his foot on a nail that is sticking out of a board. It looked very realistic and caused me to cringe. Chris was slowed down, but doesn’t stop. He continues to run with the board attached to his foot. We learn about Chris’ determination and drive without a character having to say, “Boy, that Chris sure is determined.” The script is well written and the plot makes sense as it proceeds along and becomes resolved. Allusions are blended into the film from mythology, The Bible, Night of the Hunter, and Huckleberry Finn among others. It’s too bad more filmmakers don’t know the art of subtlety. Right, Quentin?
On the technical side, the film freezes frames during this opening title sequence at different moments and the frames, if nothing else, are always interesting visually. My favorite was of a police car, spitting up muddy water. There was so much detail in the shot that its selection seemed to be a conscious decision.
The film is fantastic on many levels and every department succeeded in bringing Green’s vision to the screen. Tim Orr's cinematography and Richard A. Wright’s production design team do a great job because you are immediately part of this world. It is very authentic, and you are never displaced from it even when the film uses devices like, out of focus images, freeze frames or zooms. This is the third movie together for this most of this crew and their talents and results improve each time.
The acting is first rate. Dermot Mulroney and Josh Lucas play brothers and this is some of the best work they have done. They remind the viewer that actors are only as good as the parts and when given the right material, many have the ability to shine. With that being said, the best moments come from Jamie Bell and Devon Alan. They are so good you forget they are actors. When I first saw Bell, I thought I recognized him from the British hit Billy Elliot, but his accent was so realistic that I decided that I had the wrong guy.
David Gordon Green is proving to be a talented director. I didn’t understand the hype for his debut George Washington, but Undertow is so good that it makes me want to give it another chance. After seeing this film, I feel more comfortable in Green directing the adaptation of Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the greatest novels of all time. That’s “more comfortable,” not completely comfortable. I doubt even the late, great Stanley Kubrick would put me completely at ease with that prospect.
Undertow should be remembered during Award season next year in many categories, but since most quality pictures are ignored during their time, look for this film to be considered a classic in 10 years.