Dir. David Gordon Green, US, 2004, 104 mins
Cast: Jamie Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Kristen Stewart
Since his arrival in 2000 with George Washington, David Gordon Green has quietly but resolutely been building a reputation for intelligent, off-kilter American movies – the term coined to describe them is ‘southern gothic’ – and Undertow, with it’s Brothers Grimm and Mark Twain influences, emerges as a modern fairytale, worthily reminiscent of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955).
Jamie Bell sports an impeccable deep-south accent as Chris Munn, the oldest of two brothers brought to the backwoods of rural Georgia by their father, John (Mulroney), to find peace and solitude following the death of his wife, the boys’ mother. Chris, much to his father’s concern, is in constant trouble with the law, while the younger brother Tim (Alan) is a sickly child with strange eating habits and a tendency to organise his books by smell.
The uneasy quiet is disturbed by a visitor: Deel (Lucas) is John’s brother, newly released from prison. Jamie finds the break to the routine to be exciting, and particularly enjoys the freedom he is allowed by Deel when being kept an eye on by him when their father is at work. However, the friendly uncle has an ulterior motive. Already we know there is rivalry between the two men, with Deel telling the boys that their mother had been his girl first, and now it seems that John is in possession of some gold coins, passed on from their father, which reputedly belonged to the ferryman on the River Styx. In a narrative laden with mythological allusions, one recalls that the newly deceased paid for their safe journey along the underworld river to the entrance to Hades by paying a gold coin to the ferryman. Will his reluctance to pay Deel the gold coins of his inheritance affect John’s own safety? Violence erupts and very soon it is the two young boys, taking off into the woods and journeying along the river, who are praying for a safe passage.
Green’s masterly techniques at fusing surrealism with everyday reality are most evident in the cat-and-mouse chase along the riverbanks, as the boys encounter a host of characters who aid them in their plight. Here, too, are excellent performances, with Bell in particular tracing an impressive character arc from the self-centred boy at the start of the film, to the caring, responsible man at its end.
Like the character of John, the narrative is understated. Here we have the dual fraternal relationships, one generation and the next, and while this is apparent and the audience is invited to explore and compare the interplay between the two sets of brothers, it does not become the focus. Likewise the make-believe allusions – be it appeasing the Greek Gods, or fleeing Hansel & Grettel style, or on the run from an adult whom one is meant to trust – the similarities are there because of the universality of the themes; Green has chiseled out little surreal nuggets of truth and set them into a contemporary medium and made accessible for a modern audience.
Set to a Philip Glass score, the film is a disturbing, slow-paced thriller that slowly unravels and places emphasis on the characters rather than the plot, thus fully emersing the audience into the frame and engaging with the tale. For those that enjoy their thrills a little more cerebral and challenging, Undertow should prove a rewarding experience. Coupled with this is the erudite script and although you don’t need to be a scholar to appreciate the biblical and mythical references, some knowledge of a classical education wouldn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. Ultimately though, bringing an enquiring mind into the screening should be sufficient to gain the most from the tale.
Him that hath ears let him hear!