Over the course of just three feature films, writer-director David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr have created a cinematic world as instantly identifiable as David Lynch's or Federico Fellini's. It's a place in the American South where kids grow up as wild and free as weeds, uncorrupted by the emptiness of contemporary pop culture. Rust creeps across abandoned cars and junkyards seem to outnumber cell phones. Before Undertow, this world largely existed without villains. Green's third film technically qualifies as a thriller, but it's a thriller the same way Breathless is a crime film and The Long Goodbye is a detective movie. The director takes what he needs from the genre and discards the rest, never sacrificing his idiosyncratic personality.
Nursing a pipe and a bone-deep sense of loss, Dermot Mulroney stars as a stoic, decent widower who retreats to a life of farming and semi-seclusion with his two sons (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan) following their mother's death. Bell's wild streak worries Mulroney, especially after Mulroney's jailbird brother (Josh Lucas) descends upon their home with a glint of madness and vengeance in his eyes, nursing bitter grudges and eager to settle old scores. What follows feels as much like a road movie as a conventional thriller, with Bell and Alan taking off à la The Night Of The Hunter, with Lucas in unhurried pursuit.
The pacing, not surprisingly, feels less languid than usual for Green, who never rushes when he can amble. But the film remains relaxed: The director seems less concerned with generating suspense or tension than with following his rambling characters and muse wherever they happen to take him. Bell gained international fame as a sexually ambiguous working-class boy with unstoppable dancing feet in Billy Elliot, but he gives such a guileless, natural performance here that it would be easy to mistake him for a non-professional discovered somewhere in the deep South. Undertow may prove the least immediately satisfying of Green's films, but it remains an achievement, emotionally rich and rife with biblical and mythic undertones.