Undertow

David Gordon Green’s magnificent new film, Undertow (IMDB), opens with a high school boy and girl quietly and awkwardly communicating their passion for each other. The scene reminded me a lot of the opening sequence of Green’s previous film, All the Real Girls, which also was set in a rural southern landscape of abandoned factories and warehouses, verdant forests, mom-and-pop restaurants, and collections of broken down things. Roger Ebert describes Green’s approach well: “We see not the thriving parts of cities, but the desolate places they have forgotten. His central characters are usually adolescents, vibrating with sexual feelings but unsure how to express them.”

But, unlike his previous film, Green’s Undertow takes a surprisingly violent turn when the boy, Chris Munn (played by Jamie Bell who previously starred in Billy Elliot), throws a rock through his girlfriend’s window, arousing the attention of her father who runs out the front door, shotguns firing into the air. Chris sprints away, running through the woods, through neighbors’ yards, culminating in one of the more painful imges I’ve seen in some time, with Chris leaping barefoot onto a nail sticking up through a board (the stigmata allusion is there, but fairly understated). Even with the nail in his foot, Chris continues to try to run. It’s the only response he seems to know.

After the chase, we see Chris in the police station, waiting for his father to pick him up. Chris has been in trouble before, but it’s clear that the film sympathizes with him. His father, John (Dermot Mulroney), has become a hermit after his wife died, isolating himself and his two sons from the rest of the community. John also burdens Chris with most of the farm’s chores, deeming the younger son, Tim (Devon Alan), too weak and fragile to work. Tim’s fragility is somewhat self-imposed. For reasons that are never explained (other than reference to an “anxiety disorder”), Tim constantly eats objects that are harmful or poisonous–green paint, mud, small metal objects–leaving his stomach tied up in knots. The film’s main plot opens when John’s ex-con brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), enters this fragile family situation seeking a collection of gold coins that John and Deel’s father managed to steal from a museum. The coins are valuable, and it becomes clear that Deel is angling to find the collection, first by preying on the psychologies of the sons, then by actual violence.

Because Chris has a history of petty crime, he feels he cannot turn to the police, and so he and Tim run, attempting to escape from the increasingly violent Deel, and it’s worth noting here that Lucas’s performance keeps Deel from becoming a one-dimensional monster. Chris and Tim spend most of the rest of the film running and hiding, living temporarily in abandoned piles of junk or among a group of teen runaways in the ruins of a brick warehouse along a river. But while the film has all of the genre characteristics of a thriller, Green’s characteristic style, which I previously described as “red clay realism,” still comes through. Throughout the chase, we still witness moments of contemplation and reflection, with characters who speak awkwardly, but poetically, about their circumstances (Philp Glass’s low-key score adds to this sense of contemplation).

Tim Orr, who was also the cinematographer for All the Real Girls and George Washington, again lovingly captures the junk, dirt, and detritus, but also the light, of the rural south. In my review of Girls, I read this sense of atmosphere and Green’s contemplative narrative style as “nostalgic” for an earlier mode of cinematic production, but rather than seeing the films as nostalgic, I now see Green (along with Orr) developing a distinct cinematic aesthetic, one that I can now only vaguely describe as “contemplative,” although that terms seems imprecise (Cynthia Fuchs’ description of the narrative as a “series of impressions” might come closer). The characters in the film are, in many different ways, contemplative, but the film itself is also contemplative, at least in my reading. As many people (including Mel) have noted, Green tends to shy away from conventional narrative, though Undertow comes closer to the narrative expectations than his other films (Ebert’s comparison with Terrence Malick makes a lot of sense in this regard), and it’s within these unconventional moments that I see Green’s films allowing space for thought, for contemplation.

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