Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s the final week of the year, so we’re dispensing with themes and just recommending some movies we love.
David Gordon Green is known for going back and forth between an artsy indie aesthetic and broader, more stoner-friendly studio comedies. His third film, Undertow, is by no means caught between those two sensibilities—it was produced by Terrence Malick and bests stiff competition to remain one of his least-seen movies—but it does tend to get lost in that binary, lacking the critical acclaim of indies George Washington and All The Real Girls but not mainstream enough to compete with the likes of Pineapple Express. This riff on The Night Of The Hunter opened in 2004 to mixed reviews and tiny box office, despite a four-star rave review from Roger Ebert, a big fan. Ebert was right; it’s one of Green’s best films.
Green’s film-school fussiness is apparent from the opening credits, with frequent applications of slow-mo and freeze frames. What’s happening, though, is pretty direct: Chris (Jamie Bell), a backwoods teenager, is attempting to romance Lila (a young Kristen Stewart), and in doing so, winds up throwing a rock through her window. Her gun-toting father chases him; he has a bad landing on a nail sticking out of a board; he keeps running, with his foot nailed to the wood. He’s eventually brought into the police station and picked up by his stern but loving father (Dermot Mulroney). The movie fills in details of this fractured family: Chris’ mother is dead, and his little brother Tim (Devon Alan) has some kind of medical condition, possibly pica, causing him to avoid real food and taste things like mud and paint.
This could be the recipe for poverty-porn miserabilism, but Green’s blending of the naturalistic and the stylized reaches a near-perfect ratio here. The family’s struggles are real, as is the menace of Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas), who turns up after getting out of prison, looking for a family treasure. The way this enters into the story is hilariously abrupt and conspicuous, with Deel asking his brother if he remembers the “Mexican gold coins” their father apparently stole from a museum. It’s both magical and mundane, which is also a fitting description for the eventual extended chase where Chris and Tim go on the run, pursued by Deel, through forests and post-industrial junkyards.
Green shoots this stuff beautifully in his lyrical, Malick-influenced style, but he’s especially undervalued as a dialogue writer. His studio comedies may have seemed like a phase, but most of Green’s movies are pretty funny, and as grim and violent as Undertow becomes at times, it’s no exception. Even Lucas, as the scariest character in the film, has hilarious moments, like his description of a nightmare he had about pilgrims. There’s a warmth and generosity Green extends to his characters that makes their whimsical-sounding quirks (like Tim organizing his books by smell) feel true and unsettling. These moments open up the simplicity of the film’s chase story. As Mulroney says at one point, “Sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick with you.” Undertow plays like a fairy tale with dirt under its fingernails.
Availability: Undertow is available on DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library (and used copies go for dirt-cheap online). It’s also available for rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.