If the praise heaped by a small coterie of critics upon director David Gordon Green’s first two features (the soporific “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls”) brought to mind the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, Green’s latest, “Undertow,” suggests the emperor is still naked and has begun to turn blue from exposure. A deep-fried piece of Southern Gothic that wears its unpleasantness like a merit badge, pic may seem more story-driven than helmer’s previous efforts, but is no less a triumph of moody style over substance, which won’t win Green new fans and may alienate some old ones.
While pic’s inclusion in both the Toronto and New York festivals suggests Green’s luster hasn’t worn off yet, commercial prospects for “Undertow,” even on the arthouse circuit, should be as remote as pic’s setting — a swampy backwoods somewhere in the American South. (Lensing was done on location in Savannah, Ga.)
Following a spirited title sequence in which teenager Chris Munn (Jamie Bell) leads his girlfriend’s irate father (and local authorities) on a fleet foot chase, pic settles into Green’s more contemplative (read: somnolent) rhythm, introducing Chris’ hog-farmer father, John (Dermot Mulroney), and sickly younger brother, Tim (Devon Alan). The three live together in this rural expanse, where the cars have muscle and the men seem cut from a Marlboro ad. Some time back, the boys’ mother died and things have never been quite the same since. Yet the family soldiers on in relative peace and harmony.
Until, that is, the unexpected arrival of Deel (Josh Lucas), John’s fresh-out-of-prison brother. Forcing a smile but exuding oily, slithery menace, Deel is after valuable (and possibly cursed) gold coins that once belonged to the brothers’ father. Deel believes he and John were supposed to inherit an equal number of the coins and he’s willing to do anything to get his hands on them, even if it means killing his own flesh and blood.
He soon does just this, prompting Chris and Tim to flee, coins in tow. At this point, pic becomes a would-be homage to “Night of the Hunter,” with the two boys venturing on a nightmarish odyssey in search of a safe haven.
Green’s partisans claim he lyricizes the South in a metaphysical, Terrence Malick-esque way, a connection here made manifest by Malick’s presence as a producer. But, what Green does is more fetishization than lyricization. He wallows in the dirt, mud and sweat of pic’s setting, piling the twangy Southern accents on extra-thick and filling the soundtrack with the incessant sound of hogs squealing.
He also fetishizes the New American Cinema of the 1970s, from his use of that period’s United Artists logo to open the film through to pic’s blocky yellow titles, freeze frames and zoom shots. But all of these devices feel poured on top of the picture, not quite disguising what is much closer to one of the drive-in “hicksploitation” pics that cropped up in the wake of “Deliverance” and “Walking Tall” than to Malick’s work.
Nonetheless, the images (shot by Green’s perennial cinematographer Tim Orr) are arresting.
In his first significant, post-“Billy Elliot” leading role, Bell exhibits a suitably rough-and-tumble quality and a just-about-flawless American accent — he keeps “Undertow” fitfully interesting.
Philip Glass has contributed a rather over-the top score (with augmentations by Michael Linnen and David Wingo) that more than a few times recalls the “Ave Satani” chant from “The Omen.”