After his wife tragically dies, John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) moves with his sons Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) to rural Georgia in hopes of getting away from their pain and agony, and instead, focus a life on raising pigs. Both Chris and Tim themselves are dealing with this awful amount of grief in the only ways they know how; Chris constantly rebels and fights with his dad, whereas Tim, who looks up to Chris, wants him to stop being such a jerk and just get along. Then, life for the family changes a bit when Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) returns from a long-stint in jail. While Deel seems like a charmer to have around, he’s still got a great deal of resentment towards John, for not just stealing the woman that he loved, but possibly being the favorite of the two sons. It’s because of this that Deel sees an easy way out tries to steal a stash of gold coins, but then, another tragedy happens, breaking the family apart even more and forcing both Chris and Tim to fend for themselves.
Undertow isn’t David Gordon Green’s worst, nor is it his best. It’s somewhere slap-dab in the middle of being just mediocre enough to be seen, but also, a little too dour and disappointing, considering all of his other work. It’s still small and gritty, like we know best from him, but it’s also got this darker, more sour-feeling that’s not always seen and because of that, it can be a little off-putting. Granted, nobody really expected to have a good time from a David Gordon Green film before the arrival of Pineapple Express, but still, it goes without saying that Undertow is a pretty morbid movie.
And usually, yes, that’s a good thing.
But not here.
One of the main issues with Undertow that no matter how hard he tries, Green can’t seem to get past, is that it never quite picks-up the momentum it wants. Going for this dirty, dark and gritty Southern-Gothic look and feel, Green really sinks himself deep into a tale about murder, family-issues, and the loss of life. But what does he do with any of that?
Rather than having anything smart to say about grief, or death, or anything of this nature, the story mostly relies on the two kids, on-the-run, trying their best to keep away from their cartoonishly evil Uncle. It’s supposed to be an exciting, almost adventurous piece of thriller, but really, it never goes anywhere we either don’t see coming, or really care about. It’s as if Green set-out to make something smarter and deeper, but really just get all wrapped-up into the beautiful scenery that he could kind of care less about really exploring certain stuff.
It also doesn’t help that, unfortunately, the performances aren’t all that good, either.
As I just mentioned before, Josh Lucas’ Deel is a pretty over-the-top and wild character that, from the very beginning, is so evil and dastardly, it’s almost no shock what he begins to do next. The movie does attempt to give him some development for being the way that he is, and why he’s so bitter, but it doesn’t quite register – it almost feels like Green trying to make up something for him being an evil bastard, rather than just having him be an evil bastard. Even Lucas himself tries, however, he can’t quite get past how thinly-written this script and this character is.
Same goes for Jamie Bell and especially Devon Alvan as the two youngsters here. Bell fares better-off because he’s actually a very good actor and is capable of being both intimidating, as well as vulnerable, at the same time. But Alvan just doesn’t quite have it. Like was the case with Lucas, the script doesn’t quite help them out, but Alvan’s delivery and performance is in a much goofier and sillier movie than is offered here and just feels absolutely out-of-place. You can almost feel Bell trying his damn best to carry each and every scene he has with him, which makes it just a bit harder to watch.
But not for the intended reasons, though.
All that said, there’s still something about Undertow that’s worth watching and it’s that Green has a knack for finding beauty in even the darkest of stories and yes, he finds it here. Even when it seems like the story, the characters, or hell, the conflict is ever going anywhere, Green keeps things moving as best as he can, making it, at the very least watchable. Is it more of a disappointment because he followed All the Real Girls with this? Most likely, but he has done worse, so maybe time has been sort of kind to this.
Consensus: Without much of a narrative-drive, Undertow can sometimes feel like a predictable slog, but is at least helped out by Green’s need and want for trying something new and invigorating, even if it never fully pays off like he wants it to.
5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: MGM