The loose, poetically-inclined style of writer-director David Gordon Green has suffered in his past pictures (“George Washington” and “All the Real Girls”) from a distinct lack of narrative backbone. They were sporadically lovely pieces, touched with moments of genuine beauty and insight, but as a whole they had a tendency to meander and overstay their welcome. His third effort is an improvement. “Undertow,” set against an indeterminate southern landscape that includes farmland, lush woods and seacoast, offers plenty of opportunity for his dreamy visual approach. But the story–a mixture of coming-of-age tale, chase and meditation on family, happiness and death–has greater thrust and structure than the earlier films. To be sure, in many respects it strikes one as a variant of, or perhaps a gloss on, Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), the dark Gothic based on Davis Grubb’s sadly undervalued novel, famous for Robert Mitchum’s unforgettable performance as the murderous preacher with “Love” tattooed on one hand and “Hate” on the other. But “Hunter” is one of the most brilliant American films ever made, so there are many worse things to emulate, even if the result doesn’t come close to matching the original.
“Undertow” begins by introducing us to Chris Munn (Jamie Bell), a troubled teen who’s shown tossing a rock through the window of a farmhouse where a girl he fancies lives and being pursued by her irate father until he jumps from a roof onto a board with a nail protruding from it. Caught, he’s carted off to jail, where he’s released into the custody of his father John (Dermot Mulroney), a gloomy, reclusive widower with a religious streak who works a hog farm and also practices taxidermy. Chris, it turns out, lives an isolated life with his father and younger brother Tim (Devon Alan), a sickly but intelligent sort with stomach problems–explicable, it would appear, by his habit of consuming dirt and paint–of whom Chris is very protective. Into this peculiar family environment bursts John’s ne’er-do-well brother Deel (Josh Lucas), just out of prison, whose ostentatiously friendly demeanor doesn’t successfully conceal his dangerous nature and mean streak. Deel affects a desire to settle down, but he’s really returned to steal the family treasure–a sack of gold coins that John inherited and that may be cursed. In trying to get them he kills his brother, and then sets out in pursuit of the boys, who outfox him and make off into the countryside with the loot. The chase which follows is an episodic one–Chris and Tim encounter a kindly black couple, try to get work on the docks, and hide away in a junkyard. But Deel always seems to be right behind them. Eventually they encounter a group of runaways living in a squatter community and Curtis connects with a girl named Violet (Shiri Appleby), but their nemesis finds his way there as well. The denouement sees a final confrontation amidst some strong water imagery, and an apparently happy outcome that might be other than it seems.
Throughout this narrative two elements stand out. One is Green’s eye, which, in concert with Tim Orr’s cinematography, fashions a succession of haunting, almost hallucinatory images that are very different from the shadow-filled black-and-white compositions Laughton created for “Hunter” but have a similarly hypnotic effect. The other are the bravura performances by Bell and Lucas. The former, who’s grown up considerably since “Billy Elliot,” nails the southern accent and makes Chris a suitably uncertain and sympathetic character. Lucas is far more florid, and if his malevolent uncle doesn’t achieve the iconic evil that Mitchum’s false clergyman did, he still makes a mighty scary villain. The rest of the cast is distinctly secondary, but Alan has his moments as the reedy, shy Tim, Mulroney captures a certain backwoods gravitas, and Appleby, as usual, is engaging, even if her character has a darker component this time around. The effect of Green’s visuals is deepened by a score from Philip Glass that’s rather richer than his customary minimalist music.
“Undertow” is a good title for a film like this one. On the literal level, of course, it suggests the familial baggage that tugs at Chris’ efforts to escape to a more hopeful future. But it also characterizes the mood of the picture, in which you’re always vaguely aware of deep currents that are at work beneath the story’s surface. Green’s isn’t the sort of tale that will appeal to a lot of viewers–“Hunter” was a bomb when it was first released, too–but connoisseurs should find it the sort of dark cinematic delicacy that, if still more poetic reverie than prose narrative, is ultimately much more filling than standard fare.