Judge David Johnson is swept away, and not in the Guy Ritchie/Madonna sort of way.
O brother, where art thou?
Director David Gordon Green delivers this Southern gothic thriller that's one part thriller and two parts gothic. Does Undertow have enough (tobacco) juice to keep it from being washed out to sea?
Facts of the Case
The Munn Family lives a quiet, secluded life, nestled in the boonies of Georgia. Chris Munn (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot) is the oldest son, a boy who splits his time between working hard on the homestead and getting into trouble. Chris's little brother Tim (Devon Alan) is a frail 11-year-old afflicted with a bizarre condition that makes him repelled by normal food but attracted to eating dirt and paint. The patriarch of the family is John Munn (Dermot Mulroney, About Schmidt), a simple man who lost his wife and is struggling to create a family dynamic with his two boys.
These days it's getting harder and harder, with Tim's omnipresent sickness and Chris's penchant for winding up in the back seat of a cop car. Family life takes a dramatic turn when John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas, Wonderland) appears suddenly one day, behind the wheel of a muscle car and recently released from prison. John responds cautiously at first to this unannounced visit, but after the two brothers talk, John offers Deel room and board in exchange for watching after the two boys. Deel agrees.
It's not long, however, before Deel reveals his true intentions for showing up on his brother's doorstep, and the Munn family is suddenly blown apart in a day of violence and greed—and Chris and Tim are soon faced with the walking nightmare that is their deranged uncle.
Undertow is a very, very good movie that boasts a mesmerizing first half and a decent second act that can't live up to what came before it. There are lots of good things to say about director David Gordon Green's vision of a troubled family, so let's get on with it.
The atmosphere. This is one of the strongest aspects of Undertow. Green has created a tangible gothic feeling with this movie. From the fantastically surreal opening sequence to the finale, our characters—quirky themselves—travel from interesting place to interesting place. Whether it's an abandoned junkyard, the homestead of a strange couple, a society of dregs, even the Dunn property itself, each locale adds a new bit of depth to the story and tactility to the atmosphere.
The acting. Jamie Bell knocks this one out of the park. His British accent buried deep underneath a southern drawl, he commands this movie. His transformation from troubled teen to protector and breadwinner is seamless and profound, yet the troublemaking nature that so permeates his character is evident throughout the film. Chris Munn is rebellious and combative, but these traits, consistently portrayed by Bell, become enormously advantageous. The supporting actors are great as well. Josh Lucas is magnetic as the enigmatic Deel, and he benefits the most from the tonal change in the second act. Young Devon Alan does fine work with Tim; his most compelling quirk is the paint eating, but Alan can eat paint (really green yogurt) with the best of them!
The score. Much of the credit for the great atmosphere in the film belongs to Philip Glass, who composed the music. I don't want to even try to characterize it. It's just spot-on perfect, and bizarre as all get-out.
The first half of the movie. I know I've emphasized this already, but stick with me. I mention it again because the first act of Undertow is absolutely mesmerizing. Green just throws us into the complexities of the Munn family, and the relationships between the father and son, and between the boys themselves. And when Lucas's Deel arrives on the scene, the tension heightens exponentially. Who is he? What does he want? He starts mixing it up immediately, and his confrontation with his brother is absolutely thrilling.
The unfortunate result is that the movie peaks here. And while the rest of the film is certainly not bad, it can't match the intensity of the first fifty minutes or so. The movie takes an entirely different tack after Deel and John tangle. It becomes more like a road movie, and while it works well enough, and there are plenty of oddball characters and cool locations, the film definitely blew its wad with the phenomenal first act.
Undertow is still a great film, and the acting and atmosphere are enough to mandate a viewing. But if the tension could have been more consistent, this would have been one for the ages.
The DVD treatment is excellent. the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is stunning. Details are crisp and colors are rich; scenes are immaculate, no matter if they're shot at night or in light (primarily the latter). A great, great looking film. Sound is potent with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, especially when it augments that killer score. Use of the discrete channels is limited.
A healthy mixture of special features comes with. David Gordon Green and Jamie Bell deliver an amusing and anecdotal commentary, relaying the many misadventures that took place in the production. Crystallizing said misadventures further is a nice documentary produced by Josh Lucas. The behind-the-scenes footage is revealing and offers a nice nutshell experience from day one to wrap. Lastly, there are two deleted scenes and a photo gallery.
Anchored by an outstanding cast, some hypnotic moments, and a memorable score, Undertow is a fine film that shouldn't be missed. Don't let it get swept out to the sea of forgotten titles at your local video store.
Not guilty. I reckon.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director David Gordon Green and Actor Jamie Bell
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